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Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

First reflections on a brown bag lunch about “gamification” with Gabe Zichermann

The Knowledge and Learning Council (KLC) here at the Bank hosted a very interesting discussion on gamification with Gabe Zichermann, author of  Game-Based Marketing  and Gamification by Design – you can see his blog here.   Gabe’s presentation was really well done and very well received.  It was mostly a Bank audience (about 60 folks), though there is clearly some selection bias in who attended (people interested in games).  Gabe is a really engaging speaker and, despite his digs on economists, I was happy to act as a discussant for the presentation.

Gabe described the concept of gamification (the use of game design techniques and mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences – see the gamification wiki here).  He explained why this is effective, concentrating on the feedback loop from challenge to achievement.  He focused a lot on incentives, status, access, power and “stuff” – which resonated a lot with the Bank audience.  He then proceeded to provide some really good examples of where incentive structures have been adapted – including lotteries tied to speed cameras to incentivize obeying the law in Sweden and virtual pets built into driver interfaces in hybrid cars.  I’ll link to his actual presentation once the KLC has it up, but a similar presentation is found here.

The "Singification" of work in the 1800s...

All that being said, I still find myself lost in vagaries in the ongoing discussions of gamification.  For all of my love of games, I wondered, during my role as a discussant, whether we aren’t just calling anything that makes work more engaging or in which incentives and feedback are better designed “gamification”.  This is not a new critique, I had the same concern after finishing McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken (Yes, I did finally finish).  This is exacerbated by the fuzziness around the definition of game and gamification which included even facebook in the discussion today.  The gamification concept reminds me of the “singification” that labor underwent in the 1800s, when we were working on the railroad… all the live long day.  What is different about gamification that isn’t just us making work more bearable?

On the flip side, maybe I am just too critical and this is just semantic.  It seems to me that the principles of gamification are right on – we should be looking at systems, teaching and processes and considering where our incentives, feedback and engagement can be improved to provide additional impact and effectiveness.

Another question that concerns me when thinking about gamification is the cultural bias we have/enjoy about games – especially at the Bank.  Gabe is Canadian (and Rex!), I am American – but I am conscious of the different perspectives other cultures have about games – ranging on the spectrum from foolish childsplay to evil gambling.  While we might agree with the principles of gamification, the concept or the language might need to be adapted to context if we want to be effective in different cultures.

Lastly, I still find myself brought back to Gladwell’s three qualities of rewarding work: autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward.  I wonder how many people play games or browse blogs or update facebook at work because they simply are bored or aren’t challenged by their work.  Gabe was brutally honest about how boring and banal many jobs are today (and I thought economics was the dismal science!).  It raised the question, though, about competition for our engagement.  Are the benefits we get from increased engagement due to gamification only because of competition for our limited attention?  If this is the case, then we can expect diminishing returns from gamification as it we would expect to see a ratcheting up of competition for our attention from other sources.  Are there limits to how much engagement we can give?

One response to “First reflections on a brown bag lunch about “gamification” with Gabe Zichermann

  1. Skip Cole 06/01/2012 at 12:01 am

    Very interesting post Gary. Very insightful to consider singification and gamification together. I had not thought of that.

    Singing makes hard work bearable. To a certain extent, it seems to put one in a meditative state, and lets the body go on auto-pilot. Part of the mind – at least the part of the mind previously engaged in feeling discomfort – seems freed up.
    Gamification seems a lot more insidious than that. The mind itself is engaged in performing the next trivial step to get the next addictive jolt of pleasure. (In hindsight, since we have gone from people who do physical work to being knowledge workers, the move from singification to gamification seems kind of natural.)

    As the realms of neuroscience and marketing connect, I think we all have a lot to be concerned about. Will most future humans be reduced to nothing more than happy little rodents hitting little bars to get to the next level? I guess some would say we are that many of us are that now.
    And if the happy little rodents are happy (brave-new-world-style happy), who is to say they are wrong? Lots of cool moral issues here. But I have to get back to playing Angry Birds …

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