Why gamification bothers me

Gamification is a hot term in business and education today. According to Wikipedia it is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a

non-game context in order to engage users and solve problems. I have been thinking about this in terms of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations and what really keeps people interested in what they do.

I fully believe that the singularly best way to have someone’s full attention in a project or process is to hook into that person’s passion for the project, process, idea or effort. This, as everyone knows, is not only not easy, but difficult to sustain. It can be easy to start well and then, once the excitement becomes the routine, passion can back off.

This is normal. Think about a romance. In many romantic relationships (Hollywood’s presentations exempted for lack of grounding in reality…) the initial meetings, conversations, experiences shared, etc. fire the imagination and leave you in a haze of emotion. As the relationship matures, the fire doesn’t necessarily go out (hopefully) but the fires become more steady and sustainable. With care and tending, the relationship grows, matures and moves into new stages that become even more fruitful and life-satisfying. Even with this construct, it’s hard work, and the nature of the intrinsic drive shifts during the lifetime of the relationship.

Take this framework and transpose it onto the workplace (shifting back to the earlier example occasionally). There are some interesting uses of gamification for learning. Microsoft used a game called Ribbon Hero as an add-on to their Office suite to help their users learn how to use it more effectively. Untold numbers of fitness apps for mobile devices use gamification to help people diet, maintain workout routines, stop smoking and a number of other self-improvement projects. Going back further, I remember clearly getting gold stars for completing book lists in reading in elementary school. The ideas of reputation and recognition are implicit in these badges, stars, etc.

So, why does this bother me? There are many discussions across the enterprise about how to increase employee engagement. Many are in earnest and realize that the problem is both complex and highly personal. It’s complex because, well, it involves human beings and we are a fundamentally complex lot. It is highly personal for much the same reason. Each of us is an absolute individual, complex in our motivations and passions, and to finely tune a solution to engaging each of us in our work requires a deeper understanding of each individual.

The problem here is that this does not scale in an enterprise sense. The days of having a large enough staff to effectively work through these problems are long gone. The bulk of the people left after the numerous downsizing, right-sizing, and re-organizing exercises of the past decades are stretched beyond where they feel they can enjoy what they do. In the words of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”  Sorry…..no energy left for that. And THAT is the energy that passion provides, so this is a problem.

The passions that a person brings to work are integral to that person’s drive to discover and realize meaning in what they do.  Since those of us in the Western world so tightly identify ourselves with what we do, we need to align the meaning of what we do closely to the deeper personal meaning of who we are.  This brings up another term that’s coming into vogue in business – mindfulness (which is the topic of an entirely different post).

There is a lot left to speak of. The point of this post, however, is that gamification is worth examining very closely, and any move to use these tools and techniques to manipulate is suspect.

2 thoughts on “Why gamification bothers me

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