A gamification expert used these graphs to prove gamification works:
Once he added gamification, activity skyrocketed. You see, gamification works!
Clearly, this isn’t the full story. Activity did skyrocket, then it plummeted. The introduction of gamification elements was accompanied by a promotional push. Any promotional push will increase community activity (at least in the short term).
The data above is consistent with reward theory. When you incentivize activity, people do more of that activity until the effect of incentives fades. Then members are less motivated than before to participate.
You see this in academic studies too. Activity rises and then falls.
Many communities use gamification and are successful. Does this mean that they are successful because of gamification? They might be more successful without gamification, there is no data to prove either statement.
There are also communities that use gamification and fail. There are few (if any) studies showing communities that introduced gamification as an isolated variable and saw a long-term increase in activity. Yet, right now, many organizations look towards gamification as the solution to their community problems.
In some communities, gamification may reinforce existing behaviour and increase activity. In others gamification might switch motivations from intrinsic to extrinsic and decrease activity. This is the danger in our work.
Gamification, like many topics, rides on a success bias. We only hear about the successful examples. Only those that use gamification successfully are invited to speak at events, write books that get published, and otherwise merit attention. The reality (and the data) is murkier.
Introducing gamification might help your community. It might also hurt your community. It’s one of many possible tools in the toolbox. It should not be the first tool we reach for. It’s certainly not a default tool.
Gamification is not a silver bullet. It won’t magically fix major activity problems in your community. It might do more harm than good. Be careful. There are more reliable and more successful methods to improve communities.