… Now Your Friends are Hooked

 “Gamification”

Gamification, gamification, gamification. Game-i-fi-cation.

That is a big word, gamification, its also kind of fun to say. So, it has something to do with games… says so right in the word. It also has something to do with ification.

So, its definitely a buzz word. Corporate offices are shouting Hail Mary over this thing. Educators are pretty exited. The folks over at Extra Credits are salivating over it. It’s the cure to all of the worlds ills, just like the internet before it, the computer before that, and the steam engine before that. We have all seen it in action in one place or another. so. What is it and how on Arceus’s green earth has The Author found a way to be concerned and a bit freaked out.

So, what is gamification? By definition, gamification is “The process of layering the most compelling elements of video games over more mundane tasks in order to make them more engaging”. Okay. That’s great. So what does that mean? Well, remember our talk last week about The Skinner Box? Well that is what they meant by “The most compelling elements”. So, to extend that statement, gamification is the process of taking all that stuff that makes you check in on Farmville every hour on the hour and painting it all over stuff like filing your taxes on time and doing your job.

So, what does that mean? Well, I discussed this last week but Ill just give a quick refresher. Imagine you work at the sewage treatment plant. Well, instead of clocking in at 9, clocking out at 5 and barely remembering anything except how much of a jerk your boss was, you now get a series of progress bars! Each time you fill one an alert goes out across your office block exclaiming that you had earned some cool little perk, say, the ability to dodge pipe de-clog duty once or the ability to have a single write up expunged from your employee record. Pile on top of that another gauge indicating team engagement. This bar ticks up every time someone in your team fills one of those objective bars and when it fills your entire team gets a 5% bonus on their paycheck for a month.

My first response to the concept was “By the Nine Divines! That sounds like a great idea! Gamify me, Captain!” but then I thought about it. “Hold on. There are only very specific elements of WoW that I find fun; really its just the pet battles and raids, 95% of my WoW time is spent leveling and farming with only small dips into the pet battles”. One thing that gets glossed over with every lecture promoting gamification is that word at the end of the definition. “to make mundane tasks more engaging”. Remember, engaging isn’t necessarily fun. Driving around town is engaging, leveling your Paladin is engaging and, while some people might actually enjoy leveling or farming leather, 90% of us WoW players know that for the most part, flying circles around the Vale of Eternal Blossoms isn’t that fun. Yet we do it anyways because it’s a means to that shiny new purple or a full set of enchantments. Such is the concept behind gamification. They don’t intend to make your work any more fun, they simply want to trick you into wanting to do more of it.

So, we have established that gamification is bad news and we need to stop it right sodding now. Wrong again. There are many, and I mean many, ways of using this across all fields that would make life leaps and bounds better. No matter how you cut it, the first and second world’s crisis of engagement is a humanitarian issue. Technology has officially hit the point where nobody in any region of the world has to be miserable with what they do from day to day. Ever. I’m not saying we are going to abolish sorrow, the hedonistic treadmill makes that absolutely impossible (note to mom: the hedonistic treadmill is a biological mechanic that makes it so that no matter how positive or negative your life experience is your overall emotional state hangs at “eh, this is alright”). What I am saying, however, is that at this point in time no individual, baring extreme mental disorder or a long series of crit fumbles, should ever wake up 5 days a week wanting to shoot himself in the head.

With our level of technological advancement, the concept of most people hating their lives is fucking disgusting. If life is love and joy, then an existence of hate and misery is worse than death. A hundred years ago it was understandable, you had to do what you had to do and if you didn’t then your family starved, but today we live in a world where a process such as sending a simple piece of mail is effectively instantaneous. Very few of us (compared to the number of the collective) need to take blatantly dangerous jobs. Compared to 200 years ago we live as long as elves and are capable of doing the tasks of our grandparents at literally dozens of times the speed our grandparents were capable of.

So, how do we fix this? How do we make it such that everyone is contented with their lot in life. First we have to look at the problem just a little bit more. What did our ancestors have that we don’t. Rhetoric about traditional values and basic respect aside, what is the biggest difference between our world and the world of our ancestors. The answer is a lot easier than any economic changes or any social issues. Simply put, the world of our ancestors was far more engaging then our own.

Think of it. What do most video game storylines revolve around? Saving/destroying the world, conquering/championing evil, saving/ruining lives. Cause and effect. We want to feel like we are doing something big in every one of our actions. Everyone wants to be a hero. 200 years ago we had that. Every single individual had a very clear concept of how their world worked. As I said before, tend your field, everyone eats another season. Learn to heal and double the survival rates of your village’s offspring. Become a skilled smith and minimize casualties caused by old and faulty equipment. Every one of our ancestors were either radiant heroes or treacherous villains, depending on how they went about their lives, every single last one of them.

Nowadays, however, the line between cause and effect is significantly dulled, almost to the point of nonexistence. If you don’t care to become skilled at your craft then no big deal, even in the most obscure fields there are literally thousands to take your place. Humanity is drifting into stagnation because we have no idea what to do with ourselves. You hear about miraculous inventions and horrific crimes every day that go on just fine with no input whatsoever on your part.

So, how do we fix it? For once I have an easy answer! Praise Yevon! We do it the same way we did everything else. Make the machines do it. “Oh, cause that doesn’t sound like GLaDOS waiting to happen” Wait, slow down, I don’t mean that in the literal sense. When I say “automate engagement” all I mean is use the same bureaucratic methods we use to streamline internet use and throw it on top of everyone’s job. Make an achievement bar for everything. Days without customer complaints? Put it on an achievement bar. Building a skyscraper? Put it on an achievement bar. Improve productivity? Put in on an achievement bar. It becomes much easier to fully engage with an action when every single little thing you do becomes glaringly obvious in comparison to the completion of a project. Think about it. How many of you play Hearthstone, Halo, or Final Fantasy? How awesome does it feel, knowing that every single thing you do brings you a little closer to a huge goal. I have gotten absolutely sucked into an RPG because it feels good to know that so long as I didn’t die horribly, every single battle I participated in, every sidequest I completed brought me a step close to a monumental increase in power. I would think “okay, killing those 3 Tonberries gave me 50k experience. That means 2 more packs like that and I get more powerful”.

So, that sounds easy enough with tangible projects like buildings and roads. Simply slap a gauge on your monthly reviews that indicated how much closer you are than last month to that big end-of-project bonus, your employees will work much harder knowing that the quicker their project gets done the quicker they get a big payout. For example, what if everyone’s paycheck was 40% bigger the week you completed a big project with several microbonuses (say 5%) every time you complete a milestone? Suddenly everyone is coming in a few minutes earlier, clocking in right on time and powering through to the end of the day. Trust me, it works. Slap a rare pet onto a particular quest in The Old Republic and suddenly the zone the quest takes place in becomes gank central, no matter how dull that quest is (I saw one in WoW where you have to collect 10k (that’s ten -thousand-) non-tradable tokens that only dropped off of monsters 50% of the time and like 2 quests a day) people will literally devour eachother whole to get it done as quickly and efficiently as possible. I have seen entire worlds, consisting of thousands of people work together farming rags and bandages to ensure that one group of 25 could unlock a raid (An’qiraj, anyone?).

I just realized, An’qiraj was like 10 years ago. Gracious I’m old. Okay, back in classic WoW there was an event called An’qiraj. Players were asked to turn in vast amounts of easily collected items to unlock the An’qiraj raid (which only 1 or 2 25 man teams per server, possibly less, were capable of even trying) they got a gauge that updated in real time saying how much resource was needed, and the resources were all things that could be acquired easily (like iron ore, fish, or silk bandages, you could literally farm for 10 minutes and get 20 of any of these items) with a goal of reaching something like 10 million accumulated resources.

People.

Went.

Bananas.

People were playing for hours, sometimes 8-16 hours at a stretch, ignoring food, sleep and (tragically) their spouses trying to get their faction’s representatives into An’qiraj first. People were dragging their friends and family in, Blizzard experienced an exponential boom in subscriptions because everyone wanted their server’s top guild to clear An’qiraj first and on the day that the gates of An’qiraj opened there were titanic battles, thousands of people gathered in the Silithus desert slugging it out over which faction, Alliance or Horde, would represent the server in the race to defeat C’thun. Just imagine that kind of power, tens of thousands of people working full tilt 8-16 hours a day of their own volition, getting thrown into your personal An’qiraj event, be it your political campaign or your charity drive.

Now lets look at a slightly tougher project. You work at Unos, what could you possibly be contributing to there? Well, you already keep a profile for each member on the team, slap a few gauges on there. You could offer a little bonus like dodging bathroom duty for anyone who goes 14 consecutive days without a customer complaint. Another idea, you could say “the tip jar gets split evenly amongst all of the workers at the end of every shift with an extra 4% given to the one who earns the biggest haul in a shift. Now everyone is pulling their weight because, as before, the harder they work the bigger they tip. Also, as a bonus, backroom politics stop being a factor cause the vapid jerk who flirts with the businessfolk on a meeting is also contributing to how much you make.

Lets try another example. Say you want the population of your city to eat healthier. This one is much simpler. Offer a voucher for 5 items from the food pantry for every 30 organic food purchases made in a local supermarket. While you’re at it you could incentivize supermarket participation by offering a cumulative tax cut of .1% to every 100 organic food items that they donate to the local food pantry that resets every 2 quarters. Also, just for good measure, throw a gauge up on your town website that indicates how many more organic food items need to be consumed monthly to deal a blow to diabetes rates. Not only have you just slashed the overall cost to the consumer of health conscious food by offering a voucher, but you have also gotten the local megacorp branches to donate as much as 200,000 health conscious items each every year to feed the poor, encouraged local farmers to wheel back on the pesticides and growth hormones, convinced your people to participate in the town website and gotten them to choke down copious amounts of veggies instead of binging on chips. You have officially harnessed the An’qiraj Effect to make sure your voters live longer and participate in local government.

Remember, there is a dark side to this thing. I am not all to keen to spout examples of how gamification and The An’qiraj Effect can be exploited to great harm but I can give you a few examples of how it’s already been done. Now, I am going to be using broad strokes in my descriptions here because I really don’t want to give some people more ammunition than they already have. Remember how in my Skinner Box essay I mentioned that bit about credit cards offering frequent flier miles? This is a perfect example of gamification turned towards a negative end. They incentivize the overuse of their most profitable (if more environmentally unfriendly) flights to save money on shipping people from place to place. You have a lot of people flying to Vegas? Offer miles that are only applicable to trips to or from Las Vegas to fill out those seats. Have some people heading to Blizzcon in California? Throw in some bonus flier miles to Vegas or New York. Hint: the corps have been using the concept of store credit to weasel people back into the shop for decades.

Let us now turn our gaze to the American Tea Party. What are the biggest lines those guys use? Protect health care, lower government spending, cut funding to environmental agencies. The first one plays on people’s desire for safety but the other two are straight ploys telling people that picketing and complaining are a great way to save a fat chunk on taxes. What is the result? People running half-cocked into the arms of megacorps in the hopes of unlocking a huge bonus at the end of the road that might trickle down to them. You have people going hog wild posting offensively reductive parallels between Obama and Hitler. People are giving every second of their free time towards promoting the benefit of a select few in the hopes that some of the spoils of victory will fall on their laps. Yes, the republicans have been using The An’qiraj effect to great success for a few years now.

Let us move on to my favourite application of gamification, education. Little known fact about me, one of my favourite things is seeing people who are absolutely passionate about a given subject. Nerds, folks, nerds are my absolute favourite type of person. Even when I don’t understand the subject being discussed, knowing that the person I speak to is so passionate that they are ready to ramble on for hours on the subject until I get every single element of the thing. The world needs far more nerds. So how do we make more? Gamify education. My wife only has a 7th grade education because of a colossal failure on the part of our local schools. Every day you hear about people falling through the cracks, failing to be noticed. As years go by I find more and more people struggling because, even in the case of college graduates, our educational system fails to teach the single skill central to succeeding in the 21st century.

What is that skill? Well, it’s more of a quality than a skill, but it can be learned as easily as how to count, and it can be learned even easier than technical or creative writing. This is the quality of passion. Our schools fail to teach us how to find a subject and completely geek out on it. The age of the polymath is over, we are currently moving into the age of the specialist. I don’t mean to say that reading writing and arithmetic are no longer essential, all I am saying is that we are at the dawn of an age where being able to dive into a subject and not surface until you know the chemical composition of the ink on the page (or the hexidecimal code of the font) is a necessary quality.

20 years ago, if you knew the general layout of a car’s engine you could fix any car that got thrown at you. Not only that but you had a fairly solid grasp of how your vacuum cleaner and refrigerator worked. Such is not the case today. Electronics from autopilot and onboard GPS make it such that you can’t even fix your own car without taking a certificate course for your particular make and model. This is why we need more nerds, we need people in our world who will dive into a subject with such fervor as to exclude everything else. You can’t even be ‘just a biologist’ in today’s era, you need to be a geneticist or a cellular biologist. Hell, I aspire to be game designer with a focus on narrative or level design.

Wow, I’m straying. So, what does this have to do with gamifying education? In short, everything. The best way to make people love learning is to make every element of the learning process engaging. Now is about the time I should be giving examples but I just realized, I gave examples last week. Instead Ill throw the major bullet points out there and let you extrapolate on how to take it to the next level.

First. Instead of using a reductive grading policy, use a cumulative one. What does that mean? Well, our current grading model has students coming in on day one assuming they have an A+. this is bad because every time your student gets a B+ all she thinks is “well, it can only go down”. As the student gets less and less A grades he starts to lose interest because he is falling further and further from the goal he had in mind on day one. This needs to stop, and here’s how to do it. Instead of telling your students on day 1 that they are getting an A, tell them they currently have a 0 for a final grade, then tell them that the only way to fix that is to do well on homework and exams. That way your students take a C as 71 points above their current grade instead of 29 points below their desired grade. This is the easy one because it doesn’t actually require any work on your part, just switch around your day-1 lecture. Remember, add and never subtract.

The second one is a bit harder to pull off and will require a little extra work on your part. A major failing of education hits the day after the first homework grading. Every single year growing up I would throw whole hog into every single assignment until I got my first <100 grade. The second I even saw a 95 I would be completely deflated. I would think “well, no point in trying now, can’t get an A+ so I guess Ill get what I get.” By the end of the semester I’ll only have turned in half the assignments because I felt like a screw up. So, how do we fix this? Make the sum of all your assignments greater than 100. Do it this way, all of your assignments, when completed add up to 110 or 120. that way if Susan slips up on the decimal point she can still get a perfect score for the year, all she has to do is haul it a little harder on a future assignment. Also, don’t call it extra credit. Never use the term ‘extra credit’. Give out extra credit as much as you want, just never use those two words in such a manner. I will get to the reason in a moment.

Thirdly, give bonuses that aren’t directly tied to completion. Okay, that makes no sense on the surface. What do I mean? Everyone wants to be perfect, no variation, everyone wants to feel like they did the best they could do. How can you make Timmy feel like he’s awesome even if it took him a few tries to get division? Give a small bonus (about 1 percent to the final grade) every time the whole class gets at least 70% of the problems right. How does that help? Well, the way things are now if Susan blows through the trig homework while Timmy gets stomped by the warm-ups, Susan gets to call Timmy “retard” and “moron” because Timmy isn’t so great at math. With this new method, if Timmy is wrestling with the warmup questions for his trig homework Susan thinks “Well, I screwed up on the last test, the best way to ensure an A+ at this point is to make sure Timmy has a solid grasp of the assignment so he aces the next test and doubles my full-clear bonus”. Congratulations! You just taught your students how to mix specialties to improve productivity.

Just don’t call it extra credit because ‘Extra Credit’ is newspeak for ‘more work’ and you aren’t fooling a soul by trying to tell your students ‘more homework’ is anything other than ‘more homework’. Trust me, your students will like you more if you don’t insult their intelligence. Actually, if you really want to game the system you can make your final grade less than 100 and tell your students that the only way they can get an A+ is by completing bonuses like the one I mentioned above, so long as the maximum possible score is more than 100. Just be careful cause it’s easier to make your kids feel hopeless. The big take away would be the words “A+ for Effort”. The kids just need to know that while performance is a significant factor, sheer force of will and willingness to help and be helped is the biggest part of success. I know that from experience, I’m not all that great with technology but I am stellar at analysis and extrapolation, Jesse is excellent with ideas but lacking in math skills and know how, Carson is a wiz with stats and comparisons while Ntacman is the Macguyver of the squad. Together we make a pretty good team.

So, that’s my bit on gamification, I know, not quite as neutral as most of my essays. Unfortunately I couldn’t go into details in some places because, as I said, we as a united world can not afford to give some people more ammunition than they already have. I mean, we all know what happens when you let ‘that guy’, that’s in every CoD:Ghosts match, get the high ground with the off-loadout gear. Here’s to empowering and elevating ourselves and C4ing the hell out of the supports on that guy. Author, out.

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