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.

Photo: Getty
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Brexit could destroy our NHS – and it would be the government's own fault

Without EU citizens, the health service will be short of 20,000 nurses in a decade.

Aneurin Bevan once said: "Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community."

And so, in 1948, the National Health Service was established. But today, the service itself seems to be on life support and stumbling towards a final and fatal collapse.

It is no secret that for years the NHS has been neglected and underfunded by the government. But Brexit is doing the NHS no favours either.

In addition to the promise of £350m to our NHS every week, Brexit campaigners shamefully portrayed immigrants, in many ways, as as a burden. This is quite simply not the case, as statistics have shown how Britain has benefited quite significantly from mass EU migration. The NHS, again, profited from large swathes of European recruitment.

We are already suffering an overwhelming downturn in staffing applications from EU/EAA countries due to the uncertainty that Brexit is already causing. If the migration of nurses from EEA countries stopped completely, the Department of Health predicts the UK would have a shortage of 20,000 nurses by 2025/26. Some hospitals have significantly larger numbers of EU workers than others, such as Royal Brompton in London, where one in five workers is from the EU/EAA. How will this be accounted for? 

Britain’s solid pharmaceutical industry – which plays an integral part in the NHS and our everyday lives – is also at risk from Brexit.

London is the current home of the highly prized EU regulatory body, the European Medicine Agency, which was won by John Major in 1994 after the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.

The EMA is tasked with ensuring that all medicines available on the EU market are safe, effective and of high quality. The UK’s relationship with the EMA is unquestionably vital to the functioning of the NHS.

As well as delivering 900 highly skilled jobs of its own, the EMA is associated with 1,299 QPPV’s (qualified person for pharmacovigilance). Various subcontractors, research organisations and drug companies have settled in London to be close to the regulatory process.

The government may not be able to prevent the removal of the EMA, but it is entirely in its power to retain EU medical staff. 

Yet Theresa May has failed to reassure EU citizens, with her offer to them falling short of continuation of rights. Is it any wonder that 47 per cent of highly skilled workers from the EU are considering leaving the UK in the next five years?

During the election, May failed to declare how she plans to increase the number of future homegrown nurses or how she will protect our current brilliant crop of European nurses – amounting to around 30,000 roles.

A compromise in the form of an EFTA arrangement would lessen the damage Brexit is going to cause to every single facet of our NHS. Yet the government's rhetoric going into the election was "no deal is better than a bad deal". 

Whatever is negotiated with the EU over the coming years, the NHS faces an uncertain and perilous future. The government needs to act now, before the larger inevitable disruptions of Brexit kick in, if it is to restore stability and efficiency to the health service.

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