Gamefication: For Good or Evil

By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Gamefication builds a framework into an experience that taps into humans’ need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness or relevance. It uses people’s craving for the neurotransmitter dopamine—connected with reward–to hook them. And it can be used for good or evil.
Wes Kay, user centered design advocate, spoke in place of Robin Krieglstein, his co-founder at the new meetup group Intersection: Psych+Tech. He gave a whirlwind explanation of the psychological power of gaming Wednesday night at MakerSquare.
He explained how every person has a desire for

  • Competence—the ability to accomplish things
  • Autonomy—the ability to do something by yourself, on your own steam
  • Relatedness—the sense that what you’re doing matters

Hooked on Hormones, and Neurotransmitters

Good game design provides all of that and can be found in places where people least expect it. Filling out a LinkedIn profile, for example, is boring and doesn’t provide any specific sense of accomplishment. LinkedIn had to find ways to make it more engaging. So it added little feedbacks, “Congratulations! You’ve finished 10 percent of your profile.” Now there’s a sense of accomplishment for each incremental part of the task, rather than the profile holder having to wait until someone finds and uses his or her profile. People don’t fill in the profile for the praise, of course, they fill it in because they desire to be successful. But the feedback gives them little squirts of the dopamine that tell them they’re doing well and encourage them to keep going on this boring task.
The key is keeping people in the flow state, that mid-range between anxiety and boredom, where challenge and excitement lies. Filling in a LinkedIn profile, Kay said, falls strictly in the boredom zone and needs a little sense of accomplishment to bring it closer to the challenge zone. Other transactions, he said, like buying something from Amazon, are more likely to create anxiety—too much challenge. So that company has to make it easy and painless for customers to glide into the checkout section.
Other tools use gameification. Salesforce CRM tool has leaderboards that let people feel the psychological buzz and dopamine injection of status. Yelp and Foursquare do the same. The more you use them, the higher you rank. And each rise in rank brings another dopamine squirt, sense of accomplishment. And because these are social tools, it also confers a sense of relatedness.
Facebook likes, Kay said, are the cheapest and most effective source of dopamine.
A hormone that can be used in gaming for social good is oxytocin, the hormone that’s released during a hug and increases trust.
“I could walk up to you and shoot oxytocin in a nasal spray up your nose and you’re going to feel better about me when it’s over,” Kay said.
He mentioned a project Coca Cola did, putting a shell of a Coke machine in Pakistan and another in India that allows people on both sides of the border to see someone on the other side, “touch” hands, draw a heart or peace sign together. An oxytocin dump to build trust across a hostile border.

Life on the Point System

The end of Kay’s talk tackled something gaming enthusiasts rarely seem to broach: the criticisms of gaming. There is concern that gaming has zapped the ability of a generation like the millennials who spent months or years of their lives playing video games and working for badges to find intrinsic motivation.
One Baby Boomer who manages younger people complained “They’re constantly needing strokes. If I give them a task with no structure and no guidance, they couldn’t even begin to think how to do it. They’re constantly looking for that feedback.”
And more than one millennial in the audience confessed to being disappointed with the shortage of praise and feedback in “the real world.”
“I grew up playing games and you get out in the world and realize life doesn’t have a reset button or cheat codes and you’re like ‘Man, this shit sucks.”
One Baby Boomer pointed out that there are some “big problems” to solve such as how turn algae into fuel, “where you can work for weeks and months with no feedback. Are we preparing people for that? When was the last time you turned all the electronics off, stared out a window and thought about a problem?”
There’s also a limit to how much happiness people can derive from external rewards, Kay said. In a principle known as the hedonistic treadmill, as the rewards increase, the happiness generally stays the same, like with an addictive drug. So there’s some concern that as more and more companies use gaming as an engagement tool, it will cease to be effective.
On the other hand, he pointed out, like with the Coke machine and another project in Stockholm, Sweden, where the city increased the use of stairs at a train station by 66 percent by turning the stairs into piano keys—fun can inspire social good.
Intersection: Psych+Tech was founded in April by Kay and Krieglstein, senior architect at Badgeville, the leading gamefication and behavior management platform.

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