Gamification: does it make business more fun, or is it just exploitationware?

Game elements could be a method of self-improvement, but may in fact be a tool for control.

Touted as a software update to fix a bug in human motivation, packaged into a salvo of talking points for the “insight industry”, gamification has been marketed as a miracle cure; a cheap and wholesome tonic to galvanise the listless and uninspired. But since then, it seems to have gone the same way as all hucksterism, and left us with a product whose only real fans are those making money from it.

It may be that marketing will be the only real sector to benefit from gamification, despite the initial excitement about how game mechanisms might help in the classroom or office. Both environments were thought of as ripe for adaptation: they already included features such as a roster of players (students or workers), a series of challenges (tests or work-assessments), and tiered reward systems (grades or salaries).

People like Seth Priebatsch (a founder of social gaming site SCVNGR, whose goal is to “build the game layer on top of the world”) argue that schools are already just poorly executed games, ones for which we must strengthen the “rules” in order to properly motivate the players.

But studies have shown that the type of prizes that games award – mainly externalised prizes like trophies and XP – can actually be harmful to individuals’ intrinsic motivation (the pleasure we feel when doing something is its own reward). External rewards signal to individuals that the task is undesirable in and of itself. Otherwise, why offer a prize at all?

These are not new observations, and they don’t only apply in the classroom. The work of psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan (as popularised in Dan Pink’s book Drive) has shown that it is not rewards that are the most powerful motivation for employees, but feelings of “autonomy, mastery and purpose”. A 2011 paper by Krystle Jiang titled “The Dangers of Gamification” (pdf) makes similar points, also noting that in the workplace “extrinsic motivators” are found to decrease the capacity for innovation and creativity. Google’s famous “20 per cent time” is a great example of how to fight this. The company allows employees to spend one day a week focusing on their pet-projects, with the results including some of Google’s most successful ventures like Gmail and AdSense.

These examples show that gamification’s attempts to revivify the classroom or workplace are really just working from – or more often ignoring - established observations of behavioural psychology. The newcomer has simply got the marketing makeovers necessary to be sold as an innovation. As Danah Boyd, a senior Microsoft researcher, has said:

[Gamification is] a modern-day form of manipulation. And like all cognitive manipulation, it can help people and it can hurt people. And we will see both.

But while gamification is of little use in the workplace or classroom, the “modern-day manipulation” has been put to far greater effect by advertisers. P.J. Rey, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, has positioned gamification as a technique of capitalism which “expands capitalist production into new contexts”. Rey suggests that gamification allows capitalism to appropriate our time for leisure and play as a new arena from which to extract value.

On the whole it seems that as consumers, we’re too canny for this – we soon learn to ignore new styles of advertising after their novelty has worn off. Who now even registers the appearance pop-up adverts on the internet? Most of us swat them away like flies.

Although gamification promises to deal with this problem by actively engaging the consumer, the profits of companies that have relied on it to sell their product seem unsustainable. Stock in games company Zynga (the creator of mouse-clicker FarmVille) has fallen 75 per cent since its December IPO (£) whilst GroupOn (a company that used game-mechanisms such as countdown timers and bonuses for inviting friends to encourage sales), has had comparable losses despite recent investment.

The problem with gamification seems to be one of hype. The games-designer and critic Ian Bogost has attacked the concept on similar lines, arguing that it is the rhetoric and marketing of gamification that has given it power.

Bogost observes that when we use the language of “ify-ing” something we are indicating that we will put that thing it in a particular state (eg, to beautify or humidify something). The term “gamification” thus promises a transformative process that has measureable and predictable results, whereas the reality is very different: the mechanisms that make games engaging and enjoyable cannot be transferred to just any situation.

So what’s left? Well, actually, quite a lot.

Although gamification may be unusable in some scenarios and just plain annoying in others, there are still times where it can make a difference. The site FoldIt is one example. Users participate in biochemical research by folding proteins, a process that helps us to understand their structures better. FoldIt works because it already involved game-like elements (the puzzle solving of folding proteins) as well as intrinsic rewards (the feeling you’ve helped improve medicine). It was a big success, with the sites users solving in 10 days a problem that had stumped scientists for 15 years. The gamification simply put those challenges and rewards in a more approachable context.

Elsewhere, the frameworks behind gamification have been more helpful. Zynga honed its addictive products through repetitive A/B testing: changing a single element in infrastructure for one group of users with another group as a control, and then seeing which version is more attractive. Memrise, an online education tool based around flashcards, does exactly the same. Using its records of when users stop visiting the site, Memrise tweaks its layout and system of reminders to encourage long-term engagement, ideally helping individuals around the world to learn better.

Gamification may prove to be nothing more than some advertising consultant’s meal-ticket, but this doesn’t mean that the systems that have made it possible are without their uses. It’s right to be sceptical about any fad that promises to “fix” a problem as massive or complex as motivating people, but gamification doesn’t have to be the whole solution – it can just be part of a process instead.

Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker, a Facebook satire on gamification. Photograph: bogost.com

James Vincent is a journalist and writer. He is interested in technology's impact on society.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”