In 2011, a game called Foldit caused a sensation by solving a decades-old scientific mystery in just three weeks. Scientists have long struggled to determine the structure of a monkey enzyme that played a critical role in how the AIDS virus matured and spread. Knowing its structure would help in the development of drugs to fight the virus.

The online folding protein game, which was created by computer scientists at the University of Washington, challenged thousands of gamers worldwide to come up with the enzyme’s structure in exchange for points and rankings. Even though most gamers had little or no background in biochemistry, the approach worked. “These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process,” according to a paper by Foldit creators and players published in the journal, Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, in September 2011.

The Foldit phenomenon added fuel to the already emerging corporate management trend of gamification. In gamification, work functions are turned into games in the belief that employees who have fun at work will become more motivated and engaged, leading to an increase in productivity. For example, customer service agents could be motivated to work harder if they form teams to compete for game points and level advancements each time they quickly and satisfactorily answer a client query.

It is not a simple matter of rewarding employees with badges and points; an effective game must be immersive, engaging and supported by employees.

But recently, criticisms of gamification have been gaining steam as companies discover that psyching up the workforce takes more than a round of Farmville. Indeed, both critics and supporters alike believe that an effective game requires expert game design. It is not a simple matter of rewarding employees with badges and points that will magically turn them into power-producers; an effective game must be immersive, engaging and supported by employees.

“It’s not just about fun. It’s about how you engage enough that [employees] want to stay at work,” says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard, who co-authored a paper on gamification called, “Mandatory Fun: Gamification and the Impact of Games at Work,” with Ethan Mollick, also a Wharton management professor. “In that context, it’s really legitimate. But the whole culture of the organization has to work together around this. It can’t just be a piece brought in and imposed.”

Indeed, gamification has been getting more scrutiny. In November 2011, research firm Gartner called gamification a “highly significant trend” and predicted that by 2014, more than 70% of the Global 2000 organizations will have at least one gamified application. The potential is “enormous” and gamification “could become as important as Facebook, eBay and Amazon,” the firm said.

But a year later, Gartner decided that gamification was still being driven by “novelty and hype,” and predicted that by 2014, 80% of current gamified applications would fail to meet business objectives, mainly due to poor design. It said companies lacked game designers for their applications, and games tended to focus on giving out points, badges and leaderboard rankings rather than more important elements such as balancing competition and collaboration.

Meanwhile, a May 2012 Pew Research Center and Elon University survey of more than 1,000 Internet experts and users showed that they were about evenly split on gamification’s future: 53% believed it would become widespread with some limits, while 42% said it would not transform into a larger trend except in specific situations. Doubts about gamification as an all-encompassing, effective management tool had begun to emerge.

Paradox of ‘Mandatory Fun’

Scholars have discussed the use of games at work since the 1930s, but there is archaeological evidence that workplace games were present as far back as ancient Egypt, according to the paper by Rothbard and Mollick. Games traditionally sprang up among employees as a way to alleviate the drudgery of work, such as competing to see who could turn out the most widgets in a given time frame.

Management tolerated the games to an extent but typically considered them time-wasters and a form of resistance, their paper said. Later research showed, however, that games distracted workers by making them compete against each other instead of uniting to fight management. Moreover, since employees had little control over their time or tasks, playing games became “an important way of asserting a sense of self and passing the time in dehumanizing routine work,” the authors write.

As video games became more ubiquitous and people felt increasingly comfortable with them, the concept of gaming as a management tool began working its way into companies. Adopting them sounded logical. “Work isn’t always fun; games are fun, so turning work into a game will make work fun and lead to happier employees,” the paper suggests.

But the difference between the widget-making competition and gamification is that the former sprang up from employees themselves while the latter is imposed by management. Here, the “critical paradox” of “mandatory fun” comes into focus, according to Mollick and Rothbard. Will employees find management’s game as enjoyable as their own, and does that make a difference in how they feel about and perform at work? The measure the authors used to arrive at the answer is “consent,” or the level at which employees embrace the game.

The Wharton professors ran a field experiment at a tech start-up that marketed deeply discounted deals from local businesses. The authors emailed 448 salespeople to participate in the 18-day experiment. Half of the sales staff were male, and nearly all were college graduates with a mean age of 25.3 years and tenure of half a year.

The employees were divided into three groups: one that played the game, another that had a leaderboard displayed on a big screen but no other game elements, and a third that had neither a game nor leaderboard. Professional game designers created a basketball-themed game for the salespeople.

Individuals scored points for their team as they closed deals, and the winners received champagne and the honor of being top dog, but no other remuneration. Warm sales leads that came into the company website were considered “layups,” and cold calls were “jump shots.” Big screens at the office showed the teams’ activities and standings. Random daily bonuses were given so a lagging team could catch up, making for a more competitive game.

As video games became more ubiquitous and people felt increasingly comfortable with them, the concept of gaming as a management tool began working its way into companies.

The authors then analyzed the role of consent on “affective” experiences – i.e., the employee’s feeling about work — and job performance. Later, they crafted a second survey of about 150 college and graduate students to determine whether giving people choice would make them more readily embrace a mandatory game. Here, participants had to play a game, but could choose whether they wanted an “orcs vs. wizards” or farming theme. The game rules, mechanics and goals were the same for both themes. However, some gamers were given the opposite of their chosen theme.

Chocolate-covered Broccoli

The experiment at the tech startup showed that people who consented to or embraced the game had a positive “affect” — good feelings — about work. Those who did not buy into the game had negative feelings about their job. “When games are imposed like they are in gamification, buy-in isn’t assured,” Mollick says. “If people buy into the game, we see big increases in positive affects. If they don’t buy into the game, there is a negative effect.”

When it came to job performance, however, whether or not there was consent, employees did not perform better. Among consenting gamers, there was no direct link to performance. Among non-consenters, performance actually declined slightly. Mollick notes that even though there was no discernible bump up in job performance, the experiment was a “first pass” at measuring the impact of gamification in the workplace. Also, “the fact that we got an impact on affect is no small deal.”

In the second survey, the authors discovered that giving people a choice of theme gave them a feeling of empowerment that helps them embrace the game. “If you give people choices, and they get the choices they want, that helps increase buy-in,” Mollick says. “So the idea is to make this cooperative and not imposed.” Adds Rothbard: “We find that when we give people the opposite of their choice, they disengage. They report they are not as attentive.”

Mollick and Rothbard also point out that whereas traditional management techniques change the work process itself to improve enjoyment among workers, gamification does not change the task, but rather sets a game on top of it. The authors say the game provides an ephemeral “game layer” that changes the experience of work without redesigning the actual job, a phenomenon that has been described as “chocolate-covered broccoli.”

Still, gamification makes employees who consent to play happier at work, which is good for companies. “There is other research that shows that happier people in the long term leads to more creativity,” Rothbard notes. In another study, she says there is evidence that feeling good about work does improve productivity. It shows that “positive emotions lead to higher quality of customer service while negative emotions lead to taking more breaks and becoming less productive.”

Rewarding Destructive Behavior

Indeed, gamification builds on “what we know about psychology from management, marketing and other disciplines, with some added concepts from game design,” says Kevin Werbach, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics who co-wrote a book on gamification called, For the Win. But he cautions that like any management tool, it can be “oversold or abused. It needs to be done thoughtfully to have a good chance of success. At the end of the day, it’s essentially a richer palette of techniques to motivate people.”

Gamification can be “oversold or abused. It needs to be done thoughtfully to have a good chance of success…. It’s essentially a richer palette of techniques to motivate people.” –Kevin Werbach

Jesper Juul, associate professor in The School of Design at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, says companies also need to be careful about encouraging extrinsic motivation at the expense of intrinsic motivation. Examples of extrinsic motivation are cash rewards for winning a company-imposed game. But it can backfire because employees could be trained to outperform only if they get specific rewards instead of being intrinsically motivated to enjoy the job for its own sake.

Juul pointed to the subprime-mortgage meltdown that fueled the U.S. financial crisis in 2008 as an example of how rewards can motivate destructive behavior. Employees were getting bonuses on the number of loans they approved, regardless of their quality. “This was terrible for the banks,” he notes. Mollick and Rothbard’s experiment at the startup did not offer any financial rewards by design. “Once you start giving people money, you’re incentivizing the game play over the job,” Mollick says.

Indeed, gamification must not be implemented in a “shallow way, with all the focus on external rewards and belittling the underlying activity,” Werbach states. “It could well trivialize the task for some employees or even for most of them.” He advises managers to be aware of the limitations of gamification and to keep it within a structured design process. “Well-designed gamification can make employees feel more empowered in their tasks, because it gives them a wide range of feedback and a stronger sense of accomplishment.”

But Ian Bogost, interactive computing professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, does not believe in gamification at all. The long-time critic has called it a “party trick.” In his paper, “Gamification is Bull—,” he writes that the “game” in gamification promises the “magic and power” of game play that, if applied to other contexts, seems like a cure all, while the “ification” stamps the process as “easy and achievable.” Gamification, he argues, is a “style of consulting that happens to take up games as its solution.” Companies jump on the band wagon to appear “cooler,” and consultants push the idea without regard to its effectiveness, Bogost adds.

But Mollick is not so quick to dismiss gamification as mere consulting trickery. People really love games and feel good playing them, and there is value in making employees happier. Last year, people played “Angry Birds” for 11 billion hours, he notes. “It’s the equivalent of building a Panama Canal everyday,” Mollick says. The key to effective gamification is careful game design, and companies must be fully committed to its smart deployment. “My big fear about gamification, as it stands right now, is not that people will have negative affect,” he says. “People may not be doing it right, and it may let people become less enthusiastic about it.”