“The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.” – B.F. Skinner
Gamification has become on of those buzz-words we hear frequently today in discussions involving anything from social media, to daily deals, to education, to… well.. gaming. According to wikipedia “Gamification is the use of game design elements, game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts.” In my own words, gamification is the attempt to make non-game type experiences more “fun” by making them feel more like a game.
For example, say you’re building an invoicing web application for industrial businesses. It’s tough to imagine a drier domain to be working in (though obviously it’s a necessary one). To increase the engagement of your users it might make sense to try and add some form of rewards to encourage their use of your application (in turn increasing their value from the system, stickiness, etc.). This could come in the form of the frequently used “badges” or “achievements”, a point system, or even just visual and audio cues.
From a high level perspective we can say that getting these rewards is “fun” and consequently your users “enjoy” using your software more. In reality something more subtle is going on involving the way our brains are wired to work. Reinforcement. This is a highly researched and fairly well understood mechanism in behavioural psychology that has been shown to apply to animals all the way from pigeons to people. By providing someone with positive feedback for performing a behaviour you want them to perform you can reinforce that behaviour. By deliberately taking advantage of this effect and strategically timing your reinforcements you can encourage greater and greater amounts of interaction with less and less reinforcement.
I take several issues with this approach regardless of where it’s being used. The idea here is to replace whatever previous internal motivation would have driven participation in the activity with an external motivation. Instead of learning for the sake of increasing our knowledge and extending ourselves, learning becomes just a thing you do to get more points; a means to an end. Instead of playing a game because it is interesting or engaging, it is played because of an addiction to the positive feedback.
We are gradually creating a world where any given activity will have some form of instant gratification associated with it. I believe we are already in a world where many have already come to expect this. I find this frightening as it threatens to turn peoples lives into just a sequence of actions someone else wants them to perform. If we become so acclimatized to having our actions “suggested” to us by others, I fear we will lose the ability to make deep decisions or commitments for ourselves.
As our understanding of human behaviour and pscyhology becomes ever more sophisticated there will be greater opportunities to engineer user experiences to take advantage of this knowledge. Actual products will become no more than platforms for wrappers of highly optimized user experiences; optimized not for the benefit of the user, but of the vendor. Like many aspects of business I think this form of manipulation falls on a spectrum. At one end you have an extreme of companies like Zynga who have become experts in capturing users (and their money). At the other extreme you have engineers who design products without any thought towards the experiences of their users.
Any time a product is created it’s going to fall somewhere on that spectrum. Any time a product is being designed I strongly encourage all individuals involved to think about this problem and make a deliberate decision about where they feel it is appropriate (or inappropriate).
This is one of several disturbing trends I currently see occurring in the relationship between people and the products (in the broadest sense of product) they interact with. If we refuse to recognize these trends are occurring, we put ourselves at risk of becoming a society predominately composed of people which are just reflections of the products they have become enslaved to. This might be a pure capitalists wet-dream, but for me it would be a nightmarishly silent way for us to give away our individuality and freedom.