Another dot in the blogosphere?

Avoiding blind gamification

Posted on: May 6, 2021

Several weeks ago, I was asked to conduct a pro bono session on gamification in the workplace. The group had already decided it was going ahead with this idea. I declined because I did not want participants to ignore my warnings about blind gamification.

If I did conduct the session, it might have started like this: Blind gamification has a few elements. One element is ignorance of when and how the gamification of work emerged, and what its limits are.

This recent Wired article summed up gamification simply. It is over a decade old and provides extrinsic rewards for in exchange for human effort. 

In a 2013 blog entry, Harold Jarche highlighted one problem with extrinsic motivation and rewards: Gamification “creates incentives that, when removed, may result in going back to previous behaviours”.

Jarche reflected on the disconnect between schooling/work and the gamified experiences. If the rules and conditions of school/work were different from the incentivised tasks, the students/workers were not likely to learn or change their behaviours. Gamification backfires because the student/workers feel manipulated or forced.

The Wired article also highlighted this disconnect by citing a study of how a group of paid workers were discouraged by a leader board while a group of volunteer Wikipedia article editors in a different study were motivated to work for free. The article concluded:

…gamification seems to work when it helps people achieve the goals they want to reach anyway by making the process of goal achievement more exciting.

If the gamified tasks are mandatory fun, the design is an extrinsic reward for already poor intrinsic motivation. Workers who do not buy in to a game-like leaderboard but are forced to participate have strong extrinsic motivation but low intrinsic motivation. 

On the other hand, gamification is more likely to succeed with volunteers who have already bought in to a process and are rewarded for their efforts. The design is to leverage on high intrinsic motivation and provide meaningful extrinsic rewards.

The takeaway: Gamification is less likely to succeed if the tasks do not appear authentic and if the students/workers do not have agency.

Another major element of blind gamification is the assumption that it is the same as game-based learning. It is not. I have reflected on the overlaps and differences over the years. I summed up some still brewing ideas in 2017. I reshare it here.

If I seem to pooh-pooh gamification it is because I do. I do not value an over-reliance on the extrinsic because these are functions of conventional teaching. Learning is ultimately intrinsic and I choose to start there.

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