The trend of applying elements of computer games to nongame situations relies on two assumptions. One is that people are more likely to do something—shop for something, let’s say, or go to a bar, or share information with people at work—if they enjoy it. The other is that they’ll be more likely to enjoy anything if it’s part of a game.
But just because games can be fun doesn’t mean they are necessarily a good way to motivate someone to do something, says Judd Antin, an anthropologist and social psychologist who studies online experiences at Yahoo Research (and was one of this year’s TR35 winners). Gamification, especially in offices, can actually discourage some people, he says; understanding what works in different settings will be crucial if gamelike systems are to have any staying power. Antin spoke with Technology Review’s deputy editor, Brian Bergstein.
TR: Do you see a lot of evidence of companies that are installing gamelike programs in hopes of encouraging their workforces to do certain things?
Antin: There are lots of examples of this. I think it’s all driven by hype to a degree, and also by the idea that “what harm could it possibly do?” When I give talks about this, I have a slide with tiny print: “Why not gamify? Well, here are 50 reasons.” I can barely fit them on the slide.
What are some of the reasons?
From research in social psychology and behavioral economics, we know that the most likely thing that will happen is you’ll motivate some people, you’ll demotivate other people, and for a third group there’ll be no effect at all. And we won’t really know who are the people we’re motivating more or less, or why. And we won’t know what we’re encouraging them to do. It could be that we’re motivating shallow people who are interested in the quick serotonin reward of winning a leaderboard on a given day to [for example] post a thousand comments.
Why do some incentives actually demotivate some people?
There’s this really well-known phenomenon in behavioral economics and social psychology called crowding out. It is about the interaction between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards—if you love to do something and then I pay you to do it, it can become about the money, and not about the love, and ultimately your motivation is lower.
Think about Google Knol [an attempt to create an expert-written encyclopedia to rival Wikipedia]. That thing was destined for failure from the beginning. Because they thought you apply the market to anything. You want people to be motivated by tangible rewards, by monetary rewards, so you give them a cut of the advertising. But what you lose is all of the intrinsic motivation. You find that when you’re in it for the money, you’re not in it for the community as much.