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Toy Psychology

Using virtual points and badges to shape our behavior may not be as effective as some have hoped.

The world is in the midst of a gamification revolution—a mad dash to incorporate points, levels, and achievement badges into nearly every online and mobile experience. According to the hype, these “game mechanics” are a magic potion that can motivate anyone to do anything—purchase brand-name clothing, publicly share location information, or adopt healthy behaviors. Yet like many Internet revolutions, this one is tinged with irrational exuberance. Truly understanding what game mechanics can do requires significantly more nuance.

The intuitive idea is simple and appealing. Games are engaging, so making anything more gamelike should make it more engaging too. The scientific justification seems equally straightforward. Game mechanics invoke reinforcement learning; like B. F. Skinner’s rats, we are repeatedly rewarded to produce the desired behavior.

Although behaviorist psychology is sound science, however, it is insufficient to justify gamification. Skinner’s rats pressed a lever to get a morsel of food, and there is little debate about whether that constituted a reward. For human beings, what counts as a reward is much less clear. Points, levels, or badges are not inherently rewarding. The reward, when there is one, comes from underlying psychological phenomena such as social status, reputation, and group identification. Very little quality research has been done to show how game mechanics invoke these phenomena, and what the effects may be when they do.

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When we look at game mechanics this way, it also becomes clear that they are unlikely to affect everyone in the same way. Some people actively seek status in the eyes of others, for example; other people are actually status-averse. Offering one-size-fits-all rewards may motivate certain people while putting others off. We need to understand more about the types of people who are motivated by specific gamelike rewards.

Another risk is that the extrinsic motivations supplied by game dynamics could crowd out motivations that are intrinsic to an activity. The most active Wikipedia editors, for example, are motivated by a shared investment in activities, interests, and beliefs that form a genuine connection among community members. The same is true in many online systems. Game dynamics, on the other hand, offer rewards that can be comparatively superficial and short-term. We know little about how gamification can undermine or support deeper, long-term motivation.

Game mechanics are, without a doubt, already effective motivators for some people in some contexts. Question-and-answer sites like Yahoo Answers successfully introduced points and badges long before the current craze. Well-designed incentive systems can enhance collaboration and bring more voices to the conversation. But game mechanics are not the magic potion they’re made out to be. Gamification is still in its infancy, and much more research and development is needed to deliver its valuable potential.

Judd Antin is a member of this year’s TR35 and a research scientist with Yahoo Research Labs.

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