Have you ever heard of it? The Overjustification Effect? It’s real. Why? Because it is on Wikipedia. The first sentence goes like this: “The overjustification effect occurs when an expected external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task.” (emphasis added) This is off course very relevant to the topic of gamification or serious gaming, since a lot of its value comes from raising motivation to perform certain tasks (the other big moat of value coming from actually learning or aquiring a skill better and faster).
Now this raises two important questions:
- When does the overjustification effect take place?
- What happens to the gamified environment when it stirs its ugly head?
Let’s tackle them in reverse order.
Let’s assume A Guy Named Bob. This Guy Named Bob is an employee of a company that sells camera’s online and this company creates a leaderboard for its sales people. A monthly bonus is awarded for the number 1 spot. At first This Guy Named Bob is motivated to become first and he starts to perform well. He gets to the number 1 spot and receives his bonus. He wants more! After a few months, The Guy Named Bob has learned a thing or two about how the leaderboard is made up and he starts adjusting his behavior (his sales techniques) in such a way that he will perform even better on the leaderboard. He stays on top and receives his bonus. The Guy Named Bob is suddenly The Sales-King Named Bob and he loves his new status. And he won’t let go… After three months he discoveres a small loophole in the leaderboard system: the reward for selling a certain lens filter is a lot higher than for other accessories and he only has to sell a few of those to rise to the top in month four. His real results start to go down, but he stays on top of the leaderboard. The gamified environment of the company has become ineffective, even detrimental to the companies revenues. Gamification #fail.
So the Overjustification Effect corrupts any gamified environment to the extent of making it harmful to the organization applying gamification. With that covered, we move to question 1: when does this happen? The answer to this may be quite shocking and it is the reason I think this phenomenon is really the greatest danger to any process of gamification. The answer is: it happens all the time, in every gamified environment! Why? Because it is how the human psyche works! Now there’s a Catch-22… The gamifier is motivating people to perform tasks and in doing so is deminishing the intrinsic motivation to perform this task.
If someone is rewarded for a task that was not rewarded before, an external motivator is layed on top of the intrinsic motivation (which must have been there if the task was performed before, right?). Now the mind of the person performing the task (A Guy Named Bob, for example) focusses on the external reward and it replaces(!) the intrinsic motivation. When the external reward is taken away, the intrinsic motivation is gone. You see the danger? You see the challenge? You see the Catch-22? You should if you want to implement any gamified process in any organization, because staying out of this Catch 22-loophole is the ongoing challenge for gamification and serious gaming.
Any gamified process is subject to erosion. People learn, people adjust, adopt and adapt. We are already seeing that badges and leaderboards are not as effective as they were in the “early days” of gamification. A gamifier needs to be one step ahead of this learning curve, he needs to keep the fine balance between external incentives and intrinsic motivation. This is not easy and it requires constant observation of the results and processes and a corresponding adjustment and refining of the gamification processes and techniques.
How to stay ahead of the learning curve? Two important pointers:
- Always be on the lookout for loopholes and other flaws in your process.
- Keep changing the game for the best players to keep them guessing and on their toes.
If you don’t do all this, then the Overjustification Effect might just pop up and rip the pretty little head off of your gamified process…
You have been warned…
I think this is a quite serious challenge for the world of gamification. How do you see this? Am I making too much of this, or is it a threat to gamification in the long run? I’m looking forward to an open discussion on the subject!