Gamification: What Happens If All Of The Artefacts Already Exist

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I was reading an article today in May/June’s “Information Age”, the magazine of the Australian Computer Society, entitled “Gamification Goes Mainstream”. The article identified the gaming mechanics that could be added to businesses to improve engagement and work quality/productivity by employees. These measures are:

  1. Points: Users get points for achievements and can spend the points on prizes.
  2. Levelling: Points get harder to get as the user masters the systems.
  3. Badges: Badges are awarded and become part of the user’s “trophy page”, accompanying any comments made by the user.
  4. Leader Boards: Users are ranked by points or achievement.
  5. Community: Collaborative tools, contests, sharing and forums.

Now, of course, there’s a reason that things exist like in games and that’s because most games are outside of the physical world and, in the absence of the natural laws that normally make things happen and ground us, we rely upon these mechanics to help us to assess our progress through the game and provide us with some reward for our efforts. Now, while I’m a great believer in using whatever is necessary to make work engaging and to make like more enjoyable, I do wonder about the risk of setting up parallel systems that get people to focus on things other than their actual work.

Yes, yes, we all know I have issues with extrinsic motivations but let’s look again at the list of measures above, which would normally be provided in a game to allow us to make sense of the artificial world in which we find ourselves, and think about how they apply already in a workplace.

  1. Points that can be used to purchase things: I think that we call this money. If I provide a points system for buying company things then I’ve created a second economy that is not actually money.
  2. Levelling: Oh, wait, now it’s hard to spend the special points that I’ve been given so I’ve not only created a second economy, I’ve started down the road towards hyperinflation by devaluing the currency. (Ok, so the promotional system works here in my industry like that – our ranks are our levels, which isn’t that uncommon.)
  3. Badges: Plaques for special achievement, awards, post-nominal letters, Fellowships – anything that goes on the business card is effectively a badge.
  4. Leader Boards: Ok, this is something that we don’t often see in the professional world but, let’s face it, if you’re not on top then you’re not the best. Is that actually motivational or soul-destroying? Of course, if we don’t have it yet, then you do have to wonder why, given every other management trend seems to get a workout occasionally. I should note that I have seen leader boards at my workplace which have been ‘anonymised’ but given that I can see myself I can see where I sit – now not only do I know if am not top, I don’t know who to ask about how to get better, which has been touted as one of the reasons to identify the stars in the first place.
  5.  Community: We do have collaborative tools but they are focussed on helping us achieve our jobs, not on achieving orthogonal goals associated with a gaming system. We also have comment forums, discussion mechanisms such as mailing lists and the like. Contests? No. We don’t have contests. Do we? Oh wait, national competitive grant schemes, local teaching schemes, competitive bidding for opportunities.

Now if people aren’t engaging with the tasks that are expected of them (let’s assume reasonably) then, yes, we should find ways to make things more interesting to encourage participation. However, talking about all of the game mechanics above, it’s obviously going to take more thought than just picking a list of things that we are already doing and providing an alternative system that somehow makes everything really interesting again.

I should note that the article does sound a cautionary tone, from one of the participants, who basically says that it’s too soon to see how effective these schemes are and, of course, Kohn is already waggling a finger at setting up a prize/compliance expectation. So perhaps the lesson here is “how can we take what we already have and work out how to make it more interesting” rather than taking the lessons in required constructions of phenomena from a completely artificial environment where we have to define gravity in order to make things fall. Gamification shows promise in certain direction, mainly because there’s a lot of fun implicit in the whole process, but the approaches need to be carefully designed to make sure that we don’t accidentally reinvent the same old wheel.



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