Gamification: Points and Thresholds

To those joining, I’ve begun a series on video game rules and mechanics and how they can apply to the workplace. This phenomenon is called “gamification“, and is the hot new trend of 2010.

Today I’m talking about points and threshold systems.

As you may already be aware, video games often contain elements of progress, called “levelling up”. The player performs a series (sometimes a long series) of activities, earning points each time. After earning a predefined number of those points, the player moves up a level, strengthening his or her powers, and offering rewards. At the new threshold, however, the tasks required by the player increase, and much more work will be required to move to yet a new level. But the rewards and powers at that level will be greater still.

We already see a threshold system in the workplace: they’re called salary bands. The chief difference between game progression and a salary raise is, in gaming, the move from one threshold to the next is consistent, predictable, and well-known. If you want to get to the next level (and reap the powers and rewards of that level), then you need x number of points, have to have finished x number of achievements, or whatever the game demands of you. You know this ahead of time, and the rules don’t change halfway through. In the workplace, let’s be honest, this isn’t the case. For the most part, moving from one band to the next has more to do with your relationship with your employer than anything specific or measurable.

Forced rank systems, which place all workers on a bell curve, exacerbate the problem. Since people generally have to be placed inappropriately to maintain the integrity of the curve, doing well at work is no guarantee that workers will be formally recognized by moving to a new threshold.

So whereas in video games, players strive to do more and achieve more because they know exactly what they have to do to level up, workers often times can’t be bothered. If you don’t know what’s required, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get anything for it, why go the extra mile? Conversely, if you don’t know what’s expected of someone with a particular title, what’s to stop you from being unhappy that you don’t have it?

*WOMMM* Level up!
Image by _Daughter_ via Flickr

Collective bargaining often aids in the introduction of some rules to help workers get promoted. My father was a teacher, and he knew, if he got his bachelor’s degree, then he’d automatically move to x level. Getting a master’s degree automatically moved him to a higher level. These were truths that led him to pursue both. His behaviour was much the same as a video game player (although his was a much longer grind!).

The downside of collective bargaining is, it requires a union. Don’t get me wrong, unions have their place…but from a management perspective, they introduce issues. Of course, if workers are being treated fairly to begin with, a union generally isn’t necessary.

Encouraging your staff to strive to move from one level to the next isn’t hard really. But it involves long term planning. Setting a rule “if you do x, you’ll automatically level up” means you have to be able to see the long range consequences of setting that rule. That means:

  • You’ve spent time with your customers, and have worked out plans for your people for the coming year;
  • You’ve made sure there’s enough work for your people for the coming year;
  • You’ve got the budget to acquire all the things your people will need to do the work for the coming year;
  • You’ve worked out, at least at a high level (although hopefully to a medium level), what work your people will do for the coming year.

We do these things…we have budget periods, performance appraisals, training and development plans…but we’re consistently inconsistent at doing them well, with a view to why they’re important. Staff generally take leveling up pretty seriously…management, on the other hand, in many cases, sees the job of planning for their workforce as a nuisance, and does a half-assed job at it (sorry, but it’s true). The consequence? Disgruntled staff who have no real understanding of what they’ll have to do to get a raise or promotion, and therefore can’t be bothered to excel.

Let me tell you, working our your customers’ plans, allocating resources, budgeting, and setting promotion rules a year ahead of time is hard work. Doing it in such a way that you can give your people a clear framework and path to progress is even harder. The rewards for the organization, however, are great (and make for great workplace design)!

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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