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The power and flaws of gamification

This is the story adapted How to change: The science of getting from where you are to where you want to be By the hand of Katy Milkman.

When you walk 10,000 steps a day, your Fitbit rewards you with a jiggle and some virtual fireworks, giving you a reason to pause proudly and smile. When you practice a foreign language in Duolingo for several days in a row, you gain a “streak” and are encouraged to keep going, giving you extra reason to make the effort to repeat. When companies, teachers, coaches, or apps add features like symbolic rewards, competition, social connections, or fun sounds and colors to make something more playful, they rely on “gamification” to improve the likely otherwise sad experience. I would bet that most apps on your phone use some element of gamification, but we also see gamification in our workplaces and on the part of our health insurers.

Gamification was first released more than a decade ago. At the time, there was little evidence of its value; the concept seems to make sense. Business consultants promised organizations that they could motivate employees to work more effectively through gambling, not by changing their jobs, but by changing packaging, resulting in slightly more exciting goal accomplishments (“Yes! I won a star!”). Technology companies like Cisco, Microsoft, and SAP, for example, found ways to gamify everything they learn social media skills, to check language translations, to encourage sales performance.

Today, thanks to science, we know much more about when gamification works and what its limitations seem. Beyond the gamified applications and software we use to learn new skills, companies like it Amazon and Uber now expand to increase employee productivity. But to get the results we seek, in our lives and in the workplace, it’s important to understand when gamification will work and when it will get worse.

In 2012, Jana Gallus, a brilliant young economist who was studying for a doctorate at the University of Zurich, was aware of a problem occurring on Wikipedia and saw the possibility of an early test of the value of gamification. Despite Gallus ’popularity of an encyclopedia of 50 million entries in more than 280 languages, Gallus found that his top-performing editors were leaving the crowd. Since the so-called Wikipedians who store articles from all over the site Game of Thrones in order to ensure that quantum mechanics was not accurate and up-to-date, he did not have to pay money, the organization had to find a way to access it so that it would sometimes be monotonous without providing money to its top editors to maintain online content.

Hoping to reduce turnover, Wikipedia stopped running on Gallus experiment With 4,000 new volunteer editors. Based on a coin revolution, they deserved to tell some newcomers to Wikipedia that they had made an effort for their efforts, and that their names were listed as award winners on a Wikipedia website. They also received one star, two or three stars that appeared next to the username, assigning more stars to better performers. Wikipedia was offered equally valuable content but other news that came out at the other end of the coin did not get a symbolic reward (and they were not told there was such a reward). Gallus thought the awards would make the monotonous task feel like a game by adding an element of praise and fun for a job well done.

He was right. Volunteers who managed to get the effort were more likely to volunteer for Wikipedia over the next 20 months and 13 percent more than those who did not get praise for being active on Wikipedia a year later.

Examples like this seem like gamification to any fool: why wouldn’t a corporation want work to be more fun? Despite Gallus’s exciting results, recent research shows that as a top-down strategy for behavior change, gamification can easily be reversed. It was directed by two of my Wharton colleagues — Ethan Mollick and Nancy Rothbard experiment that was just proven. Hundreds of vendors who had a boring job of getting closer to the business took part, and were then persuaded to offer coupons for discounted products or services sold on the company’s website (think Groupon). The sellers eventually earned commissions for each coupon sold online.

In an attempt to make this more exciting, Mollick and Rothbard, along with professional game designers, created a sales game on the theme of basketball. Sellers can earn points by closing deals with customers, earning more points for larger deals. Sales of hot cables were called “mock-ups,” while cold sales were called “jump shots”. The giant screens on the sales floor showed the names of the best actors and occasionally showed basketball animations as a successful dunk. Regular emails updated the “players” who won the winners and when the match was over, the winner got a bottle of champagne.


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