4 June 2014

Exploring Gamification at the Gurteen Knowledge Cafe

The word "gamification" has got a lot of use in recent years as a term to describe a set of tools that encourage different behaviours. It is much like "nudge" in the respect. But despite this heavy use it was still very much a mystery to me so I jumped at the chance to attend a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe on the subject.

This was held at the Westminster Business School which was both very convenient for me, it is just by Baker Street station, and a very hood place for the session thanks to the large square room that we were in.

There were, as usual, many new faces there among the many regulars and it was good to have the initial speed-networking session to talk to some of them.

Our guide for the evening was Andrzej Marczewski. His day-job was Internal Web Manager for Capgemini UK and gamification was a passion that he was developing both inside and outside of that role.

Andrzej kicked-off the discussions which we then continued in small groups at our tables, where we moved around a couple of times to cross-fertilise our ideas, and then as a group when we came back together in a circle. What follows is me trying to make sense of the sessions rather than a report of what happened. There is no chronology and no attribution.

The main strand of gamification is to bring elements from games in to the real-world to encourage specific behaviours. It is about making work slightly less horrible.

A simple example of this is a app like FourSquare which uses a league table, badges and mayorships to encourage people to use it to check-in to places using the app.

This gave me an immediate problem as I am a fairly heavy FourSquare user but I am not interested in any of those gaming elements. I use it to tell me when I was last at a venue and how many times I have been there.

Other popular websites/apps that use simple game elements include Klout (ranking), TripAdvisor (contributor level), Twitter (number of followers) and Google (web stats).

Another game element that we discussed was instant feedback and I had a problem with this too. This, and other elements, were not limited to games. For example, an airplane's cockpit is full of devices that give instant feedback. So to claim this as gamification seemed to be stretching the definition.

Similarly missions are a game feature but they also exist in real-life as tasks and projects. The same is true of progress bars.

A slightly less well-defined element of gaming is its informality where it is possible to learn the game by trying things out, often without any instructions, and with no serious consequences from losing. In contrast, business procedures tend to be well documented and the outcome is expected to be right first time. Perhaps it is work if I tell you to do it but a game if you decide to do it yourself.

The flip-side of gamification is gaming where people exploit weaknesses in the new rules. An example of this could be to post lots of trivial entries to a knowledge store when people are rewarded for the number of entries posted. Incentives distort behaviour, and this is a problem.

A contextual measure, e.g. peer feedback on the articles, would be harder to game but would also be much harder to collect fairly and the cost of doing this could be more than any benefits achieved by adding gamification in the first place.

If a game has a winner then it has many more losers. People could be put off playing the game if, for example, it was obvious that they were never going to get anywhere near the top of the leaderboard.

It is easy to find success stories for gamification, publications like HBR survive on their success stories, but the failures are out there too. It is just that nobody is shouting out about them too much. One that was mentioned was the endorsement system introduced by LinkedIn which nobody had a good word for.

Exhibitions often have games for children, to keep them occupied while their parents do the serious work of viewing the exhibition, but why not make this a game for adults too?

What was missing for me from the discussion was any remotely firm definition of what a game is or what the elements of a game are that can be used in gamification. It seemed to me that gamification thrived on this ambiguity by being able to find something game-like in any success story. That may be good for the people in Team Gamification but of little use to the rest of us trying to learn from the example.

The wider field of design, as discussed at the BCS recently, seemed to cover all of gamificaction and more. Design uses a whole series of tools and techniques to try and modify behaviour and does not care whether any of these originated in, or are also used in, games.

I left the discussion probably more cynical about gamification than when I started and that was because it was a good discussion that had allowed me to explore, test and define my scepticism.

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