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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Aid in whose interest?

The government appears to be raiding the aid budget to subsidise big business and the security state.

In March 1988, Scottish aristocrat and Defence Minister to Margaret Thatcher, George Younger visited was part of a controversial offer of £200m of the UK aid budget in exchange for Malaysia signing a £1bn arms deal.

The government promised public money to subsidise UK construction giant Balfour Beatty to build a hydroelectric dam named Pergau in Malaysia’s mountainous north east.

Malaysia’s national utility, the World Bank and auditors at the Overseas Development Administration, the UK aid ministry, questioned the human development value of the project for the middle-income country, finding its costs to be “markedly uneconomic" compared to other options then available.

But these warnings were summarily dismissed.

Thatcher, who I believe saw aid not as a vehicle for eradicating poverty but as a means to advance Britain's commercial and geostrategic interests, wanted the arms deal.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wanted an infrastructure project in Kelantan state, which was held by a rival party, which he wanted to wrest votes from.

But the National Audit Office soon got wind of the deal and parliamentary committees started to ask awkward questions of those involved.

The press published dozens of articles and the Pergau scandal was born.

Newspapers soon unearthed other white elephant development  projects resulting from the tying of aid to private British interests that did little for reducing poverty but were a boon for the contractors involved.

The Permanent Secretary to the ODA (Overseas Development Administration, now Dfid – the Department for International Development), Tim Lankester, said that Pergau was “unequivocally a bad buy”, “an abuse of the aid system” and “not a sound development project”.

The World Development Movement (renamed Global Justice Now) won a judicial review in 1994 against the government in the High Court which ruled the payment of aid “for unsound development purposes” illegal.

The Tories reacted, not by untying aid from UK vested interests, but by slashing the aid budget as punishment for the bad press – it seems that Thatcher saw little use for aid that could not be used to subsidise private interests.

Labour came to power in 1997 with an agenda to reform how Britain did development. It established a better-funded and politically-stronger aid department, the Department for International Development (DFID), with a seat in cabinet.

It scrapped the Aid and Trade Provision, the official mechanism by which aid was used to subsidise British company contracts, and in 2001 untied aid from UK commercial interests. The International Development Act of 2002 for the first time legally committed the UK to spending aid only on poverty reduction.

But since the Conservatives won a clear majority in last year’s general election, the government has been wilfully unlearning the lessons of Pergau.

Out of the hobbling coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have unpicked Labour’s reforms by effectively retying aid to the interests of the private sector and its perceived security interests.

They appear to have deprioritised poverty reduction as the principal purpose of the aid budget. “There is a real risk of the budget being recaptured by commercial interests as it was in the 1980s,” Sir Tim Lankester told me recently. “[International Development Secretary] Justine Greening has been making sure British commercial interests get more and more of the cake.

“What’s remarkable these days is the huge contracts going to the big consultancies to advise government and manage projects – The Adam Smith Internationals. The Crown Agents and others.”

November’s aid strategy “tackling global challenges in the national interest”, written largely by the Treasury rather than by Dfid, announced that aid would be a tool to “strengthen UK trade and investment opportunities around the world”.

The retying of aid spend is sold in the strategy in the same way the Conservatives sell austerity and privatisation at home.

Using the language of “prosperity” and “economic opportunity” (“inequality” was not mentioned once in the 22-page document), the government spins the dubious argument that communities in the world’s poorest nations share the interests of both UK business and the UK security state.

This “what’s good for us is good for you” aid strategy’s promotion of the UK interest over those of the poor grossly undermines the government’s legal duty under the International Development Act.

The aid strategy leaves it to the concurrently published National Security Strategy to enumerate what these imaginative interests are: to “protect our people”, to “project our global influence” and to “promote our prosperity”.

To achieve these ends, the government has allotted half of the aid budget to conflict-hit states, which are expected to be the states Britain has helped destabilise in recent years: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya Syria and Yemen.

The government also successfully lobbied the OECD to widen the official definition of “Official Development Assistance” (aid) to include military spend on counter-terrorism and expand the use of aid subsidies for private – and inevitably British – projects in the developing world.

Over the course of this Parliament, the Tories will triple to around £5bn the amount of aid to be spent outside of Dfid. The main beneficiaries of this diversion of aid are the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the foreign office (FCO) and the business department (BIS). These departments are considerably less transparent than Dfid and, according to the National Audit office, spend most of their aid on middle income countries, rather than low-income countries.

This slide towards using aid to subsidise British business and as a slush fund top up its military and security budgets means that development projects devoted to public health, education and countering the agricultural and ecological destruction wrought by climate change, will suffer.

***

Take the growing spend by Dfid on private consultants and accountancy firms.

Under the Tory austerity programme Dfid’s staff has been slashed, which means there is less public capacity to allocate, monitor aid projects.

To compensate for this under capacity the government has farmed out the aid budget in bigger and bigger parcels to private contractors and accountancy firms to do the work for a profit.

Dfid spends some £1.4bn directly through private contractors and several times more than that through its payments to multilateral development banks that recycle British aid back through the private sector.

In 2014, Dfid said 90 per cent of its contracts are awarded to British companies, strange for a department that claims to have untied aid. Almost no contracts are signed directly with NGOs or contractors in the Global South.

In 2014 alone, it spent £90m through a single private consultancy, Adam Smith International (ASI), which that year declared £14m in profits, a profit that doubled in two years on the back of Dfid and British taxpayers.

ASI, which was spun off from the neoliberal think tank Adam Smith Institute, is in the business of privatising public works in the Global South from Nigeria to Afghanistan and deregulating the Nigerian economy under its “Business Environment” stream of Dfid’s £180m Growth and Empowerment in States scheme.

In 2014, Dfid spent £42.9m on the services of one accountancy firm alone (PwC), in spite of its part in the LuxLeaks tax avoidance scandal. It is this tacitly sanctioned flight of wealth that costs poor nations (non-OECD) three times more each year in tax avoidance to tax havens than they receive in aid from rich nations (OECD) according to the OECD itself.

Contrary to the public perception, aid is for the most part not “given” to poor countries. At present, only 0.2 per cent of the world’s humanitarian aid goes directly to local and national non-government agencies and civil society organisations. This is despite a consensus that these groups are the most effective engines for development.

The increasing use of private contractors and large bilateral financial institutions to get aid out of the door constitutes nothing less than a capture of the aid budget by corporate interests, which also advise the government on where to direct future aid flows.

Under this government, aid has become less a tool for development but a rent for a veritable industry that concentrates the knowledge, skills and finance in the companies and institutions of rich nations.

***

Take the amount of British aid that subsidises the fossil fuel industry and therefore promotes global warming, which affects the poor considerably more than the rich because they lack the resources to adapt.

The effects of climate change are already biting. The rising frequency of drought on the world’s semi-arid regions of the world, including the Middle East constitutes, to borrow a term from Professor Rob Nixon, a “slow violence” enacted by industrialised nations on the poor.

Our refusal to take commensurate action on climate change means that water stress is rising across the world, which impairs development and has even been linked to conflict in Nigeria and Syria.

In April, I visited Somaliland, which is experiencing the worst drought in living memory along with the rest of east and southern Africa. Agriculture has collapsed, the animals are dying and migration is rising fast.

Many of these climate refugees are washing up on the shores of Italy and Greece. Survivors in are being sent back to Turkey because there is no international protection available to a subsistence farmer without water or a parent who cannot afford to feed their children.

In 2009, the UK pledged at the G20 to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies but instead it has been using public funds to increase them, according to the Overseas Development Institute.

Using aid money to give the fossil fuel industry a leg up and imperil us all to the onslaught of global warming entrenches inequality and hampers sustainable development.

***

Last year the EU signed a €1.8bn aid package with the governments of 20 African nations, including Eritrea, a totalitarian state financed by slave labour, to keep Eritreans in their country and to accept planes filled with their citizens who are denied asylum in Europe.

Clearly, this aid money is being spent principally the interests of the donors and not the world’s poor.

But aside from using aid to forcibly return people at risk of human rights abuses, this aid holds development back in other ways. Migration is the biggest driver of development because economic migrants from poor countries who work in rich countries back remittances that amount to three times the international aid spend.

“Migrants are the original agents of development,” William Lacy Swing, director of the International Organization for Migration, told the World Humanitarian Summit in May.

In effect we are spending public money legally allocated for reducing poverty on keeping the world’s poor mired in it.

***

Take the UK’s “preventing violent extremism” agenda – borrowed, of course, from the Americans – under whose banner projects can be now funded with UK aid.

Britain’s successful lobbying of the OECD – in opposition to other large donor states, including Sweden – to include some counter-terrorism military spend in the definition of aid is of deep concern.

The OECD already allowed for the provision of aid to prevent conflict and promote peace but this new extremist lens, as opposed to the purely conflict lens, allows the aid spend to become politicised.

After all, governments across the world call their political enemies “extremists” or “terrorists”, but the term is rarely ascribed to governments themselves, even when they brutalise their populations.

The government seems ready to exploit to this change, having set up its new £1bn aid-funded Conflict Stability and Security Fund (rising to £1.3bn in 2020), of which 90p of every pound is spent by the FCO and the MoD.

The stage has been set for Britain’s security state to raid the aid budget to pursue the ill-conceived and expensive military strategy du jour.

The government’s agenda to spend aid in conflict-hit and fragile states on counter-terrorism projects has a bad precedent. The US development agency USAID spent billions in post-2001 Afghanistan, which was embezzled or spirited out of the country.

Even worse, the aid was destabilising. “Instead of rescuing the [political] transition process, aid contributed to its failings,” said the NGO Saferworld in a report this year on the lessons learned from the American state-building strategy in Afghanistan. “Large aid volumes overwhelmed local absorptive capacity and sustained a rentier state . . . The influx of aid funds and the competition over the illegal economy strengthened predatory and opportunistic elites that the US and its allies tried to reform.”

The British government risks falling into the American trap of using counter-terrorism aid to remake conflict-hit fragile states into democracies.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), the government’s own aid watchdog, has criticized the government’s failure to learn lessons from the past, adding that its security initiatives are “naïve” and perform “poorly” in terms of both effectiveness and value for money.

***

In another dangerous case of aid not being used in the interests of development, the Tories are using it to establish private healthcare and education across the Global South.

Publically provided, free and universal health and education of the type we enjoy in Britain should be pursued across the Global South because it reduces inequality and strengthens democratic accountability.

Private provision of these services in the words of turns these basic needs into commodities whose price variable and unaffordable to poor and marginalised sections of society.

In Britain we should be internationalising the principle of free-at-the-point-of-use health and education, a privilege hard fought for by a generation of Labour politicians interested in social justice and the condition of the poor.

Instead, Dfid’s Education Position Paper calls for “developing new partnerships across the public-private spectrum” and commits Dfid to promoting low-cost private schools “in at least four countries”.

Its flagship education programme of the Department of International Development, in partnership with Coca Cola and PwC, is the £355m Girl’s Education Challenge, which rolls out private education across 18 countries, including 15 African nations.

In signing up to last year’s Sustainable Development Goals last year, Britain committed to “achieve universal health coverage”, which is directly undermined by a development agenda which favours fees.

***

The privatisation of our aid budget alongside its entrapment by enormous multilateral financial institutions is symptomatic of the wider erosion neoliberalism is enacting on the British – and global – economy.

In 2016, aid should be about empowering the losers of neoliberalism across the Global South to cut poverty and reduce inequality. This means placing more emphasis on working directly with the poor, colonised and, more-often, the women of the Global South.

Aid should not be spent on the five and often six figure salaries of the global financial elite, nor should it be tied to Britain’s commercial interests to provide public subsidy for private interests. If we wish to subsidise our private sector, that’s fine, but should do it using export credit and not disguise it as aid.

I can already hear the outcry from development experts that spending money at the grassroots is harder to track and the shrill headlines that taxpayers’ money is being wasted on bee-keepers in Kyrgyzstan or on a Somali radio drama that gave tips to illegal immigrants (all real headlines from the Murdoch press).

But I would accept more “waste” by employing more Dfid civil servants to monitor a greater number of smaller grassroots aid projects on a trial-and-error basis than I would accept the other now ubiquitous form of waste that we do not call waste: the subsidising poverty barons, who enrich themselves off the aid ‘industry’.

This is not a particularly radical agenda. Aid under Labour’s Clare Short, Dfid’s first head, targeted the grassroots and there is a growing consensus among the establishment that we must return to this model to make development more effective and give poor people ownership over projects rather than imposing them from above.

More power and capital needs to go into the hands of grassroots groups.

We must recall the lessons of Pergau and redesign our aid system so that it is not captured by industry or distant elites for their own profitability but a means by which the poor can bring about transformative social change for themselves. 

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow secretary of state for international development.