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Gamification: Is it game over?

Life's a game

(Courtesy of Mykl Roventine on Flickr)

Taking the rules of video games and applying them to everyday life was billed as the next big thing, something that would transform everything from dull office work to how we exercise. But can it really work?

Brushed your teeth this morning? Congratulations, you get 20 points. Hit your quarterly performance target early? Good work, you get half a day's extra holiday. You voted in the recent elections so you get your third citizenship badge. But you've slipped another two places down your gym's fitness leaderboard, so that means an extra few miles on the treadmill next week.

If this all sounds like an Orwellian nightmare, think again. This is your “gamified” future.

Gamification is a buzz word used to describe systems that take elements of everyday games like chess and Donkey Kong and applies them to everyday life. Perhaps the best-known example of gamification is Foursquare, the location-based social network in which people "check in" to places via their phones. Users are awarded badges for going out and experiencing new things. And the more they frequent a place, the higher their status becomes. For example, they may become the "mayor" of their coffee shop, potentially opening the door to discounts and other prizes.

But if you think it is just tech-savvy teens hoping for a cheap latte that are in on the game, think again. Everyone from businesses to governments are busy re-designing the way they work to include elements such as completing missions, competition, social interaction, status and rewarding achievement. Activities and products that have already been gamified include buying a burger, graphics editing software, learning languages, fitness gadgets and all manner of jobs including sales, IT, customer relations and even waiting tables. Gamification gurus maintain this is only the beginning. Only last year, the US-based analysts Gartner predicted that 70% of the world's top 2000 companies will be using gamification in some form by 2014.

But now there seems to be a growing backlash. Just 12 months after Gartner predicted the huge growth in the genre, it released another report saying that “gamification is currently being driven by novelty and hype”. By 2014, it predicts that 80% of gamification applications will fail to deliver “because of poor design”. In addition, a growing number of critics are asking some probing questions: Is gamification just a rehash of old ideas, how does it work, might it be exploitative, could it actually undermine motivation and won't it trigger addiction?

Power up

The ideas that underpin gamification stretch as far back as 1937, when American psychologist BF Skinner proposed a system he called operant conditioning. The idea – perhaps best known for the images of rats hitting a lever to release food pellets - revealed how the use of rewards and punishments could also change human behaviour. A few years later Abraham Maslow put forward his needs theory of human motivation which highlighted sense of belonging, self esteem and the realisation of personal potential as key. Then in the 1970s, so-called self determination theory identified competence, relatedness and autonomy as fundamental human needs.

But on their own, these ideas were not enough. After all, boy scouts have been getting badges to reward achievement for close to a century. And competition, leaderboards and financial rewards have long been deployed to motivate sales teams and those who accumulate frequent flyer points are offered enhanced status, special offers and other privileges.

The other trend that allowed gamification to grab the limelight was so-called big data. The emergence of mobile computing, cheap storage and  inexpensive sensors means that information about every aspect of our life can be collected and recorded unlike any other time in history. Cheap, portable consumers gadgets and smart phone apps can now measure aspects things like their activity levels, diet, sleep patterns, mood and health. "Everything we do is being mediated by technology, whether it is entertainment, work or sports or play, and this is generating huge amounts of user activity data," says Rajat Paharia, the founding father of gamification. "Now we can take that data and apply it to the motivation problem."

By which Paharia means, combining the data with game mechanics to allow people to pursue targets. So, for example, if someone wants to run 10km (7miles) in one hour but can only currently run 8km in that time, gamification might use a series of rewards and “levels” to help them to achieve their goal. Along the way, their performance might be monitored and recorded by their phone allowing them to track their progress. An element of peer pressure might be included by encouraging the runner to upload their progressively quicker times onto a social network or a website where other people share similar goals.

This kind of example is well known to Paharia. He started his California-based company Bunchball in 2005, trying to persuade the likes of MySpace and Facebook of the potential of online gaming. In the process he came across the motivational power of game mechanics and created a web-based service for businesses.

"We realised you could take the game mechanics that game designers had been using for years such as competition, real-time feedback and goal-setting, and apply them elsewhere," says Paharia. "Outside of gaming they still work to drive behaviour because they are based on satisfying fundamental human needs and desires."

Bunchball landed its first contract based on these ideas when asked in 2007 by NBC to create a community site for fans of the TV comedy series The Office. At this point the concept didn't have an established name. Paharia adopted the word "gamification" in 2009 after hearing someone use it in a presentation. Business was slow at first but took of in 2010. Now the firm employs 65 people and has an impressive client list including the likes of Intel, Marriott, Playboy and Ford. It has been followed by a raft of other firms offering similar services.

"Game-based techniques can be applied to many more aspects of life than people might think," says Kevin Werbach, an associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches a course on gamification. "The structures and procedures that game designers have developed can be applied just as well to the work place and social impact situations such as global warming or environmental sustainability." Opower, for example, is software designed to help people cut their energy use by completing challenges, earning points and badges, working in groups and sharing tips.

Mysterious medium

But not everyone buys into the view that anything and everything can be gamified. In fact, some game designers question whether most of what is called gamification deserves the title at all. "Games are engaging for many reasons," says Margaret Robertson, New York-based managing director of UK game design company Hide&Seek. "Importantly they have a dynamic structure in which things happen when you take actions, there are challenging goals and objectives, impediments and a real risk of failure. Most things that are called gamification simply involve the use of points and badges and don't come close to constituting a game. A better name would be pointsification."

Ian Bogost, co-founder of the game design company Persuasive Games, agrees. He calls Gamification a “marketing gimmick”. And, in another blog post, took his critque one step further, describing it as "exploitationware" and “bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business..."

Bogost’s point is that “gamification” over simplifies and misunderstands what makes games powerful. It takes what he describes as “a mysterious, magical, powerful medium” and reduces it to something that is unrecognisable. This may seem like pedantry. After all, who cares about a name, providing it delivers results?

But that is where Bogost and other critics may have a point. In many cases, gamification is not working, says Brian Burke, research vice president at Gartner.  He says many attempts to gamify situations are let down by people who do not understand games in the first place.  “Poor game design is one of the key failings of many gamified applications today,” he says. “The focus is on the obvious game mechanics, such as points, badges and leader boards, rather than the more subtle and more important game design elements, such as balancing competition and collaboration, or defining a meaningful game economy.”

Proponents of gamifcation are used to dealing with the more extreme critiques like those from Bogost. Gabe Zichermann, a former marketing man and prominent advocate of gamification , dismisses the charge that it is exploitative.  "Is the company trying to trick you or trying to get you to do something that it needs you to do by making your work fun and engaging, and you understand that's what's happening?" he asks.

Similarly Werbach, co-author of the recently released book For The Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business, dismisses the charge that it is exploitative. He says that inevitably there good and bad designs of gamification. "It's a serious criticism and there are examples where companies seek to exploit their customers or their workers by substituting meaningless points and rewards for things of actual value," says Werbach. "But it's not necessarily true of all gamification."

He says successful gamification needs “to use a thoughtful design process, map out the objectives” understand the players and then pick the most appropriate elements from games to achieve the desired goal. Effective examples, he says, provide users with real-time feedback, clear, achievable goals, narratives that they care about and challenging but achievable tasks.

Rewards scheme

But some believe that debates about good design are premature. Instead, they question one of the central tenets of gamification, that rewards immediately improve performance or engagement. This criticism is based on the work of American psychologist Edward Deci, who several decades ago observed students who had been asked to solve puzzles. Some were offered cash prizes and others were not. He noted that those given financial rewards were less likely to continue working on the puzzles at the end of the experiment.

His conclusion was that trying to motivate someone with external rewards can undermine their pure enjoyment of doing something. Psychologists call this the overjustification effect. American writer Alfie Kohn later published a series of books arguing that a "do this and get that" approach to parenting, teaching and management might stimulate desired behaviours in the short-term but will ultimately fail.

"Much of the problem with gamification comes down to the same oversimplified worldview that we find in business, education, and parenting." says Kohn. "Namely a tendency to see motivation as a single thing that can rise or fall. It reflects an ignorance of what psychologists have known for decades - that intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are two completely different things, and that the former is undermined by the latter."

It's a charge that those in the industry reject as simplistic. "An Olympic medal is an extrinsic reward but if you want to win it bady enough it becomes intrinsically rewarding to you," says Zichermann. "Motivations can start off being extrinsic and become intrinsic, and those who pit these against each other fail to understand that they exist in a continuum."

But perhaps the biggest concern around gamification is around the idea of addiction. Estimates suggest that nine-15 million Americans are problem gamblers and 1.8 million are addicts. It may at first glance seem surprising that so many people are willing to keep pulling the slot machine lever and throwing down chips to the point of losing their houses, relationships and more when the odds are so obviously stacked against them.

Skinner's experiments in the 1940s and 1950s showed that if you want to get a rat hooked to pressing a lever the best way is to make the number of times it has to press a lever before receiving a pellet random rather than fixed - a technique known to psychologists as a variable schedule of rewards. Game designers are well aware of this and design in uncertainty to help make their products compulsive. So what's to stop those making gamified applications doing the same thing to encourage addictive behaviours which they wish to promote, critics ask. 

"If we deliver undefined rewards of variable sizes at undefined intervals, people can become addicted," says Zichermann. "Could you design a gamification application that was purely about addiction and compulsion? Absolutely."

That's one of the main reasons he is pushing the industry to draw up a voluntary code of ethics which he hopes will state applications should not be designed to be addictive and that users must be told when a system they are using involves gamification. Only time will tell if it is adopted.

But in that spirit we would like to reassure you that no gamification was used in this article. But, if you are still reading, award yourself 100 points.

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