16 Reasons Your Gamification Design Sucks

As any gamification designer knows, there are plenty of pitfalls to avoid with gamification.

But is that a surprise? Behaviour engineering is just like any other kind of engineering – check out this list of 31 Civil Engineering Fails – it  made me laugh.

Are there some common pitfalls that we should be avoiding? This post seeks to list the main ones.

I’m not heartless enough to illustrate this list with real examples, but if you know of any please let me know privately.

My intention in sharing these here, is not to consign gamification to history.  Instead it is to show where gamification can go wrong so you can be sure to avoid it in your design.

If you’re a gamifier, then treat it like a checklist before you put your program into the wild.

Creates  Addictive Behaviour

Sometimes you want to drive a particular behaviour – but what if you accidentally create addiction instead. Now you have a new problem to deal with.

Falls Prey to Over Justification

By rewarding something that wasn’t rewarded before, you just turned it into work and, hey, guess what, now no-one does it unless they get that reward.

Belittles Intrinsic Motivation

Your program can belittle those people engaged in an activity anyway for its intrinsic worth – simply seeing that others need a reward layer might make a person feel that they shouldn’t be doing the activity without the rewards.

Manipulates People

You just used skinner box (operant conditioning) action-reward mechanism to get people to do something they didn’t want to do. You just manipulated them. Shame on you. They will get wise (eventually) and then you’ll have a revolt on your hands.

Causes Moral Drift

Players are so immersed in your program that they do actions they wouldn’t normally do just to get points. The only problem is, those actions are actually illegal.

Leads to Channelling

Players stop doing activities where they can’t get points and only do those that are scored.

Starts Complicated

We look at mature programs and games and see many layers of complexity – we think we need to imitate that for our gamification program to work. The reality is that we are seeing mature programs made for mature communities. Games didn’t start looking like Call of Duty – they started looking like Pong.  Starting simple and becoming more sophisticated over time allows your player community to grow up with you.

Drives Over-Exertion

Similar to addictive behaviour – you focus on the gamification program so much (because it’s so much more engaging right?) that you end up doing too much of a particular activity. More than is needed.

Creates Badge Fatigue

Players get too many badges  and realise that they are ultimately worthless and meaningless. While badges are the main culprits. the same could be true for any other element in your program such as points, levels, quests, leaderboards and so on. Less is more.

Demotivates  Middle and Low Rankers

Being stuck in the middle or the bottom of a leaderboard is demotivating – why bother to compete if you can’t win?

Prospers  Cheats

If you don’t crack down on cheats then the program loses its credibility. Cheating can be difficult to define but other players know it when they see it.


Bribes cannot go on forever – at some point the money runs out and the party ends – so what then?

Just an Illusion of Fun

Just pretending something is fun does not make it fun. A pig with lipstick is still a pig. You can’t stop monotonous work being monotonous.

For Competitive People Only

Games are mostly competitive and so much of gamification is competitive – but not everyone is competitive. If competition is the only mechanic then much of your audience will tune out.

Invades Privacy

Some people are private, some don’t mind. If you share someone’s score without giving them a chance to opt out of public transparency (for them they read this as public humiliation), don’t be surprised if they complain.

Encourages Compers

If you’re dangling a large carrot you’ll get a lot of rabbits. Which is only fine if you are trying to attract rabbits. The trouble with any financial reward based program (“Win an Ipad etc”) is that you won’t get your target audience, instead you’ll get those people who like entering competitions to win prizes – “compers”.

Quite a few to worry about then!

The good news is that you can avoid them, by being aware of the issues you are more likely to avoid including them in your design.

What other pitfalls have you come across – please do let me know.

Toby Beresford

Toby is founder and CEO of Rise the success tracking network to track, publish and share success. He was the 2013 chair of Gamfed.com - the International Gamification Confederation and organises the UK Gamifiers meetup. As a gamification leader, he speaks at conferences and hosts workshops. Follow him on twitter @tobyberesford and Subscribe to this blog at Gamification Of Work blog feed

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