Perils of gamification: overjustification

Gamification uses game psychology/mechanics to increase engagement, loyalty, and fun in a given (non-gaming) environment/context. Given how much hype is currently associated with gamification, it is only natural to ask the obvious question, “Can every aspect of our lives, especially those that are particularly boring/demotivating, be gamified? What would be the ultimate result of human behavior in such a case?“

Before, moving on, let’s introduce a concept in which gamification usually plays out. Usually, gamification represents a special example of the principal-agent dilemma. In its essence, this dilemma occurs when a person/entity (agent) is able to make decisions that impact, or are on behalf of, another person/entity (principal).  For example, consumers (agents) regularly make a buying decision of a brand (principal) product.


While this interplay is nothing bad and has numerous instances in politics/ economy/societal life, it can become problematic if/when there is difference of interests and asymmetry of information between the principal and the agent. moralhazardIn gamification-related initiatives, the principal is the motivator and the agent is the motivatee. In offering a reward to do a task, the principal (motivator) implicitly signals to the agent (motivatee) that the task in and of itself is undesirable/demotivating. In most such cases, extrinsic motivators are used, and the more such motivators are used the more saturated the motivatee might become. If motivatees were consumers and motivator was a brand that wanted consumers to become more engaged, the brand might loose those consumers completely.

In other words, if/when extrinsic rewards/motivators can’t keep up, the resulting effect is called gamification backlash, which is often caused by the abusive use of PBLs (or other gamification mechanics), many of which are extrinsic. Used continuously, extrinsic incentives ultimately decrease a person’s intrinsic motivation for the (gamified) behavior, a phenomenon known as overjustification.


 Overjustification is manifested in cases where giving an external incentive to a person decreases his intrinsic motivation to perform the task. The problem is that most of platforms/tools (Bunchball, Badgeville, BigDoor, PunchTab, FanGager, etc.) around only offer extrinsic motivator services.

Let’s take an example. If an employee has an intrinsic motivation (and some skills) to do graphic design work, he/she will do it independently whether it is in his/her job description or no. If the company introduces extrinsic motivators (salary bonus, additional holidays, flexible working hours, etc.), the employee may, in short-term, show increased productivity/results in graphic design work. If however, the company continues with extrinsic motivators, the employee is bound to eventually arrive at one of following two points:

  1. Attention shift: with time, the employee  ill become attached to extrinsic motivators (if they continue to be offered), and will become mechanized and conditioned to perform (or NOT) depending on the presence and increasing value of these extrinsic motivators.
  2. Insatiable/increasing expectations: extrinsic motivators need to keep growing in order to keep the employee motivated. If their perceived value is the same or decreases over time, this will demotivate the employee. 

To avoid the overjustification trap, start by asking the following two questions:

  • Is your brand or product already fundamentally strong enough for consumers to want to interact with it?
  • Is your product solving a problem, facilitating a process or in any other  way providing value for customers?

If so, gamification is a wonderful way to provide more avenues for your loyal and interested customers to further engage with you. If not, don’t waste your time and money – you have a much bigger problem that gamification will not be able to solve for you.


This post was contributed by Hayk Hakobyan, guest writer
Hayk is a consulting partner at Gametize, based mostly in MENA region.
He is a consultant (marketing, innovation, gamification, social media, org dev), entrepreneur (@kartagapp, @engezni), TEDx speaker,advisor/coach (@thezimbabwean, @verdademz, @mtramadv), and volunteer (@takingitglobal).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s