Monday, December 9, 2013


Humans love games – complex or simple, realistic or abstract, lonesome, competitive or cooperative – games are what we do when we are not forced to do other stuff, like you know… work?

Working is what we do in exchange for something we want, while games we enjoy for their own sake. The easiest way to turn a game into work is to introduce a high-stakes reward – something we desire more than the pure joy of playing. By shifting the motivation, we introduce performance stress which has far-reaching implications for the satisfaction of performing and the overall quality of outcome. In team games, high-stakes rewards complicate matters even further, as the reward needs to be distributed. This gives rise to politics and dissatisfaction and ultimately turns an egalitarian meritocracy into competitive hierarchy.

A logical approach would be to try it the other way around – remove the reward component from work and try to get people to do it for free, or as Carl Marx eloquently proclaimed:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

– Carl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program”

We all know what followed, and it was hardly a success. So, can we do better? Of course we can – here is another source of inspiration:
“Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?”

Tom wheeled suddenly and said:

“Why, it’s you, Ben! I warn’t noticing.”

“Say – I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d ruther work – wouldn’t you? Course you would!”

Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:

“What do you call work?”

“Why, ain’t that work?”

Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:

“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticised the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

Now, that’s definitely better – at the end of this story – on top of having the fence painted by other boys, Tom gains an apple, a kite, a dead rat (along with a string to swing it with), twelve marbles, couple of tadpoles, six firecrackers and etcetera and etcetera. In other words, the dream of every gamification consultant.

So, I hear you say, all we need to do is spin the propaganda machine, pump the image of work and induce sense of purpose? Well, that has also been tried. The problem is that it is not sustainable and lacking the competitive dynamics and reward mechanism to distinguish the good from bad workers, the quality of the work is hit or miss.

As any Bulgarian railroad worker will tell you, the money spent on repairing all the sections built by volunteers in the 50s far exceed the money it would have taken to build them with paid labor.

The current trend is to use the latest neuropsychology research and try to structure work activity in ways that evoke gaming responses, without it being actually presented or recognized as game. This in fact appears to work… in a few showcase examples.

The problem is that in order to get the best results, the manipulation should be subtle, honest and carefully targeted, while most of the time what actually gets implemented ends up crude, shallow and generic.

Consider the following gamification clichés:

  • Let’s change the meaning of a bunch of words and do code-speak, expressing trivial thoughts through exotic metaphors.
  • Let’s count some stuff (like badges and points) and applaud the one that gets highest number.
  • Let’s do stuff at random and periodically check whether any of them has solved our problem.

While all of these may tickle our creativity, we can hardly call them an efficient way of solving a problem. Much too often, our brain finds a way to shortcut the uninteresting work and skip straight to the entertainment (i.e. gaming the metrics).

Here is some anecdotal account of our attempt to improve software quality by gamifying our continuous integration:

Few years ago, on a project far, far away, we used the Jenkins’s CI game – you know – the one where one gets points for not breaking the build, removing TODO items and adding tests (and loses points for the opposite).

While it was fun for a while, we also realized that the best way to get high score was to avoid doing things that may trigger a penalty – things like: taking initiative in cleaning up technical debt, improving the build-script, improving the testing framework code, adding new TODO comments to mark problems we can’t fix now, or removing useless tests.

Of course, all these things needed doing and being the responsible team we were, we did them, but then the very people that put the most effort in making the system better - they got the lowest score. After a while, we just stopped caring about the game.

There is another related trend worth mentioning – mixing work with entertainment, so the work becomes less boring (i.e. improving engagement). It is not a new trend – everybody does it to extent, but clearly there is a point when we tend to go overboard. In particular, I find that the propensity for seeking "fun" mirrors the Maslow hierarchy of needs – the higher the living standard, the more concerned people are with making their experience at work “fun”.

In corporate environment this is often manifested as managers, consultants and fat teams, devising process innovations which don’t bring empirical benefits, but comply with all the latest buzzwords and industry best practices, while the lowest level of support are barely scraping to hold the world from falling apart.

Many methodologies and management fads explicitly seek to appeal to the playful nature of our human brain and define complex models and processes, exaggerating the actual benefits of esoteric (but never too difficult) activities, maximizing personal satisfaction, but not necessarily the desired outcomes. Some even go a step further and institute metrics measuring the “fun stuff”, claiming that this is somehow a proxy metric for productivity.

So, where does that leave us? Here is a list of unsubstantiated assertions you may want to consider:

  • Gamification can help with engagement and commitment, but in order to get sustainable results, it needs well defined objectives and overall strategy. Also it needs to be supplemented with adequate, tangible rewards that actually matter to the participants (unless you are running a cult).
  • Setting a “fun” goal can do wonders to create commitment, but you either have to update the goal periodically, or tie it to something meaningful on a personal level in order to retain the effect in the long term.
  • Watching numbers go up is one of the easiest ways for creating engagement, but beware of unintended effects over time, as people rationalize the situation and start to game the metrics.
  • Gamification should be a part of a toolkit – its strength is in kick-starting behavioral change, but used on its own, it is unlikely to deliver tangible and long-lasting results.

...for some gamification means presenting work as game, for others - pretending game is work.

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