Gamification is being kicked around the internet as having great potential in marketing and education. Loyalty programs with points, a chance to win prizes for memorization, and other incentives are examples of gamification. But it isn’t a new concept.
Did you ever have some grownup tell you to turn a household chore into a game? Maybe it was the challenge of “who could put the most toys away” or “be the monster who pulls the weeds out of the garden” but it caught your kid brain and ran with the possibilities. Turning it into a game makes it more fun — and adding prizes, points or glory adds to the appeal.
Winning has its own appeal. I have seen a group of teens pass a raw onion around in a bizarre version of musical chairs: when the music stops, the onion-holder takes a bite. As players drop out because they don’t want to chew more onion, the competition gets intense. The onion gets slobbery and odoriferous. The kids start drooling onion juice down their chins. But the guy who is determined to win gets the glory of saying he won. He also gets a stomach ache and serious halitosis. (If you play this game, have a trash can handy for spew-age.)
What is it about a game setting that makes us do things we wouldn’t otherwise do? And more importantly, does this kind of thing work long-term?
Gamification, Game Theory, and Human Nature
Humans like to play and we like to win. Game theory is the study of that aspect of human nature, which gets deep into higher math and matrices and how individuals or organizations make decisions. Game theory is involved when software developers decide how the user will be guided to interact with the program, for instance.
The Golden Goose Award in 2014 was for Auction Design, a fascinating look at the application of game theory in the Federal Communications Commission’s auction process. That auction process affects us every day, since it determines who does what with wireless bandwidth among other things. The recent FCC Auction 97 for advanced wireless applications set records that still have analysts spinning and ended with the staggering total gross bids amount of $44,899,451,600. Those investments are going to affect your wireless use, and you owe it all to game theory.
Gamification is using our love of playing and winning to get us to do something. Like the bait on a hook, we overlook the cost of our fun. When your mom told you she’d give a cookie to the kid who picked up the most toys, she was using gamification but she probably wasn’t giving it that label. She got what she wanted — the toys were picked up. The fastest toy picker-upper got what they wanted — a cookie. The other kids probably got cookies too, because they complained, so maybe the winner got two cookies.
When we try to manipulate people with gamification, someone eventually catches on and complains about it. Does that make gamification bad? No, but it does make it something to be careful with. In marketing there’s always the danger of the manipulated catching on to the bait/hook thing and complaining about it. Gamification has limits.
Facts learned for a prize actually devalue the fact being learned because the prize is seen as more important. But facts learned in the right game can be a great idea if the game involves using skills that put those facts in context. Think about all the skills learned in Monopoly, from counting money to property improvement and the necessity to pay rent. Scrabble is one way many of us learned to spell, and some math got thrown in for good measure.
Digital games like those found at GlassLab aren’t just goofy ways to keep students entertained — they are designed to incorporate the skills being taught in a format that is fun. Facts are learned as skills grow, but the game may be a sim-type city with the player as a mayor balancing decisions, or the player could be using plotting techniques to defend a giant carrot from space gophers. This is game theory that goes past gamification to the goal of learning for its own sake. Even thought the format is fun, the skills being used are serious educational tactics that have no limitation except the imagination.
So gamification does have a place in education and marketing, but game theory, understanding how and why we make decisions, is going to be more profitable in the long run because everybody wins.