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Are Gamification Projects Different? An Exploratory Study on Software Project Risks for Gamified Health Behavior Change Support Systems

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Gamification is increasingly utilized in information systems to afford positive experiences that are typically perceived from playing games. Despite potential benefits, gamification projects have shown to be prone for failure which may lead to severe harmful effects for its users. In traditional software projects, project managers try to mitigate failure through project risk management. However, gamification projects bring with them several differences in comparison to traditional software projects and it is unclear how extant knowledge may be transferred. We address this issue by conducting ten semi-structured interviews with experts involved in the development of gamified health behavior change support systems. Our results indicate that gamification has substantial impacts on various risk factors. We contribute to gamification and project management literature as we are among the first who conceptualize gamification projects as special software projects with different project risk factors.
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Are Gamification Projects Different? An Exploratory Study on Software
Project Risks for Gamified Health Behavior Change Support Systems
Simon Warsinsky
Karlsruhe Institute of
Technology
simon.warsinsky9@kit.edu
Manuel Schmidt-Kraepelin
Karlsruhe Institute of
Technology
manuel.schmidt-kraepelin@kit.edu
Scott Thiebes
Karlsruhe Institute of
Technology
scott.thiebes@kit.edu
Ali Sunyaev
Karlsruhe Institute of
Technology
sunyaev@kit.edu
Abstract
Gamification is increasingly utilized in information
systems to afford positive experiences that are
typically perceived from playing games. Despite
potential benefits, gamification projects have shown to
be prone for failure which may lead to severe harmful
effects for its users. In traditional software projects,
project managers try to mitigate failure through
project risk management. However, gamification
projects bring with them several differences in
comparison to traditional software projects and it is
unclear how extant knowledge may be transferred. We
address this issue by conducting ten semi-structured
interviews with experts involved in the development of
gamified health behavior change support systems. Our
results indicate that gamification has substantial
impacts on various risk factors. We contribute to
gamification and project management literature as we
are among the first who conceptualize gamification
projects as special software projects with different
project risk factors.
1. Introduction
Gamification broadly refers to the proliferation of
games in culture, society, and technology. Today,
information systems (IS) are increasingly being
gamified to afford positive experiences that are
typically perceived from playing games [1, 2].
Research shows an optimistic stance toward the
possible benefits of gamified IS, which include
increased motivation, skill accruement [1], or
engagement [3]. Likewise, practitioners increasingly
seek to utilize the motivational power of gamification
by implementing it in real-world IS [3, 4]. Despite
potential benefits, gamification projects exhibit high
failure rates and are considered to be amongst the most
challenging areas of software engineering [4]. In
practice, various gamification projects have failed for
different reasons, such as a lack of game design
knowledge [4], or the inability to add sufficient
purpose to gamification elements [5]. Depending on
its use context, gamification project failures can bring
consequences of varying severity. Mundane
consequences include financial losses or user attrition
[6]. However, in some contexts, consequences may be
more severe. For instance, gamification is prominently
implemented in health behavior change support
systems (HBCSSs) to foster beneficial health
behaviors like increased physical activity [7, 8]. In
such contexts, the consequences of gamification
project failure may be particularly severe, as it may
translate to negative influences on users’ health [9].
To mitigate the risk of failure, in the context of
traditional software projects, extant research has put a
lot of effort into the identification and subsequent
elimination of risk factors that endanger project
success [6, 10]. However, in comparison to traditional
software projects, gamification projects exhibit unique
characteristics, such as the need of bringing fun to
system use [2], and the overall high complexity and
multifaceted nature of games [11]. Consequently,
from a traditional software project risk management
view, it is unclear, whether and if so, how knowledge
on traditional software project risks is transferable to
the context of gamification projects.
Related to gamification, past research has either
focused on gamifying the software engineering
process [12], guidelines for designing gamified
software [4, 11], or impacts of gamified software on
human behavior [3, 13]. While first studies exist that
investigate potential negative outcomes of
gamification [13], particularly in HBCSSs [9],
gamification project risks remain largely unexplored.
We, thus, currently knowledge in understanding if and
how the inclusion of gamification into software
projects affects the associated project risk factors that
could ultimately determine project success or failure.
Accordingly, we ask: How does the inclusion of
gamification affect risk factors in software projects?
To answer our research question, we engaged in
qualitative exploratory research and conducted semi-
structured interviews with ten experts involved in
gamification projects that aimed at developing
gamified HBCSSs. The contributions of our research
are manifold. We are among the first to conceptualize
gamification projects as software projects with project
risks that may be different in nature compared to
traditional software projects. In doing so, we
complement extant research that has focused on the
development of successful gamified IS by identifying
potential negative outcomes of gamification [e.g., 9,
13], or the development of design guidelines for
gamified IS [e.g., 4, 11]. For practitioners, we give an
overview of the impact that gamification can have on
software project risks. Such an overview can guide
them in identifying, assessing, and managing risk
factors while conducting gamification projects. In
addition, our study may lay the foundation for the
development of sophisticated countermeasures that
help to mitigate the risk of gamification project failure.
This paper proceeds as follows. Section two
provides the background on software project risk
management and gamification projects. Our research
approach is described in section three. Results of this
research are presented in section four and discussed in
section five. Section six concludes our paper.
2. Background
2.1 Software projects risk management
Traditionally, a software project risk has been
defined as the product of uncertainty associated with
risk factors and the magnitude of potential loss due to
project failure [6, 10, 14]. In line with the view of
Schmidt et al. [6], we define a risk factor as “a
condition that can represent a serious threat to the
successful completion of a software development
project” [6]. The ultimate goal of project risk
management is mitigating risk in order to achieve
project success. According to software project
management literature, before taking action, project
managers first have to assess the risk, which can be
further broken down into three necessary steps [6]: (1)
identification of risk factors, (2) estimation of the
likelihood for each risk factor to occur, along with
potential damage from the risk, and (3) an evaluation
of total risk exposure. To support project managers in
the first step of this process, extant literature has
provided them with checklists of potential risk factors.
For example, Boehm [10] developed a well-cited list
of ten rather abstract risk factors including personnel
shortfalls and unrealistic schedules and budget.
Furthermore, Barki et al. [14] provided a list of 23 risk
factors derived from the literature and organized them
into five categories based on survey data. Schmidt et
al. [6] developed an extensive list of 53 risk factors,
organized in 14 categories, by conducting an
international Delphi study and by building on the lists
of Barki et al. [14] and Boehm [10]. There also exist
several lists for specific project contexts such as
clinical IS [e.g., 15] or video games [e.g., 16].
However, we are not aware of any such list that
considers the unique characteristics of gamification
projects.
2.2 Gamification projects
Gamification refers to developments within
technology, economy, culture, and society in which
reality becomes more gameful [1]. Two types of
gamification can be differentiated [1]: (1) intentional
gamification (i.e. the intentional process of
transforming a system to afford more gameful
experiences), and (2) emergent gamification (i.e. a
general cultural and societal transformation stemming
from an increased engagement with games and
gameful interactions). As gamification in HBCSSs is
predominantly applied as a design strategy that
explicitly aims to increase motivation or promote
continuous system usage in order to ultimately sustain
desirable health behaviors [8, 17], we solely focus on
intentional gamification in this study.
Although we acknowledge that gamification can
take place without software being involved (e.g., in the
form of board games [18]), we also focus our research
on gamified software systems. This includes the
augmentation of an existing IS with game design
elements as well as the development of an entirely new
IS that includes game design elements. In this work,
we consider a gamification project to be a special type
of software project, for several reasons. First, IS have
traditionally been considered to be either hedonic (i.e.
pleasure-oriented systems that provide self-fulfilled
values to users) or utilitarian (i.e. productivity-
oriented systems that provide instrumental value to
users) [19]. Gamified IS, however, are systems in
which both system types are being combined in
convergence [2]. For instance, in HBCSSs,
gamification project teams need to bring fun and
pleasure to the system, while not jeopardizing the
instrumental goal of the system (i.e., fostering the
desired health behavior change). Balancing these two
goals can prove to be a tightrope act, which requires
an understanding of motivational psychology that goes
beyond the requirements for traditional software
projects [4]. Second, the effects of gamification are
subject to various contextual factors, such as its
application area or specific user needs [17, 20]. These
contextual factors may drastically limit the design
space of gamified IS compared to games and prevent
the applicability of existing knowledge [4]. We argue
that these unique characteristics of gamification
projects amplify their complexity in a way that can
lead to fundamental differences in the presence, form,
and relevance of associated risk factors.
We find two streams of research within
gamification literature that are particularly related to
our work. First, extant literature has started to take a
look at negative outcomes of gamification, such as
undermining intrinsic motivation or cheating [9, 13,
21]. This literature stream makes important
contributions to understanding and mitigating adverse
effects of gamification as it focuses on identifying
negative outcomes from a user perspective. However,
it does not account for underlying causes of such
negative effects that may lie in insufficient software
project risk management. Second, a large stream of
literature is concerned with the development of
frameworks and guidelines for successfully designing
and implementing gamification (see Morschheuser et
al. [4] for an overview). However, while such
literature may implicitly cover common risk factors of
gamification projects, we still lack the explicit
knowledge that is necessary to develop suitable risk
mitigation strategies. In this work, we aim to provide
such knowledge.
3. Research approach
3.1 Data collection
To answer our research question, we conducted
interviews with ten experts who had overseen, led,
managed, or participated in the development of
gamified HBCSSs. We did not require our
interviewees to fulfill any more rigorous requirements
(e.g., the successful completion of a large amount of
gamification projects) to be eligible for interviewing.
To recruit interviewees, we contacted 72 gamification
project teams from 41 different companies and 24
different research groups. Table 1 provides an
overview of the interviewees’ relevant demographics.
Overall, we recruited five interviewees from industry
and five from research groups. The gender of
interviewees was equally distributed, they were 30 to
65 years of age (M = 38.9, SD = 10.17), and reported
to have working experience between one and 40 years
(M = 15.4, SD = 10.01). Furthermore, interviewees
reported that they were involved in varying amounts
of software projects (M = 33.6, SD = 50.87) and
gamification projects (M = 12, SD = 29.38).
Furthermore, six interviewees remarked that they had
a leading position in at least one gamification project,
while the remaining four did not.
We applied a semi-structured interview method for
different reasons. A basic structure was necessary
since we aim to contextualize existing knowledge to
gamification projects. While providing such a basic
structure, semi-structured interviews also leave
interviewed experts with a sufficient degree of
freedom to talk about aspects that might not have come
to our attention during the preparation of the interview
guide [22]. The interview guide was derived and
discussed by two researchers. In addition, we made
constant improvements to the questions in terms of
clarity and comprehensibility. We applied a non-
judgmental form of listening, maintained distance, and
strived to sustain an open and non-directive style of
conversation during the interviews to ensure
impartiality and avoid bias [22].
The interview guide was structured as follows.
First, the interviewer introduced himself and explained
the overall topic and objectives of the interviews.
Then, the interviewer asked the interviewees about
basic demographics and their experience with
gamification projects. Interviewees were also asked to
define important concepts, including gamification,
gamification projects, risk factors, and project failure
to ensure a common understanding of these concepts.
Given that there are possible ambiguities in the
conceptualization, as well as in the delineation of
gamification from related concepts such as serious
games [20], we took particular attention to ensure a
common understanding of gamification. Accordingly,
we presented gamification as “the use of game
elements in non-game contexts” [23]. Whilst views on
gamification varied slightly across individual
interviewees (e.g., regarding expected outcomes), for
the purpose of the interview, everyone was able to
agree on the gamification definition by Deterding et al.
[23]. After ensuring a uniform understanding, the
interviewees were asked about which risk factors they
had faced in their own gamification projects. If the
interviewee was not able to think about (additional)
risk factors, the interviewer fell back on a couple of
trigger questions. In addition, the interviewer also used
the list of top ten risk factors by Boehm [10] to make
interviewees think about additional risk factors.
Lastly, administrative questions were clarified. We
recorded and transcribed each interview. The
interviews lasted 57 minutes on average.
Table 1: Interviewee demographics
ID
Job title
Gender
# Years of
working
experience
# Soft-
ware
projects
# Gamif-
ication
projects
Project role
Type
Field of expertise / research area
i01
Project manager
male
40
30
1
Lead
Industry
Telecommunication
i02
Head of product
male
6
3
1
Lead
Industry
Intercultural communication
i03
PhD student
male
4
1
1
Lead
Research
Chronic disease self-management
i04
Software company director
female
18
4
4
Lead
Industry
Mobile health
i05
Chief scientific officer
male
20
1001
1001
Mem.
Industry
Licensing of gamified HBCSSs
i06
Assistant professor
female
12
2
2
Lead
Research
Public health
i07
Physician & assistant dean
male
23
10
1
Mem.
Industry
Chronic disease self-management
i08
Assistant professor
female
10
1602
3
Mem.
Research
Chronic disease self-management
i09
Assistant professor
female
12
3
1
Mem.
Research
Electronic health
i10
Postdoctoral researcher
female
9
23
6
Lead/Mem.
Research
Human-Computer Interaction
Lead=Leading role; Mem.=Team member (in at least one gamification project)
1 The interviewee’s company is focused on licensing gamified IS as opposed to developing them, hence the large amount of conducted projects
2 The interviewee estimated that she had done 20 software projects a year across the last 8 years, hence we estimated 160 software projects
3.2 Data analysis
To assess the impact of gamification on software
project risk factors, we decided to base our data
analysis on a combined list of risk factors proposed by
Pare et al. [15] and Schmalz et al. [16]. We wanted to
combine a utilitarian [15] and a hedonic [16]
perspective in order to account for the unique
convergence of both IS types in gamified IS. Both lists
have been developed more recently than other lists
[e.g., 6, 10, 14] and are thus more applicable on the
modern landscape of IS development shaped by agile
project teams as opposed to large and static in-house
developments. The list by Pare et al. [15] has been
developed for clinical IS projects which makes it
particularly suitable for HBCSSs. In order to develop
a combined list, we took the list by Pare et al. [15] as
a basis and analyzed, which factors were also present
in the list by Schmalz et al. [16] and which factors
needed to be added. This process was first done by two
researchers and afterwards iteratively refined through
discussion with an additional researcher. The final list
consists of 31 distinct risk factors which are
categorized along seven dimensions (see Table 2).
For the transcribed interviews, we performed
selective coding [22] using Atlas.ti 8 as our coding
tool to identify text passages that deal with risk factors
proposed in our combined list. An initial coding was
conducted by one of the authors, subsequently
discussed and iteratively refined with two additional
authors. In this step, we found 166 relevant text
passages in relation to 26 different risk factors. In a
second step, we additionally conducted an axial
coding [22] on the text passages in order to analyze the
impact of gamification on the identified risk factors.
Again, the coding was iteratively refined and different
levels of abstractions were eliminated.
4. Results
Interviewees reported that gamification had an
impact on several risk factors of the software projects
that they were involved with. Overall, we found 34
potential impacts of gamification on 18 out of the 31
risk factors, spanning across all dimensions except the
organizational dimension (see Table 2 for an
overview). For the 13 remaining risk factors, our
interviewees discussed 8 of them, but did not indicate
any impact of gamification, and 5 risk factors were not
discussed by our interviewees at all. The following
sections briefly describe our findings.
4.1 Technological risk factors
Technological risk factors describe threats to
software project success related to the complexity and
performance of hard- and software components.
Introduction of a new technology. Our results
indicate that gamification projects might be
susceptible to the risk of introducing new technologies
to the project team, as gamification might necessitate
previously unused technologies. One interviewee said:
We ended up with Unity. Because of using it in our
project, we had to learn the tool as well, so we ended
up with things taking a lot more time than we had
planned to.” (i03).
Complex or unreliable technical infrastructure.
In gamification projects experimentation is often
necessary to tease out desired behavioral effects. Such
experimentation hinges on the reliability of the
technical infrastructure. One interviewee pointed out:
You need experimentation in order to figure how you
should do [gamification]. So, you need to have a stable
platform to experiment on before you can make these
gamification changes that are effective” (i01).
Table 2: List of relevant risk factors and the impact of gamification on them
Dim.
Risk factor
[15]
[16]
Impact of gamification on risk factor
Technological
Introduction of a new technology
Gamification leads to introduction of additional new technologies, such as game engines
Complex / unreliable technical
infrastructure or network
Gamification necessitates experimentation, which requires a stable technical infrastructure
Complex software solution
Gamification exacerbates requirements for visual interfaces
Additional privacy features have to be realized in software because of gamification
Complex / incompatible hardware
No impact
Poor software performance
No impact
Human
Unrealistic expectations
People expect sophisticated gamification components, because of prior experiences with games
Overall resistance to change
No impact
Lack of cooperation /
commitment from users
No impact
Lack of computer skills and
knowledge among users
Gamification employs complex interfaces akin to games, which are harder to use for people
inexperienced with games
Prior negative experiences with
projects
-
User experience
Poor perceived system ease of
use
Gamification entices developers to include overly complex game components into the system
Gamification necessitates privacy features, which decrease ease of use
Poor perceived system usefulness
Gamification makes hedonic value of the system overshadow the utilitarian value
Misalignment of the system with
local practices and processes
Gamification is added without deeper thought, thus does not align with local requirements
Gamification does not align with the context it is introduced in
Lack of gameful experience
Gameful experience wears off, because motivational effects of gamification diminish
Gamification elements do not match target group’s motivational preferences
Because of differing effects of gamification, only part of the users has a gameful experience
Project team
Changes to membership on the
project team
No impact
Lack of project leadership
No impact
Lack of required knowledge or
skills
Gamification requires additional knowledge in behavioral economics
Gamification requires additional knowledge in data science
Gamification requires additional knowledge in persuasive design and game design
Gamification requires additional knowledge in graphical design
Lack of clear role definitions
No impact
Project
Large and complex project
Gamification requires coordination of people with vastly different perspectives
Scope creep
Gamification only plays an auxiliary role, hence less efforts to define its scope are made
Unclear effects of gamification make it harder to define project scope in advance
Changes to requirements
Rapid shifts in the state-of-the-art of gamification also translate to requirements changes
Gamification projects require more time, making them more prone to changes in requirements
Effects of gamification elements are unclear, thus require iterative testing accompanied by
iterative adjustment of requirements
Insufficient resources
Effort to implement gamification is underestimated, thus an insufficient amount of resources is
committed to project
Unavailable necessary knowledge about gamification has to be substituted with other resources
Gamification only plays an auxiliary role, hence less resources are committed to them
Gamification invites the development of unnecessary resource-intensive features,
Lack of a project champion
Gamification projects require interdisciplinary team; hence the project champion also must
mediate between different organizational departments with different viewpoints
Lack of a formal project
management methodology
Effects of gamification are unclear; thus, a more flexible project management methodology is
necessary to drive forward project
The nature of creating gamification experiences is creative, which can hinder the transition to a
professional, goal-oriented project management methodology
Inadequate software development
strategy
No impact
Org.
Lack of support from upper
management
-
Organizational instability
-
Lack of local personnel
knowledgeable in IT
-
Political
Misalignment of partners’
objectives and stakes
Gamification is an innovative technology; thus, partners may not be open to it
Unclear effects of gamification make it hard to convince decision-makers of gamification
Political games / conflicts
-
Unreliable external partners
Different viewpoints on gamification cause communication problems with external partners
- = Risk factor was not discussed by any interviewee; Dim. = Risk factor dimension
Complex Software solution. Interviewees stated that
gamification projects possibly exhibit higher
requirements regarding the visual design, because
fully-fledged games serve as a benchmark to
determine the necessary sophistication of the user
interface. As one interviewee said: [F]or
gamification […] we want better interface design,
because when we think about games a lot of times it is
a lot more visual than say traditional software” (i02).
Consequently, these sophisticated visuals possibly
heighten the complexity of the gamified software
solution. Additionally, gamification, especially social
elements, often involve the processing of personal
data, which can cause liabilities to include features that
protect such data greatly increase system complexity.
4.2 Human risk factors
The human dimension contains risk factors that
represent traits or attributes of the end users of an IS
that may threaten project success.
Unrealistic user expectations. Our interviewees
suggested that in gamification projects one should pay
attention to user expectations. Users might expect a
certain sophistication from gamification, caused by
experience with fully-fledged games. One interviewee
said: Don't make it too difficult or too boring for
people who have a lot of experience with gamification.
[...] [For] young people who […] have those super
fancy games, don't make something super boring, [...]
because they would then say: ‘I can play all these
super fun games, why should I play this?’” (i10).
Lack of computer skills and knowledge among
users. User interfaces developed in gamification
projects are often realized in a similar way as those in
fully-fledged games, which usually feature more
complex interactions as opposed to other interfaces.
Thus, users lacking experience with game interfaces
could contribute to gamification project failure.
4.3 User experience risk factors
Risk factors in the user experience dimension
describe how the success of a software project can be
threatened by the end users’ perceptions regarding
usefulness, ease of use, and motivational affordances.
Poor perceived ease of use. Developing a
gamified IS can entice developers to incorporate
complex gamification mechanisms into their software.
Such complex gamification elements can worsen the
perceived ease of use, as remarked by two
interviewees: I think you tend to try and make it very
complicated when trying to gamify stuff” (i09); [Our
gamified intervention] does not include this complex
leveling up and using points to level up on these skills
and personal strength because it overwhelms people”
(i02). Furthermore, gamification may also necessitate
the addition of privacy features. Such features can be
perceived as not user-friendly and, thus, threaten
perceived ease of use: “Having to use a two factor
authentication system to log into the app […] would
not by itself ruin the gamification, but […] if you have
to have a strict security system, which makes it hard to
log in, people would not use it.” (i03).
Poor perceived usefulness. The experts remarked
that gamification may shift the way how a user
perceives the value he or she gains from using an IS.
One interviewee said: “It was an interesting thing that
people game the system, so people are using the app
with the intervention more just to get points as
opposed in the way that the thing was intended” (i04).
This indicates that the additional hedonic value created
by gamification elements might overshadow the
utilitarian value created by the overall IS, resulting in
a loss of the original purpose of the IS, and a
subsequent decrease of perceived usefulness.
Misalignment of the system with local practices
and processes. Gamification projects can be prone to
misalignments of the developed IS with local practices
and processes, if gamification does not align with the
context it is applied to. For instance, one interviewee
remarked such a misalignment of gamification with a
workplace setting: “They were only able to play [our
game] in the office on the intranet, so they could not
play it at home. But to play a game during work hours
felt weird for them” (i10). Furthermore, interviewees
pointed out that adding gamification without
considering local requirements such as preferences of
the target audience, bears the risk of causing
misalignments: I think just layering elements of
gamification on existing software often feels a little bit
shallow and I think there is really nothing especially
magically about these techniques. It is more in your
whole design. From the very beginning you have to be
thinking: ‘How am I going to engage my audience?
How am I going to retain their attention? How am I
going to compete with all the other fun things they
have to do in their life, so that they are going to do my
game and learn something from it?’" (i07).
Lack of gameful experience. An IS containing
gamification could fail to provide a gameful
experience to users, because the gamification elements
do not match the users’ motivational preferences, as
illustrated by one interviewee: “I think the first [risk
factor] is [...] not choosing the right reward to match
the person’s motivation(i08). Related to this, our
interviewees remarked that the effects of gamification
are not the same for every user: “I think there is a huge
opportunity for us to […] deliver much more
personalized gamification for it to be successful,
because too often you are seeing [that] the
[gamification] tactic was not useful for everybody, it
was only useful for a small sub-group. So, I think that
is a big threat because most of the gamification I have
seen at least in health, is not custom to individual level
behavior” (i08). Lastly, even when a gamified IS
successfully provides a gameful experience, this
experience could diminish over time: “Sometimes the
gamification techniques could only work in a short-
term. Again, you know, it feels fresh, it feels fun but
then after a little while people start stop paying
attention to it. Then it is again a failure“ (i02).
4.4 Project team risk factors
Project team risk factors are concerned with the
team members assigned to a software project,
including their roles, capabilities, and guidance.
Lack of required knowledge or skills. When a
gamification project reaches a certain data throughput,
the project team might require additional knowledge
in data science. Furthermore, a lack of knowledge in
behavioral economics, persuasive design, and game
design may also be critical. One interviewee asked:
[I]s it better to give people things and let them
accumulate points or do you give them something and
then if they don't follow a certain protocol, you begin
to take that thing away? (i05). Knowledge in these
fields could help to answer such questions. One
interviewee also stated that knowledge in graphic
design may be necessary: “[W]e eventually brought in
an outside artist to help us with like color scheme and
refine the way we were placing elements on the screen
and that was very helpful” (i07).
4.5 Project risk factors
Project risk factors are concerned with the
circumstances of a software project, including the
project’s complexity, scope, requirements, available
resources, and the project management approach.
Large and complex project. In gamification
projects, we found that the risk of having a large and
complex project can be aggravated, because the
successful creation of gamification experiences
requires the coordination of an interdisciplinary team,
where people have vastly different backgrounds.
Scope creep. The experts stated that gamification
often is not part of the core functions of an IS, but
rather only plays an auxiliary role. Consequently,
project teams may not focus their efforts on properly
defining the scope of gamification elements, as one
interviewee described: [G]amification […] is not the
most important part of the project. I think it takes a lot
of time and a lot of trial and error, and creativity, and
resources” (i03). This possibly leads to unrealistic
definitions of the scope of gamification, which can
subject a gamification project to scope creep. In
addition, the effects of gamification are often unclear,
which makes it difficult to define a realistic scope in
advance: “But to specify things in detail when you
make a gamification thing, that is not that easy.
Because you know it is an experimental question. What
is going to work?” (i01).
Changes to requirements. Experts indicated that
the unclarity surrounding the effects of gamification
can also form additional ground for changes in the
requirements. For example, one interviewee pointed
out: “There are not a lot of best practices which means
you have to do more testing and then when you do
more of a testing then there is more uncertainty” (i02).
Furthermore, gamification projects usually take longer
than normal software projects. At the same time, the
state-of-the-art in gamification is rapidly shifting:
“[T]he knowledge about gamification and the
techniques and applications probably also changes
quite quickly. So, what is new this year might […]
already be boring in two years” (i06).
Insufficient resources. Our interviewees
indicated that a core issue in gamification projects is
that the resources required to realize gamification may
be underestimated, resulting in insufficient resources
being allocated. Missing experience can be a reason
for this: Due to inexperience and the nature of our
group, [...] we typically underestimate the amount of
time and money it will take to build something that is
a very high quality [gamification] experience” (i08).
Gamification might also only be an auxiliary
component of an IS and other components might be
given precedence in resource allocation: “In terms of
resources, and this is particularly my experience from
our place, that the gamification part kind of is not the
most important part of the project. [...] And the most
important point is to make that application” (i03).
Furthermore, the relatedness of gamification and
games may entice developers to steer too far into the
direction of creating a fully-fledged game as opposed
to a gamification experience. This can possibly
manifest in the creation of complex and resource-
intensive gamification elements, draining the available
resources faster than expected. For instance, one
interviewee said: “So, going more for like a game feel
than real gamification I think is a risk factor. And that
is something we have to struggle with and always say
‘Ok, let's keep it a bit more simple and see what we
can do with the gamified elements instead of really
going all the way and making it a very expensive and
complicated game’(i09). Furthermore, gamification
projects can require additional capabilities in the
project team. If such capabilities are unavailable,
gamification project teams must substitute these
missing capabilities. One expert stated: We are not a
game developer shop, so I think the amount of effort
may take us to think through that logic is a larger
hump to overcome than a group that maybe is just
doing that as their bread and butter” (i08)
Lack of a project champion. The presence of a
project champion that encourages teamwork within
the project team and acts as a mediator that converges
the viewpoints of different organizational departments
was emphasized as particularly important by our
interviewees: So I would say [it is important to] have
a researcher or have a developer […] who bridg[es]
the gap between the professional groups [...] and
makes sure that your entire project group shares the
same ideas and are on the same level” (i03).
Lack of a formal project management
methodology. Our interviewees remarked that to tease
out the effects of different gamification elements, one
may require experimentation, which in turn
necessitates a flexible project management approach:
If you just assume that chocolate or points give you
positive reinforcement, then it might be wrong. And if
you make a system that assumes certain things along
those lines [...], then if you have not tried it, it may fail
spectacularly, because it does not work in that
situation. [...] So, you have to have flexibility all over
your place” (i01). Another aspect to consider is that
developing gamification is to some degree a creative
process. Because of this, project managers might need
to include a formal transition from a loose, creative
approach, toward a professional, goal-oriented
approach in order to actually create a finished product
as opposed to being stuck in a creative phase: “I
probably did not do a good enough job of transitioning
the environment from that loose, very creative ‘Hey,
we have got this really cool thing we build’ to
‘Actually now we have a product and the product has
to work and we have to refine it, because we have a
bunch of users with needs and let's go’” (i07).
4.6 Strategic and political risk factors
The strategic and political dimension contains risk
factors, which are related to an organization’s strategy,
as well as inter-organizational relationships.
Misalignment of partners’ objectives and
stakes. Our experts indicated that it can be particularly
hard to gain the commitment of external partners to
gamification projects when partners are not open to
innovative concepts. For example, one interviewee,
who had implemented gamified IS at schools, said: If
the school was enthusiastic about the use of those
modern techniques, we saw more success and more
enthusiasm to use it and to support it, while when we
did it in a school where they were more negative about
innovative things, it was more difficult” (i06). To gain
the commitment of external partners to a gamification
project, one has to convince them of its benefits. This,
however, may be difficult, when such benefits are
unclear or only visible long-term: [For] the projects
that we have worked on, [...] the return on investment
is several years away. And so, I think oftentimes it is
hard to make the case for gamification, [as] it is quite
difficult to demonstrate its impact” (i08).
Unreliable external partners. When cooperating
with external partners, our interviewees indicated that
a point of contention that can lead to project failure are
different viewpoints on gamification. Cooperation of
partners with non-aligning viewpoints can cause
communication problems, as outlined by one
interviewee: “One partner was a game developer [...],
the communication was very difficult. [...] In the end I
think the problem was mainly that he was too creative,
and I think he found it very difficult to adjust or adapt
to what we academics were saying” (i06).
5. Discussion
5.1 Principal findings
In this study, we explored how the inclusion of
gamification into software projects may affect the risk
factors that lead to project failure. In the following, we
discuss some of the most interesting findings. First,
our results indicate that the inclusion of gamification
into software projects can indeed produce major shifts
in the nature of project risk factors. This strengthens
our assumption that gamification projects can be
considered as a special type of software projects with
distinct risk factors. Our results also show that such
impacts are broadly diversified across all dimensions
and not limited to single risk factors. When comparing
our findings to extant research, several analogies
become apparent. For instance, our findings indicate
that the perceived usefulness of a system can get
altered when gamification takes on a higher value than
the utilitarian purpose of an IS. Similarly, statements
have been made in recent research about designing
gamification, where researchers propose that
designers have to control for people gaming-the-
system [4] and that poor gamification design can
undermine intrinsic motivation [9]. Overall, this
indicates that findings from research on software
project risk management are to some degree
transferable to gamification projects. However, such
transfers should be done with care as gamification
projects differ from traditional software projects.
Second, when we analyzed the impacts of
gamification on different risk factors, we noticed that
several impacts can be traced back to similar
underlying causes. Recurring themes across several
risk factor dimensions were the unclear effects of
gamification on human behavior and privacy issues.
This suggests that it may be possible to alleviate
several impacts of gamification on risk factors with a
single or limited number of countermeasures.
Third, whereas several of the impacts of
gamification on existing risk factors seemed intuitive
(e.g., requiring additional knowledge in game design)
other impacts were unexpected. One aspect that
surprised us was that one project manager voiced his
troubles in transitioning the overall project
environment from a creative one to a goal-oriented
one. This was interesting, as past research has
conceptualized gamification as a creative process,
where a high degree of formalism (e.g., in the form of
strict design guidelines) is seen as potentially harmful
to the creativity necessary for gamification design [4].
5.2 Implications
Our study yields important implications. From a
research perspective, our study strengthens the
theoretical assumption that the convergence of
hedonic and utilitarian aspects in gamified IS leads to
substantial impacts on project risk factors. It was
interesting to see that many of those impacts stem from
the fact that gamification project teams face a lot of
uncertainties regarding the effects of gamification on
human behavior. For researchers in the field of
gamification this implies that rigorously developed
insights into the behavioral effects of gamification
may mitigate certain risk factors in the future, which
strengthens calls for more research that teases out the
behavioral effects of single gamification elements [2,
24]. It was also interesting to see that many experts
approach gamification from a self-determination
theory (SDT) perspective, which is by far the most
prominent theoretical lens on gamification [25]. While
we acknowledge the value of approaching
gamification from an SDT perspective, we think that
future research should also consider other theoretical
perspectives that are more closely related to the
context that gamification is applied in (e.g., theories
unique to the health context for HBCSSs [26]).
For practitioners, our results provide insights into
which project risk factors need to be particularly
considered when it comes to designing a gamified IS.
Especially project managers with extensive experience
in traditional software development may benefit from
our work since they are well-versed in identifying as
well as countering traditional risk factors. They may
complement their existing knowledge with our study
results to conduct a rigorous risk management in
forthcoming gamification projects.
5.3 Limitations and future research
The findings of this study should be interpreted in
consideration of some key limitations. To avoid
biasing our interviewees, we refrained from providing
them with our list of risk factors during the interviews.
Thus, we were not able to gather data regarding every
risk factor. Adding to this, we only conducted ten
interviews. Despite varying levels of expertise with
gamification across interviewees, we deemed the
insights of each of our experts to be valuable enough
to include into our data set. However, we think that
future research may find more impacts of gamification
on risk factors, if more interviews are being
conducted, if interviewees were more experienced and
had conducted more gamification projects, or if they
are shown existing lists of risk factors.
Furthermore, we conducted interviews specifically
with experts from the field of HBCSSs. Despite this
limitation, we feel that our results are transferable to
other domains. Most of the impacts of gamification on
risk factors that our interviewees remarked were
related to achieving the desired hedonic effect of a
gamified IS, and not related to the utilitarian purpose
of the HBCSS. Given that the transfer to other
domains usually primarily entails a change in
utilitarian purpose of a gamified IS [4], we feel that
our results to some degree transcend the context of
HBCSSs. However, we also acknowledge that some of
our identified impacts of gamification showed close
relation to contextual factors induced by HBCSSs
(e.g., increased privacy issues because of possibly
sensitive health data). Hence, future research might
also benefit from investigating project risk factors in
contexts other than HBCSSs.
Finally, we limited us to the identification of
potential impacts of gamification on project risk
factors, which is related to only the first of three steps
in the risk assessment process [6]. Another important
step in project risk management is the development of
countermeasures that help to mitigate such risk
factors. It is upon future research to investigate
whether and, if so, how existing countermeasures for
risk factors of software projects are applicable in the
context of gamification projects. Extant research has
also shown that project managers may benefit from
ranking risk factors regarding their damage potential
and required resources for their mitigation [6]. It
would be interesting to see whether the relevance of
certain risk factors changes for gamification projects
in comparison to traditional software development.
6. Conclusion
In this study, we aimed to assess how gamification
impacts risk factors that threaten software project
success. To do so, we conceptualized gamification
projects as a special type of software projects with
distinct risk factors. By conducting ten semi-structured
interviews with experts in the development of
gamified HBCSS, we were able to identify 34 different
impacts of gamification on 18 different risk factors.
Our results grant insights into how the presence of
gamification can lead to significant changes in the
nature of risk factors in software projects. We
contribute to both research and practice alike by
fostering a deeper understanding of risk factors in
gamification projects. This knowledge can be used to
identify and assess risk factors, and ultimately develop
sophisticated countermeasures that help to increase the
success rate of forthcoming gamification projects.
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