Gamification. It’s one of the year’s top memes. The idea is that the more we embed systems — on the job, for our health, in social movements — with the mechanics and grammar of games, the more effective their participants will become.

Alas, like any white-hot meme, it’s often hard to sort the heat from the light. Thank heavens, then, for For the Win, a new book by Wharton’s Kevin Werbach and New York Law School’s Dan Hunter.

For the Win (Buy it at Amazon, BN, or IndieBound) is a smart and accessible guide to an intriguing subject. It’s grounded in research, but also includes plenty of case studies to bring the research to life.

Because Pink Blog readers are interested in new approaches to human motivation, I asked Kevin to answer a few questions about games, Wall Street, and presidential politics:

1. In your book, you refer to fun as “an extraordinarily valuable tool to address serious business pursuits.” Is gamification a new tool? Does its effectiveness stem directly from the rise of video games, or does it go back farther?

Companies consciously applying game thinking to their processes is new. And it’s happening now because of the rise of video games. Today’s digital platforms also make it possible to incorporate game elements into existing activities in ways that were never possible before. However, the concepts we describe in the book are really much older: what kinds of rewards and experiences motivate people, what makes a good game, and how fun fits into business. Think about it: Cracker Jack started putting toy surprises into every box exactly a century ago.

2. Seems like anytime a system includes a game, there’s someone gaming the system. Could you talk a little about the hazards of gamification?

That’s very important point. So many gamification advocates focus only on the positives. There is an entire chapter of For the Win about limitations and risks, and it’s something we mention throughout. One issue, as you point out, is that any time you create a game, someone will try to exploit the system. That’s not necessarily a danger, though, if you anticipate it. Those are your most engaged players, and you can often redirect their energy in a positive way, such as giving rewards for finding bugs in the game.

A second concern is that gamification can become a means of exploitation or manipulation. If making an activity game-like is a way to trick your customers or employees into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise want to do, you’re probably being unethical and it’s likely to harm your business interests in the long run. The approach we describe in the book is very different, because it’s built around the player’s interests.

3. You write, “The similarities between the interfaces of Wall Street trading terminals, enterprise collaboration software, and massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft are too striking to ignore.” For readers who may not be familiar with one or more of these environments, could you expand on the similarities?

Good information technology organizes and filters information to provide what the military calls “situational awareness.” Think about the Wall Street trader. Huge sums of money can hang on each decision. They have access to tons of resources: current prices, databases, market trends, analyst reports, and colleagues. Seeing the right information at the right time is crucial… but information overload is a constant threat. Trust me, being a raid healer in World of Warcraft feels the same way. Your group can die any time you make a wrong mouseclick. A WoW raid is a symphony of data flows: commands, notifications, performance stats, and multiple communications channels to choreograph up to 25 players. While most real-world business roles aren’t such a pressure cooker, good decisions at work always benefit from good information and good feedback. We can learn a great deal from the way game designers — and game players — build systems with same goals.

4. You write, “The 2012 American Presidential campaign represents the first time that gamification was used extensively in the political process.” Could you tell us more about that?

The campaigns on both sides, dating back to the primaries, have used mechanisms like badges and leaderboards to motivate volunteers and get out the vote. At one level, encouraging someone to “like” a candidate on Facebook or make a phone call isn’t all that different from encouraging them to endorse or buy a product. The widespread behavioral micro-targeting of potential voters also draws upon the concepts we describe in the book, such as player modeling and engagement loops. That being said, we won’t know all the details until after the election. Doing gamification well isn’t easy, and there many ways that selling a candidate is different than selling a soft drink. I expect we’ll see even greater and more sophisticated use of gamification in 2016.

7 Responses to “The Hows and Whys of Gamification: 4 Questions for Kevin Werbach”

  1. Steve McCrea says:

    Dr. Abraham S. Fischler has commented, “Learning should be fun.” Fischler is the guy who brought distance education to the Ed.D. market, helping principals get their doctorates while they ran a school. Fischler claims that the revolution in higher ed needs to come down to K-12. The GAMIFICATION (bring gaming into schools) is clearly the next step. Make learning fun by adding games. If you want to learn more about Fischler’s plan (he wants to demonstrate his ideas in an EXISTING school, retraining teachers in how to use gaming and projects instead of lecturing… the same “stop lecturing, make the class more interactive” model that has attracted attention as “flipping the classroom), go to his blog at abe.thestudentistheclass.com and http://www.Transform-Education.com Thanks for reading this far. Bravo to Mr. Pink. His books should be condensed to POSTERS and those posters could drive students to read FLIP

  2. Mark N. says:

    Companies consciously applying game thinking to their processes is new.

    I’m not sure I’d entirely agree with this. The USSR actually consciously applied game thinking to their processes also, as a way of increasing industrial production, and using game-like motivation in lieu of monetary motivation. Not quite the same, but I think there are surprisingly many parallels.

  3. After seeing this, I downloaded a sample to my Kindle. I am not sure how authors decide how much to put in the sample, but sometimes it is too short to get a feel for the topic. I probably will buy anyway based on your recommendation but Kevin may want to add a “bit of the meat” to the Kindle sample. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Kay Allison says:

    How does gamification affect people’s motivation? Isn’t it another extrinsic reward system? Does it set up unintended consequences the way other extrinsic rewards do?

    • Gael N says:

      My opinion is because of the difficulty system in games. Games are usually setup as levels with each one being slightly harder then the previous one. A well designed game should be just challenging enough to where to have to just reach past your current abilities to beat the current level. That level of difficulty has been shown to motivate people to tackle the challenge.

      Typical work environments don’t operate like that. It’s more about throwing you in the deep end of the pool on the first day and being overwhelmed. Even if you get through it you don’t enjoy it and you want to quit. If instead you had a mindset that said that you only need to do 5% better then the previous time, then it’s much easier to handle.

      • The problem with your suggestion is that games, in general, are much more controlled environments. In real life, making a level “5% more difficult than the previous one” will be a lot harder, especially if you’re talking about a mass market where the level of diversity in your customer base is broad.

  5. Dan Keldsen says:

    Dan – I hadn’t realized that I’d fallen off what you were tracking, and the new book launch. Congratulations on all fronts, looking forward to the new tome- I agree we’re all salespeople (and marketers – or generally, influencers).

    I don’t know if you’ve absorbed Oren Klaff’s “Pitch Anything” – but there is a lot of thinking going on around frames, so I suspect you’re in similar waters there as well.

    Incidentally, as with the interview that you and I did around Johnny Bunko, I just posted an interview with Kevin this week – for those who want to dive into some banter about gamification – free download/listen at:
    http://www.informationarchitected.com/blog/iam-talking-gamification-gamify-for-the-win/

    Cheers,
    (The Other) Dan

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