I am an epicurean. Or at least that is how I think of myself, based on a quick perusal of the Wikipedia page that deals with epicureanism (not the Freedictionary definition). (It’s a topic I would be happy to pursue if anybody is interested. But that is not what I want to write about just now.) My lifestyle affords me the freedom to visit bookshops and browse a range of publications covering a variety of topics. One such book that I came across today and subsequently purchased, is titled, somewhat confusingly, ’50 Ideas you really need to know the future’.
One of the ideas discussed is that of ‘Gamification’. I confess that when I saw the title I envisaged a discussion on the merits of the hanging of pheasants: 1 day or 7. Of course it was nothing of the sort.
Here is what the introduction says.
“Increasingly, organizations are turning to gamification: the application of online gaming techniques, such as gaining points or status, to engage the attention or alter the behaviour of individuals or communities. Wearable devices linked to game-like systems could, for instance induce overweight people to take more exercise or eat healthy foods.”
We all like games, well most of us do. We all strive, to greater or lesser degrees, to be better at certain things than our fellows. This site, with its 3 competitions, is a perfect example. Some members here are more enthusiastic than others, but that does not mean that the non-competitors do not have their own areas of interest. I have little interest in photography and not much more in poetry. I do think that I am a brilliant writer, but have realised that my skills are not recognised here and so I see little point in competing. (I jest.) I am, as it turns out quite good at quizzes and attend a weekly pub quiz which my team frequently wins.
Back to the book. This desire to compete, and the author cites several curious examples, such as the ‘most avid coffee drinker’ or the ‘best washer of clothes’, to the far more useful, ‘most prolific blood donor’, provides organisations with relatively cheap, or even intrinsically valueless incentives such as stars or points to offer people in exchange for their contributions. Governments can encourage people to stay healthy by monitoring (thus allowing them to compete) their food intakes or the amount of exercise they perform. Schools can encourage children to try harder by publicly awarding stars for good work. (Although an age old strategy, Social Networks make this much more effective than it has been the past.) Scientific or technical institutions can recognise the efforts of the biggest contributors to knowledge bases, such as Wikipedia, or SETI, both of which rely on the input of volunteers. Commercial organisations such as Ford and LG use a network called Yammer whereby good work and new ideas are recognised by public praise.
On one level, gamification is a smart tool to encourage people to do what is in their best interests. On the other hand there are more sinister purposes. It can be used, for example, to manipulate individuals to conform to a subjective set of goals, suit short term commercial interests or secretly to collect data. Conceivably, participation in certain ‘games’ could become mandatory. (I am not sure if educational and medical League Tables fall into this category, but I am certainly not convinced that they are a good thing.) I recall from my days working for an aggressive and highly successful software company, the relentless competition to achieve sales targets each week, month, quarter and year. It was extremely stressful and unpleasant, but at least one was paid well if one succeeded and fired if one failed.
It seems clear that gamification is being adopted at a wider and wider level and that investment in it is rising at a rapid rate. Deloitte has named it as one of its top four professional trends while M2, a research firm says that US companies will spend $2.8 billion on gamification by the year 2016.
One thing that is interesting, though, is the levels of success and failure that are achieved or perhaps I should say recognised. Those organisations seeking their own selfish (i.e. where no salary or commissions are paid) returns from running these games are unlikely to want to deter participants by publicising their failure. Thus 80%, say, will have positive outcomes with the remaining 20% being ‘near misses’. Failure in these cases is not an option. So, what happens to resilience? Will it be ok to be with the bulk of people? Most of us will be told that we have done well. Is that not good enough? And even if we are in the 20%, we have not exactly done badly. As far as the company is concerned, even the smallest contribution from the worst player is worth something and costs the company nothing.
Sports leagues have tables listing the best to the worst. Most sports themselves have a winner and one or more losers. I would argue that standards of sport improve with competition. If you do badly your star players will leave together with your supporters and you will lose out financially. If you come last you are relegated. In business you either win a contract or you do not. But the failure to win any business at all leads to bankruptcy. You can no longer compete or play the game. Winning, at least occasionally, is imperative. Not winning, will force you to try harder. Tonight, our quiz scores will be announced. My team may win, or we may come second, or third…. or last. The thrill of winning will keep us keen for next week and while the public humiliation of always coming last may deter us from playing, it may incentivise us to do better. It would be very different if only the winner was announced. Simply being one of the 9 other teams that did not win is neither here nor there. We would all want to know where we came, even if it was last.
I wonder how many people here have given thought to the fact that in our own friendly competitions here on the Chariot, there are only ever winners and non-winners. Nobody is a failure. Nobody writes the worst poem or story or takes the worst photograph. Our entries are either adjudged the best or they are not. We either win, or ‘we do-very-well-but-not-win’. What does this pacific approach to competition say about us as a community? Does not having losers benefit us? Does it help improve our collective skills? Does it make the community more competitive? Does any of it matter?
What do people think about gamification?