Thursday, July 21, 2011

More on Gamifying Society

I found an interesting commentary on the recent trend towards Gamifying society.  This trend, championed by Jane McGonigal, among others, is dedicated to adding elements of good gameplay to other parts of our lives.  I talked a little about McGonigal's book earlier; in particular how I think a lot of her ideas are neat to talk about but I am highly suspicious of the conclusions she draws.  This slideshow that I linked talks a lot more about that and goes into more depth than I did but I think brings up a lot of similar points.

A couple of the biggest stumbling blocks to achieving utopia through Gamifying our world are the facts that an awful lot of what we do is exceedingly difficult to Gamify properly and even when something is Gamified well it almost always ends up being just a 'get more points' system which just doesn't hold our interest in the long run.  Tobold made a good post about the latter point recently - he points out that eventually everybody gets bored with bigger numbers and moves on to other things.  Even getting to that point can be a huge struggle or impossible though, which is easily demonstrated by looking at commission structures in sales jobs.

Back when I was in sales I saw all kinds of ways to construct commission structures, all intending to direct the salespeople towards making the company more money and being only vaguely successful.  This is a great place to start because it is precisely what Gamifiers are hoping to do to everything; attach numbers, goals and rewards to good behaviour to motivate it.  Companies pay salespeople bonus money to sell particular products so those products get sold more but often they get sold at the expense of other products.  Companies pay specific bonuses to sell items for specific amounts and they end up losing sales or losing money because the salespeople stick precisely to those targetted amounts instead of negotiating freely.  Every time a new commission structure was introduced where I worked it came along with company assurances of better pay and massive upheaval and dissatisfaction on the part of the sales force.  I watched companies introduce new "big bonus for selling Wingnuts" changes and then reeling in abject horror as the sales force responded with "given that, we will never sell Bolts again".  These changes were introduced in an attempt to improve revenues by experts in the field with years of experience and yet their implementation was regularly disastrous.

Even when management didn't screw up the system there were still constant problems.  Salespeople were paid only by sales, not by satisfaction, so often the people making the biggest money and getting all the awards were those who had neverending streams of complaints and problems... because those didn't show up on their pay stub.  This also created all kinds of morale problems among those who actually did a good job and ended up dealing with all the crap created by those who were getting paid well.  Designing a system that actually rewards the full suite of skills and behaviour you want would be so unbelievably complex and time consuming that even if we could get really simple stuff like "You sold X, you get paid Y" down it would be daunting but we can't even do that first step right.

There are lots of things we can do to improve productivity and job satisfaction that are taken from understanding games and how people enjoy themselves but we should be realistic about how much real benefit can be garnered from putting a +1000 points! on somebody's screen while they are doing their job.


  1. I think that gamifying is probably the opposite of what we want to do. I turns out that humans are just more complicated than that. I'm sure you're well aware of the study with the daycare where they started charging people for being late picking up their kids and it resulted in more people being late because charging them took away their social motivation for being on time and they were willing to pay the cost. And, even more importantly, when they took the fee away again it meant *even more* people were late, because once they made it a matter of money they could never go back.

    People are most productive when they honestly: 1) like the organization they work for; and 2) think their work meaningfully contributes to the success of the organization. If you make it about money (or worse yet, points) then you will see short term gains if you pay enough money, short term losses if you don't - but you will have permanently lost a lot of honest motivation for people to do their best.

    Of course at most workplaces I know of there is little direct incentive (money, etc.) to do a good job *and* people generally think the organization is terribly run, their boss (or their boss's boss, or that person's boss) is a total idiot-jerk, and most of the time their own efforts will be irrelevant against a faceless bureaucracy that makes terrible decisions.

    This is why paying for performance is so tempting: because people hating their boss and hating their job seems so impossible to overcome.

  2. The daycare I use actually has a pretty powerful late policy that seems to work and it revolves entirely around money. For each minute that you are late you pay 1 dollar to the person who is taking care of your child in cash. After 1 hour the child goes to Children's Services. Fines may not work if they are small but nobody wants to be paying $25 a day just to be 25 minutes late! The other penalty of course is after a few late days they just kick you out of the program entirely - and they don't have problems with late people with these policies. Apparently being punitive enough works in this case.