Gamification Value: a Practical Use of Immediate Feedback

July 18, 2012

Gamification is currently all the rage, but it seems there’s a lot of use of this term with little understanding of application. Sure, there are plenty of people “gamifying” things right now and even more non-practitioners talking theory and principles. But many skeptics just don’t see the value, promise, or purpose of gamification. Truth be told, I agree with the purists about much of the hype and misuse of gamification. But I also believe there is some value where gamification is being used to cause positive behavioral change. So if you’re trying to decide if gamification is good or bad, or just need an example to help make sense of it, consider the following thoughts.

First, if you’re a newcomer to the gamification discussion,  here’s what most people mean by Gamification: applying certain principles of games — competition and recognition (usually via leaderboards), the challenge of mission and mastery, collecting things (like badges or points), and so forth — to something that is not a game. You might be asking, “Why would anyone want to try to add those elements to something that isn’t actually a game?” There are many answers depending on who you talk with, ranging from “just because we can and it’s the thing to do right now” to “it’d be really fun” to “it will attract more attention to our company/product” to “because we could help people change their behavior in a way that feels less like work.” And based on motive, the value proposition in each of those answers may very well be subjective. The proponents of each answer would likely tell you that their reason is the right one. But for the sake of this discussion, I’d like to hone in on the last one — behavioral change — because I personally believe it to hold the greatest value. It is possible to make changing their behavior easier for people by making it feel more fun or engaging, akin to “normal” games?

Have you noticed it’s hard to get people to do things that don’t have immediate consequences: buying life insurance, saving for retirement or other long-term financial needs, exercising healthy habits, and so forth? That’s because humans tend to react better to immediate feedback. We seem to value near-term events more than longer-term threats. We often postpone or ignore decisions when the impact isn’t immediately apparent, especially when dealing with the long-term isn’t pleasant.

On the other hand, game playing is something that is perceived as fun and provides much more immediate feedback. With most video games, when the player makes a decision, it has an effect in their game play anywhere from instantaneously to within seconds, minutes at the most. Even games designed to be played over long periods of time will yield results of decisions between hours and days at most, (because otherwise, no one would keep playing.)

And therein lies the promise of using gaming principles to influence real-life things. Game players are used to adjusting their playing behavior based on the near-term feedback. They make mistakes constantly, they learn, they adjust, and they eventually master new skills (or refine existing ones) in order to succeed at the game. So what if those motivations and techniques could be safely applied to real-world problems?

Here’s an example problem that occurs all too frequently where I live: drivers don’t leave enough stopping distance between their vehicle and the one in front, especially in inclement weather. Why? Well, I’d guess that they’re used to being able to stop just fine when road conditions are good. Further, since the threat of “you might have an accident someday if you don’t leave enough stopping distance” isn’t very immediate or apparent, the need to allocate safe stopping distance is kind of like the need to prepare for any of the other future scenarios I mentioned before. We just don’t see the need to respond — to alter our behavior — so we don’t.

So, if someone sought to solve the long-term issue with near-term thinking, they might consider gamifying the problem. Just for example’s sake, here’s one way it might look if a bunch of the commonly leveraged gamification devices were thrown together:

A depiction of an in-vehicle game designed to teach better stopping behavior

Imagine if a car’s dashboard had a gauge that indicated how well the driver stopped? This gauge might display a range from “too early” to “too late.” If points were awarded each time a good stop was performed, and if other awards – like virtual badges or trophies – were awarded when certain point thresholds were reached, it’s possible drivers might begin to adapt their actual daily driving behavior to the tolerances required by the game just in order to succeed at the game. The result? If the driving techniques actually became unconscious habits, when roads were slick, those drivers might actually perform their stops more safely.

Notice I used the word “might,” because most gamified things don’t always succeed in enticing everyone. Many people find low intrinsic value in many of the commonly used game engagement tactics. (I’ve previously read that only 21% are motivated by game mechanics.) Some people are clearly not so interested in being at the top of a virtual scoreboard just for bragging rights. Others are not significantly enthused about collecting virtual trinkets or being told they achieved or “unlocked” something that doesn’t really exist. But these techniques apparently do entice a large enough number of people — even 21% is a sizable percentage — and that’s why there is significant interest in gamifying things right now. And while much gamification is being pursued simply to make some inane things “fun” or “attractive” or “memorable” and more yet “just because,” it’s my hope that we’ll eventually see gamification done well enough to create performance changes where they might otherwise be difficult or boring via traditional methods.

Got your own idea for a practical application of gamification that might change real behavior? Drop your comment below.