What problem is Gamification addressing?

Gamification is more then a high score

We've taken a brief look on what the word gamification means, which is to use design techniques usually associated with games and apply them to motivate and engage a specific audience. There was a blog not to recently however, that claimed that Gamification is the solution to a problem that doesn't exist; that we already have a universal point system, and it is called 'money'.

There are at least two problems with this. First off, money is not an effective point gauge system for measuring incentive or value. As a means of incentive it turns out that after a certain threshold (estimated at around $75,000 a year in the US), more money does not actually make you happier. There is even research which says that money incentives can have a negative impact on work output, specifically for any task that requires cognitive thinking or problem solving in a given time frame. And as a measurement of value, what is most often the case is that you do not make what you earn, you make what you can negotiate. There are plenty of low paying high impact jobs (ex. teaching, fire fighting, law enforcement) which stand converse to the high paying non-critical careers (ex. professional sports, theoretical finance, patent lawyers).

Secondly, there are a lot of problems in the world that could benefit from Gamification. Trying to simplify the process of Gamification as slapping a point system on everything, misses a lot of the design space and potential of applying it to real world situations. Part of the Gamification tool box includes being able to balance short term and long term goals, producing better feed back mechanics, creating socially collaborative and supportive structures, and creating unexpected rewards and challenges to keep people engaged.

There are many places in the world that could benefit from employing some of these measures. So in order to show that there is a place for gamification in our lives, I wanted to point out some of the specific examples in both education and business where there are problems that need to be solved.

Education: negative avoidance vs positive progression feedback

The current education system is a bit of a mess for a lot of reasons, ranging from under funded to over stressed, and a whole lot of in between which we won't get into now. But one of the biggest examples of how it has simply become ineffective has been accented in the past decade with the no child left behind type policies that have led to standardized test focus curriculum.

The archaic educational grading system, as it has always stood, is a system of point reduction avoidance. When you receive a test in class most people assume that they start off with 100 points. With every question you answer wrong, or fail to answer you lose points. Low scores bring down your average, and your average is always compared to the 4.0 or top marks which is hardly average at all. It is a system where you are trying to avoid a negative consequence; where you punish failures rather then award progress.

The problem with negative consequence 'punishment' incentives is that they are simply not very effective at creating a specific behavior. Being punished doesn't always teach a person a person to avoid the undesired behavior, sometimes it just reinforce the lesson in them not to get caught. As such, the purpose of your education is no longer reflected by your mastery of a subject but by your performance on specific exams; and any means by which you can perform better on those exams, to avoid getting your points reduced, is the end.

There is of course some overlap with having an understanding of a subject and being able to perform in it. But the current model is highly inefficient in how much knowledge you retain compared to how much effort you put in to preform. It encourages the type of behavior that leads to rote memorization or figuring out how to anticipate a teachers style of test; and this often times leads to flimsy understanding of topics even if you can regurgitate answers for the duration of the performance. With such a big focus on school funding being tied to these standardized test, schools and more blatantly focusing their curriculum on teaching the test rather then teaching the topics students are meant to learn.

The SAT is probably one of the prime examples of this as while it requires fundamental math and English skills, your success on the SAT's is often more dependent on your ability to study how to take the SAT test; dealing with the time limit, question format, and so on.

The current K-12 and even under graduate college degrees do not ever accurately portray the types of demands put on people in a professional life either. It is only at the grad level that you actually see a program directed toward what the field is actually like; focusing on the actual research and way things are done at the professional level and demand of our students the same degree of competence and responsibilities.

Overall the education system is in a dire need of reworking how we track and progress students through the system; and how efficiently we can get students to actually retain knowledge and gain mastery over the subjects they are suppose to be learning. We are still trying to solve new problems in the world with the way we used to in the past. These methods are simply no longer up to the task.

Business: Transition from a production to an innovation based work force

We could talk about the issues of using design techniques and incentives to manipulate customers... but that is just called marketing. There is a good deal of overlap in that respect, and indeed many fine examples of gamification in practice. Using sales and coupons (power ups), 1 in 4 contest (gamblers incentive), box top or credit card flyer points (accumulating progression), or even every 10th sub free (quest to eat nine subs) promote keeping people engaged with that brand. Even more lately, products have been trying to tie in their products to social media or their websites where they provide additional content that also happens to be displayed near advertisements and allow customers to build a profile or gain increasing status within a community (character progression and attachment)

But it is not just customers sales that benefit from gamification techniques. The productivity of the trenches can also benefit incredibly from such concepts as well. Keep in mind that there are practical differences between various jobs and industry. Some methods of business simply require people being available at certain times, and there is a large measure of difference between repetitive mechanical jobs and high level problem solving jobs in term of the psychological feed back and returns of motivation. There are even some corporations that have already adapted such techniques in how they run their business. Yet still, many are lagging behind from outdated and inefficient practices.

The current model of incentive for work is salary. People get paid a regular salary, every year they have an annual review, and then each year they get a raise for cost of inflation or a promotion for good behavior and time spent. As it turns out however, money really isn't the best motivator or measure of value. It has been shown in studies on the over justification effect that even if you love what you do for a living, depending on your job for a living turns the money into the primary reward rather then the intrinsic sense of self satisfaction. Yet we still have a system that insist on making the extrinsic rewards the primary focus, while discarding the intrinsic as superfluous.

Social collaboration and a sense of pride in what someone does turns out to be a much more effective motivator. Yet there are some businesses that take a cut throat competitive approach to their workers. Only the top workers receive any bonus or reward at all, where as low or even average workers are treated with scorn or threatened with negative action. Employes get treated as if they should feel lucky for even having a job in that industry in the first place, and are often left feeling undervalued or in a hostilely competitive situation that resist being socially collaborative or feeling a sense of belonging within a group.

Offices also constantly underestimate the power of allowing their employees some measure of self direction, or even the occasional chance to go off and work on their own products. This sort of creative rejuvenation allows employees to be much more productive the rest of the time, and those creative products can sometimes spawn some of the best ideas for new work or products within a company. Similarly it is taken for granted that simply throwing overtime hours at a job actually degrades the performance and output of the work over time.

Future Applications

There are plenty of specific cases of problems that have room for creative design and gamification solutions as well. We'll take a closer look at the gamification tool box and just what kind of solutions we have in the future; but for now I just wanted to point out that there are lots of problems in our current institutions that have room for improvement. These are issues that will take a lot more effort then throwing money at them, or slapping on some type of extrinsic point system and calling it motivation.

Gamification is about a lot more then that. It's about balancing both the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, the long and short term goals; and it is about taking advantage of the data and understanding we have gained of these design techniques and how they effect our psychology towards our task.

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