A year or two ago gamification was the fun, exciting new thing. Games are fun. Working and participation are boring. So let’s turn the boring stuff into a game. Gamification can be a powerful tool for an online community. (It can increase participation as in this Kaplan study of gamification in online learning.) But while gamification can be a force for good, it may not always be the best choice for your community, especially if it’s implemented poorly. Here are a few problems with online community gamification.
One the problems with online community gamification is the risk of creating show-offs or people who are just doing things for the “likes.” When thinking about gamifying your community, you might have considered letting members reward members. Whether by “upvoting” them or by giving them rewards. Reddit, for instance, allows members to reward other members with gold.
Unfortunately, a bad but predictable side-effect of this system is that some people will post whatever they think will give them that quick reward. Basically, in this way you create a bunch of class clowns, people who contribute little but chuckles or shock value.
With a upvote system like Youtube’s (or also Reddit’s), you encounter a similar problem. People may post whatever will get them the most votes, not necessarily what’s interesting or useful. Sometimes this upvote system means that trolls get pushed up to the top of the pile by their troll friends, meaning that the most visible part of your community isn’t the part you want to show off.
Another problematic way to gamify your community is with awards built into your platform. Stars, badges, and points are common ways that communities throw in a bit of gamification. The problem with this is that they usually are just thrown in and are, thus, meaningless. For instance, in most forums, you earn a star for every length of time that your account has been active, but you earn a star whether you’ve actually participated or not. Someone could be on that forum for five years and never say a thing, but still have five stars. Meaningless!
Similarly, unless badges or points earn a member some actual benefit, they’re just something cluttering up their profile. Like participation trophies in real life, they mean nothing.
For a community that uses points well, see Stack Exchange, a Q/A knowledge base community. Points are earned through meaningful participation, and the more points you earn the more privileges you get on the site.
The Prairie Dog Cowboy asks a great question. What do you do when you run out of carrots? This is another problem with online community gamification. Constantly award people for every action they take and you train them to expect a reward forever, for everything. If you stop awarding people at a certain level, say you run out of stars to give them or badges to hand out, they may stop “playing the game.” Just like when you run out of stars to win in Angry Birds, you stop playing Angry Birds. When you make your community about the game, you’re building a shaky foundation, especially if you haven’t also built it into a solid network of relationships.
In the end, community is about community. Gamification can help you encourage participation, but it’s no substitute for good community value and bonds between members. Check out this blog on creating a positive community culture!
Have you tried to gamify (*shudder*) your community? Think of any other problems with online community gamification? Tell us in the comments below!