Games Companies Play
November 15, 2015 § Leave a comment
I am an unabashed fan of gamification: surprising, because I am over 40 years old, and am not, nor have ever been, a gamer in the strict sense of the word. A joystick gives me no joy, and I flinch when I see some of the realistic and graphic violence perpetrated on screen in the guise of video games. Nevertheless, gamification itself has always fascinated me, perhaps right from the time my father used to talk of ‘incentives’ for me to do well in my school tests.
‘Gamification‘ is defined as the application of design concepts from games to drive user engagement and behavior in a corporate context. Desirable behavior is appreciated, undesirable behavior is penalized, and users can collaborate, compete, and in general, get all abuzz because they are motivated by accumulating points, more than others you know, moving to higher levels, rising to challenges. We’re talking about adults here: the average gamer these days is not a schoolboy, not even a slightly overgrown one; it is a 43-year old woman. Perhaps it is the channelling of an inner child within us that we deliberately suffocate when we grow up. Perhaps it is a drug-like addiction – a simulacrum of success and accomplishment that modern careers and workplaces don’t provide, that we therefore crave for elsewhere. It may be indistinguishable in essence from the need to passionately identify with a sports team and vicariously live its successes and failures: the euphoric highs of winning and even the emotional lows of losing, the ecstasy of trying hard and mastering something, the gut-wrenches of trying hard and failing: these are all necessary stimulants for minds numbed by the dreary emptiness of modern life.
Of course, like all management buzzwords, Gamification has a hype cycle, and judging by this book, it may already have jumped the shark. Zichermann’s and Linder’s is a standard airport bookshop offering, shrill and tinsel-toned, adequate in describing the phenomenon and what firms like McDonalds, Shell, Pimco, GlaxoSmithKline, Target, Omnicare and others are doing with it, but over-the-top in hailing it as the ultimate panacea to all management issues with attracting customers, motivating workforce and solving complex industry issues.
A week after I read the book, I was at a large corporate event involving around 100 participants from 30 firms, cooped up in a Scottsdale resort for a couple of days. As is the norm these days, the event came with its own app, which all of us dutifully downloaded, and the app featured a ‘Networking Game’. Each of us was given a secret code, and we had to meet as many strangers as we could, and type their codes into our phone, getting points every time we did so. The person with the most points was the one who networked most, and the noble idea of the event planners was to get participants to mingle and get acquainted, while competing and having fun. Of course they were successful in getting people involved in the GAME: people would sidle up during cocktail hour and go, ‘Hi, I’m Bob. Errr…can I have your code, please? Mine’s AB6V.’ By the end of the dinner, it was ‘Hi, have I done you before? No? Well, give me your code.” Words were exchanged, some indecorous tactics were observed and comments were passed. A winner emerged eventually and was presented the latest gadget du jour, people clapped politely, and we moved on. I don’t believe I recall the name of a single participant that I met at the event.
I continue to be fascinated with gamification – as an intellectual exercise, a way to model and simulate reality. But some gamification is more meaningful than others.
Gamification isn’t new. It is a fancy new word for something we’ve always done. We gamified education and called it grade point averages and percentiles. And much, much before that, we gamified life itself and called it a bank balance. The lessons we often forget from those experiences are the same as the lessons we should keep in mind during corporate gamification efforts: the points are not that important, the underlying desirable behavior is important, and it is possible to drown oneself in the game itself, even to win it, and to not learn a single useful thing from it.