Don’t Gamify Wild Bill


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Courtesy of eschipul photostream on flickr.

There is a lot, actually a whole lot, of buzz over the past year about the gamification of business, specifically marketing, training, customer service. The discussion too often overlooks the simple point that it is the experience with it, the playfulness of it, that makes a game. Not the scoring system, or the rewards, or anything else can make up for a game that participants (customers or employees) don’t experience as play. I’m not saying that incorporating game mechanics into relationships cannot create a motivating dynamic, at least over the short run. It certainly can.

Jesse Schell offered the point earlier this year that a game is a problem solving situation people enter into because they want to. He went on to say that if you can make a task feel like a situation people enter into because they want to then you’ve made it a game. Additionally, in her presentation “We Don’t Need No Stinkin Badges” Jane McGonical observes that gameful experience requires that participants experience the spirit of gaming rather than simply the mechanics, in other words that the rewards of playing a game people want to continue playing are intrinsic rather than extrensic.

The point of this post is to note that gamifying business to engage customers is one thing. Customers can almost always walk away from a commercial relationship if they want to, except perhaps in dealings with health insurance companies and utilities. Gamifying business to motivate employees is entirely another type of design challenge.

Using gamification to elicit patterns of action that enable employees to work together, such as knowledge sharing, easily slips into involuntary play and reinforces the type of competition that currently sustains siloed organizations. I’ll add to this point in a subsequent post on gameful collaboration where I contend gamification in social business aiming to increase collaboration must design for emergence, not just competition and cooperation, as guiding design principles for play. However, for now, let me just flesh out the point about gamifying employee relationships with an example from the construction industry and personal experience.

Anyone who has done manual labor may relate to the following anecdote. Just after finishing undergraduate school I took a job as a hand on a gunite construction crew. Gunite, often referred to as shotcrete, is a concrete fabrication technique used on a range of structures. It consists of a concrete mixer or hopper that feeds into a hose that injects water immediately before the nozzleman sprays the mixture onto a structure. We worked on the piers at the Naval Yard in Virginia Beach, Maryland and on storm drain tunnels in Savannah, Georgia that summer. Before you spray gunite to repair a structure you first use hand-held jack hammers to knock away loose concrete then go back over the structure securing reinforcement steel mesh for the gunite into the underlying structure.

I worked with a number of interesting characters that summer and stayed in more than a few seedy motels rented by the week. The whole crew called one of the guys leading the team I worked on Wild Bill. He came by the nickname honestly, at work as well as after work. I’m writing about him now largely for his way of organizing work. One of the tunnels we worked on in Savannah provides a really good example of gamification in manual work. Two teams of four people had just completed initial preparation for the tunnel by knocking out the loose portion of the structure. We had about an hour left in the day before high tide. Since we blocked the tunnel with sandbags up to about a foot from the ceiling, but reinforced it only with gunite, we didn’t really want to risk working behind the dike once the tide came in. The crew supervisor wanted to spray the gunite on the tunnel wall the next day to remain on schedule. As a result, we needed to reinforce about 100 yards of tunnel in an hour, something that would typically take twice as long.

Wild Bill, as he so often did when the schedule was threatened, decided we should turn the situation into a competition between the two teams on the crew, each taking one wall. He gamified the task and challenged us all to get it done. Wild Bill put me out front rolling out the reinforcement wire with another guy smoothing it out ahead with Wild Bill following, really pushing us forward by using a pneumatic gun anchoring the wire into the underlying concrete as we went along. Every so often laughingly threatening to put an anchor in our asses if we didn’t go faster. Now, of course, we all felt a sense of accomplishment after completing the task. However, the sense of accomplishment paled in comparison to the exhaustion.

My point in sharing this story is simple. Anyone who works on project teams knows that sometimes you must turn the Wild Bill loose in team members to make a deadline. However, making a project deadline is different than turning the working day itself into a deadline. Or turning performance reviews into scoring exercises to see how many badges an employee earned, as in the following projection by two social business consultants who should know better:

performance reviews and promotions will be able to partially account for how much an employee has learned on the job by simply noting how many badges have been earned or what level has been achieved. After all, wouldn’t the decision to promote one of two equally skilled employees would be just a little simpler if one had five more “badges” than the other?


When I look at the four principal means of driving engagement in gamification, as identified by Gartner recently, what I see is the knowledge worker equivalent of Wild Bill with institutional scale.

  1. Accelerated feedback cycles. In the real world, feedback loops are slow (e.g., annual performance appraisals) with long periods between milestones. Gamification increases the velocity of feedback loops to maintain engagement.
  2. Clear goals and rules of play. In the real world, where goals are fuzzy and rules selectively applied, gamification provides clear goals and well-defined rules of play to ensure players feel empowered to achieve goals.
  3. A compelling narrative. While real-world activities are rarely compelling, gamification builds a narrative that engages players to participate and achieve the goals of the activity.
  4. Tasks that are challenging but achievable. While there is no shortage of challenges in the real world, they tend to be large and long-term. Gamification provides many short-term, achievable goals to maintain engagement.

Maybe I’m missing something about the Gartner points. However, Natron Baxter sums it up as well as any noting that, “The real power of games comes from the way that they organize forces and interests, frame experiences, and encourage strategic discovery.”

What do you think?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Larry Irons
Larry Irons, PhD, is the Principal of Customer Clues. Customer Clues provides consulting services to design manageable product and service experiences across your marketing, learning, and organizational performance initiatives.


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