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The gamification is on

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Gamification has broken through to mainstream coverage and threatens future ubiquity.

This week saw a slew of stories on the trend. An ABC News roundup covered applications ranging from health to finance and dating. Of course it’s not just consumers who are targeted with the technology, as employees are coaxed to better performance through an increasing number of applications as well.

The Guardian offered a sampling of gamification apps used by charities, including games designed to create empathy and increase awareness for the plight of youth the streets or in developing countries, reward abstinence in recovering alcoholics or pitch in with crowdsourcing on cancer research.

The principles have long been understood

The principles of gamification have been applied for millennia in education, where simple rewards, peer recognition, and ladders of achievement have long held sway. Recognition has motored groups from Weight Watchers to Alcoholics Anonymous and the Shriners. Top sales people have likewise been rewarded by more than straight cash commissions. And marketers have similarly used gamification incentives, such as to sell candy bars and get Violet Beauregarde and Augustus Gloop into the Chocolate Factory.

Gamification at work

Sales, marketing and customer support might be the most obvious applications for the automation of gamification, as the consumerization of the workforce continues to gain ground. But employees are prime candidates for behavior modification in a host of areas.  WestJet was recently profiled for its impending application of gamification to ERP in four areas of expense reporting:

  • timely submission of expense reports,
  • timely approval or rejection of reports,
  • the attachment of receipts to expense reports, and
  • the use of corporate, rather than personal, credit cards.

Further ERP applications, from the supply chain to the factory floor are inevitable. The gamification of hiring is likely to gain pace as well. While this may be good news for job candidates who’d like to punch through the limits of their traditional resume, it could also be seen as a growing burden for those asked to do more for consideration in a competitive hiring market.

Social media

Social media applications for customer support and online forums are among the earliest widespread uses for gamification. Rewards including badges, trusted reviewer, and moderator status have been thoroughly tested, and both virtual and real prizes clearly drive participant behavior in guidable directions. Providers like Gigya and Badgeville continue to find ways to steer users to crank out reviews, post more comments, join more live events, and the like.

More experimentation

More refinement of gamification techniques is inevitable in the workplace, too, as the technology is more widely applied. Already, it is clear that various personality types respond differently to the recognition of status and to various rewards. Great engineers, sales people and customer service reps all tend to have different motivations. For example, as we have seen with consumers, some people volunteer for punishments. (E.g., Pact users have cash on the line if they falter in their diet or exercise regimens.) But in the workplace, will such discipline and punishment always be voluntary?

The backlash begins?

Backlash against this incipient ubiquity is inevitable, and in a small way may have already begun. 2048 is a math game recently launched by a teenage developer. Apparently it was something of a phenomenon when in its simplicity it lacked ease of use, sophisticated graphics, and a leaderboard. Once those elements were added, making it adhere more closely to the recognized principles of gamification, interest waned.

The sinister underbelly

Some technologists are already dismayed that the Internet has become a modern version of Bentham’s Panopticon, as foretold and warned against in Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”, providing surveillance at a level seldom imagined. Now gamification threatens to make the use of technology, especially at work, a modern version of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning chamber. Although gamification promises more carrot than stick, we can all expect more mazes, intentionally moved cheese, and the occasional, mild shock.

Just as the cubicle became an icon of corporate conformity in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as an update to the Man in a Grey Flannel Suit, gamification may become a symbol of work in the Twenty-teens and beyond.

Implications for the enterprise

But we have shorter attention spans than previous generations, new entrants to the workforce were reared on computer games, and the science is finding more ways to make repetitive work fun. So enterprise managements and IT departments can look happily toward the positive gains that the technology promises.

A workforce that is satisfied and feels valued is always a competitive advantage, and businesses would do well with combining the broader experience of vendors and users in corporate environments with their own limited, gradual and carefully tested experiments. The close study of psychological literature in the field can help to align game rewards with the intrinsic, deeper satisfaction and purpose that various employees seek.

Still, less will likely prove to be more. Overkill is a real risk in this application, and a spirit of employee involvement in creating, testing, and sometimes ditching new uses is probably in order. For the near term at least, once the sense of playing a game is lost, so, likely, is lost the value of gamification.