Game Mechanics, Hype, and Motivation

Wednesday, July 9, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

For a while I wondered if the idea of gamification would stick on our collective radars. It seems that it will, at least for a while longer - it gets listed as part of the "emerging policy toolkit", written about in business magazines, and several departments are at least exploring the concept.

(A quick definition: gamification is the application of game mechanics to non-game concepts, to drive engagement on initiatives, or to solve problems.)

However, when the idea comes up, it tends to be a narrow view of the subject. Last month an article showed up in Fortune called Looks like that whole 'gamification' thing is over. The author may have overdramaticized the title as clickbait, but there are two issues with the take.

One, she references Gartner's research on the idea's market penetration, but implies that it means that gamification is on the way out. In fact, a period of overhyping followed by a call for maturation is exactly what Gartner predicted (always predicts) would happen.

Two, she only references games. Badges, rewards, educational games for employees at Marriott.

I think there are actually two distinct lenses about game mechanics that are really interesting for organizations. The first is the possibility in some scenarios to create games that serve as problem-solving platforms, such as that Fortune article describes. Though it's important to remember that games are just one part of a much larger toolkit - it is not a hammer such that one should just go looking for nails.

The second, which is in my mind should be far more interesting to most people, is the fact that games provide a preposterously gigantic body of research on why people expend discretionary effort and engage. Gaming companies have accidentally proven amazing points about motivation for managers to learn from.

Mission, discrete goals, challenge, progress, and feedback. With these factors present, people engage.

For a real-world government example, read Blaise Hebert on engagement.

I recommend a trifecta of books that all approach that equation from very different angles:

Drive and The Progress Principle are through-and-through business books. But interestingly, Reality is Broken about gaming is in many ways the one that provides the playbook for managers (though I believe McGonigal avoided the term gamification in it). It sparks the questions to answer about employees' day-to-day experiences.

Game Mechanics

In some cases, government actually building a game - to solve a problem, for education, for outreach - may be the most effective approach. But this will be the outlier application for the idea. For most, the valuable insight into motivation should keep eyes unrolled when the term gamification comes up.