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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To preserve the environment we hold in common, everyone has to play their part

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits.

The environmental challenge facing our capital city can seem overwhelming. Our air is poisonous. Our infrastructure built for the fossil fuel era. The need to build a clean, low carbon future can seem incompatible with competing challenges such as protecting energy security, housing and jobs.

The way we tackle this challenge will say a lot about the type of city we are. We inherit the world we live in from the generations that went before us, and only hold it until it is time to hand it over to future generations. The type of environment we leave behind for our children and grandchildren will be affected by the decisions we need to take in the short term. Our shared inheritance must be shaped by all of us in London.

Londoners currently face some crucial decisions about the way we power our city. The majority of us don't want London to be run on dirty fuel, and instead hope to see a transition to a clean energy supply. Many want to see that clean energy sourced from within London itself. This is an appealing vision: there are upsides in terms of costs, security and, crucially, the environment.

Yet the debate about how London could achieve such a future has remained limited in its scope. Air pollution has rightly dominated the environmental debate in this year’s mayoral election, but there is a small and growing call for more renewable deployment in the city.

When it comes to cities, by far the most accessible, useable renewable energy is solar, given you can install it on some part of almost every roof. Rooftop solar gives power to the householder, the business user, the public servant - anyone with a roof over their head.  And London has upwards of one million roofs. Yet it also has the lowest deployment of solar of any UK city. London can do better. 

The new mayor should take this seriously. Their leadership will be vital to achieving the transition to clean energy. The commitments of the mayoral frontrunners should spur other parts of society to act too. Zac Goldsmith has committed to a tenfold increase in the use of solar by 2025, and Sadiq Khan has pledged to implement a solar strategy that will make the most of the city’s roofs, public buildings and land owned by Transport for London.

While the next mayor will already have access to some of the tools necessary to enact these pledges (such as the London Plan, the Greater London Assembly and TfL), Londoner’s must also play their part. We must realise that to tackle this issue at the scale and speed required the only way forward is an approach where everyone is contributing.

A transition to solar energy is in the best interests of citizens, householders, businesses and employees, who can begin to take greater control of their energy.  By working together, Londoners could follow the example of Zurich, and commit to be a 2,000 watt society by 2050. This commitment both maximizes the potential of solar and manages introduces schemes to effectively manage energy demand, ensuring the city can collectively face an uncertain future with confidence.

Unfortunately, national policy is no longer sufficient to incentivise solar deployment at the scale that London requires. There is therefore an important role for the incoming Mayor in facilitating and coordinating activity. Whether it is through TfL, existing community energy schemes, or through individuals, there is much the mayor can do to drive solar which will benefit every other city-dweller and make London a cleaner and healthier place to live.

For example the new mayor should work with residents and landlords of private and social housing to encourage the deployment of solar for those who don’t own their property. He should fill the gap left by national building standards by ensuring that solar deployment is maximized on new build housing and commercial space. He can work with the operator of the electricity grid in the capital to maximize the potential of solar and find innovative ways of integrating it into the city’s power demand.

To bring this all together London should follow the example set by Nottingham and Bristol and create it’s own energy company. As a non-profit company this could supply gas and electricity to Londoners at competitive prices but also start to drive the deployment of clean energy by providing an attractive market for the power that is generated in the city. Community schemes, businesses and householders would be able to sell their power at a price that really stacks up and Londoners would receive clean energy at competitive prices.

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits. Lets hope the incoming Mayor sees it as their role to convene citizens around this aim, and create incentives to virtue that encourage the take up and deployment of solar, so that we have a healthy, clean and secure city to pass on to the next generation.