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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Tuition fees uphold socialist principles - the left should support them

The amount of disadvantaged students applying for university between 2005 and 2015 went up 72 per cent in England, which was bigger than all other countries within the UK, including Scotland.

Since their introduction under the Blair Government, tuition fees have been a contentious issue amongst the British left. Under the leadership of Ed Miliband, Labour adopted a compromise position of reducing tuition fees – a seemingly inoffensive concession from his original position supporting free education within higher education.

Whilst they may appearing to promote educational inequality, research has shown that tuition fees have actually had the opposite effect within education. Political Scientist Martin Robbins wrote in the Guardian that “in 2015, application rates of 18 year olds living in disadvantaged areas in all countries of the UK increased to the highest levels recorded”. Though it is unlikely that the increase of fees and their reinvestment within education would have had a large effect on that crop of students, it does demonstrate that tuition fees are not the educational barrier some present them to be.

In fact, the amount of disadvantaged students applying for university between 2005 and 2015 went up 72 per cent in England, which was bigger than all other countries within the UK, including Scotland.

The largest drop-off between the least and most deprived children within educational attainment is between the ages of three and fourteen. Despite this, the higher education budget is around double that of pre-school education, which is where the inequality of education begins to kick in. A more adept way of solving the inequality within education would be a tuition fees system where a set percentage of a student’s fee is retained by their university, and a set percentage put towards pre-school education, to set the taxation of education into a progressive context.

In the latest government White Paper on tuition fees, the Universities Minister Jo Johnson lays out the idea of a teaching excellence framework (TEF). In theory, this is not problematic. Rather than raise the chargeable rate of fees (as done in 2012) the TEF would allow universities to tax above the chargeable rate on account of good teaching. This would mean for the vast majority of university students, rates would be unchanged. However, as tuition fees are currently at the chargeable rate of £9,000, the policy within the current climate is too objectionable.

Jo Johnson’s TEF model is an example of a reasonable concept which would be ineffective in practice, due to the difficulty in ranking the quality of teaching at the point of use, rather than through the means of a policy such as a graduate tax, based off earnings. If the British left championed a version of the TEF with a lower base rate, or instead just a graduate tax, it would mean Labour would be able to once again control the narrative with a sensible but redistributive policy on education. This would not only regain Labour credibility amongst the electorate on financial matters, but could be used as a base to build on, as a positive case for wealth redistribution - whether it be to pre-school education, or through increasing grants for those at university, or via restoring EMA.

Taxation of further education is one of the few issues which can boast a large level of bipartisan support across the political spectrum, and is one of the few viable ways to ensure a fully-funded but regulated further education system, as tuition fees make up over half of many universities budgets. In fact, many political commentators have stated that tuition fees are the only example of taxation upon the middle class that Labour has got the Tories to agree on, albeit if it is a pre-emptive form of it.

Whilst tuition fees are not ideal, they ensure the safeguarding of much university funding, the freeing up of the educational budget to close educational inequality between younger students and to help move towards a meritocratic system of education - which is a thoroughly socialist principle.

Ben Gartside is the Under 19s Officer for North West Young Labour and founder and chair of the Young Greater Manchester Fabians.