This is something of an extension of a blog I wrote elsewhere (The Science of Motivation) — I have gone deeper down the motivation rabbit hole, and wanted to share some of what I’ve found.
Gamification is a Stupid Word
What I want to talk about is, of course, gamification — though that word annoys me immensely. It sounds like something a marketing exec would come up with to pitch a stupid app that rewards shoppers for buying more crap, which is exactly what it is. All gamification refers to is a system that adds certain motivators via game mechanics to drive engagement and participation.
It’s also inappropriately used — the ‘gamification of education’ is a common topic of conversation that misses the point entirely. Learning is ALREADY like a game, and the act of learning is inherently an intrinsic motivator — it has extant internal value. For this reason, many games simulate and lean upon learning and information familiarity as parts of their user experiences. One of the most popular games on the market, Minecraft, has kids literally learning how to construct logic circuits, design attractive interiors, and build appealing and functional architecture.
Gamification, when used correctly, adds intrinsic motivators to actions that have few if any intrinsic rewards — things like achievement, socialization, learning, status, self-expression, etc. This is done by basically adding an Roleplaying Game framework to meatspace tasks — you get levels, points, stats, badges, whatever for doing certain things.
Flossing Level Up! (+1 Constitution)
Despite all of that, I am actually a big fan of gamification in certain areas, and make extensive use of it to be less of a useless human being — I use Fitocracy to keep track of my workouts and progress, 750words.com to put my writing accomplishments into easily digestible statistics, and HabitRPG for everything else.
It might seem silly to some of you who are naturally functional and contributing members of society, but some of us have trouble remembering to do basic things like switch laundry and put pants on before leaving the house. For me, and many others, HabitRPG is a godsend. It’s little more than a glorified ‘to-do list’, but unlike your stupid to do list that just gets forgotten or stares at you, judgingly, from your desk, HabitRPG rewards you for checking stuff off.
There’s also gear, pets, mounts, rewards, quests, bosses, guilds, etc., for those of us are who are nerds, but at the core of it, it’s just a really great system for remembering to get stuff done. If I’m being entirely honest, I can only get myself to floss every day if I get rewarded for it. Some things just don’t come easy.
Given the pressures of modern-day life and the increased competition for our attention, it’s not all that surprising that mundane tasks might need a little help in order to get done — if you could wrap your tax return in an exciting UI with swords and dragons and crap I bet everyone wouldn’t wait until the last minute to turn them in. Bear in mind though that this is also being used to get us to buy more crap and stick our eyeballs to places where advertisers can blast things at them. Gamification isn’t entirely bad, but it’s not entirely good either. Like a lot of new technologies, I’m sure we haven’t reached its full potential.
And here’s why:
The Achievement Deficit
There are a lot of studies out about why gamification works, but I’m not going to reference an of them, I’m just going to speculate wildly. It seems to me that there is an achievement deficit built in to the modern world — we’ve become separated from the product of our labor (alienated, as Marx might put it) and denied the sense of self-worth and achievement derived from those labors. Capitalism is supposed to provide other avenues of status and measures of worth, mainly through the accumulation of capital, but globalization has placed the vast majority of capital in the hands of a very select few. Most of us are unable to accumulate much in the way of wealth, rarely receive bonuses or raises, and often work in Sisyphean conditions, rolling our work-boulders up the hill from 9-5 and starting at the bottom the following day.
Thus sometimes the only way that we can experience the very human and very necessary sensation of accomplishment is through games — beating the boss, reaching the next level, mastering a new talent. Given the previous paragraph you might think that I’m opposed to this, but it’s not all bad. It’s just a poor substitute for real, tangible achievement. But that’s a different post.