Back in 2011 Gartner Group made a bold claim: more than 70% of global businesses will have utilised at least one gamified application by the end of 2014. Gamification clamour has grown progressively but at the start of 2015 it would seem that one of the (deemed) hottest trends has failed to live up to the hype. So much so, that Gartner now estimates penetration of gamification in the workplace at just 5 to 10%.

When I read this statistic I was shocked, as over the same period of time another trend has been  developing: gaming. No, not video games. Tabletop or board games. The past four years have seen board game purchases rise by between 25% and 40% annually with new offerings achieving sales in the millions. On Kickstarter, the crowdfunding service, in which users can pledge money to finance projects, the amount raised last year for tabletop games eclipsed video games, $52.1 million to $45.3 million. And if you search for the Beatles song “Ticket to Ride”, the results are a glut of information on the board game of the same name. The song? – nowhere to be seen.

As an avid tabletop gamer myself, I’m always left somewhat frustrated that the elegance of board games is not reflected in comparable offerings in the workplace. A leaderboard tacked on to a process, a ‘game’ to celebrate who is the fastest at XYZ, or a badge for the employee who achieves their business’s goals first – is this a game or merely recognition dressed up?

So where are board games succeeding where gamification is failing and what are the lessons for businesses?

  • Poorly engineered game mechanics: tabletop games use a wide spectrum of mechanics including chance elements, risk and reward actions, managing resources, laying tiles, bluffing, negotiating etc as part of their design. This blend creates an interactive eco-system into which the players become invested. The pitfall gamification designers often encounter is simply identifying a process and applying an irrelevant measurement system.
  • Too many rewards: badges are great, but if you reward every little accomplishment in your game, you run the risk of it looking easy and it not being taken seriously. Such rewards are typical in gamified projects. While this promotes peer recognition/competition there’s no tangible change to the experience to promote interactivity or engagement. It therefore risks becoming repetitive and boring over time.
  • Shared social experiences don’t need to be online: take for example the game Coup. In this board game players have to determine who is lying and who is telling the truth based only on discussion, observation, judgement and working with your fellow players. There are also numerous other games which tackle a broad range of subjects from resource management, serious social issues to trading and more. All these games require you to play both against and with your opponents.

We can learn a lot from board gaming’s recent successes and their proven ability to engage and educate. The challenge is, to distil the techniques employed so successfully in board gaming into garnification. After all, recent Gallup data indicate that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are fully engaged, and surveys of CEOs repeatedly show engagement as one of their top concerns – surely it’s worth a roll of the dice?