Confusing pointsification with gamification

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on January 14, 2014

From The News Desk

I'm a fan of Farhad Manjoo, who has written for Pando in the past (consider that a disclosure), as well having held gigs at Salon, Slate, Fast Company, and now at the Wall Street Journal, but I think he misses the point in his latest column.

In it, he looks at "gamification," which he calls "an ugly neologism" that "refers to transferring the features that motivate players in videogames — achievement levels, say, or a constantly running score — into nongame settings." Since "much of what we do in the workplace is conducted through software that can track our productivity, constantly measure our value and apply incentives that prod us to do better," Manjoo wonders how workers would feel if "every one of your professional endeavors was meticulously tracked and measured in points, that there were levels to complete and you were given prizes for excellence. That every workplace action provided a tangible sensation of winning or losing as part of a system engineered to keep you addicted, thrilled to come back every morning."

I share Manjoo's distaste for the term "gamification," but what he's describing is really "pointsification," a term coined by game designer Margaret Robertson, who defined it as "taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience." That's rewarding Tropicana orange juice drinkers with redeemable points, for example, or giving readers badges for commenting on articles at HuffingtonPost.

The way Manjoo describes gamification in the office, it sounds more like he is, in the words of Will Wright -- creator of the mega hit "The Sims" -- touting "flawed pop behaviorism" by treating games as "as Skinner boxes that dole out points and badges like sugar pellets every time we hit the right lever."

Manjoo's vision is that the jobs of the future will take place within games like Candy Crush, and wonders if this might result in "better" employees or workers "crushed by metrics, constantly watched over, infantilized by your boss's attempt to turn you into an automaton?"

While I don't doubt that some companies and designers are working on pointsification platforms like these, the first rule of gamification, if there is one, is that players have to want to play. They need to want to earn "intrinsic" rewards, not making participation an exercise in "extrinsic" rewards. What's more, a game has to be fun. If you force people to play then it's not a game anymore.

What Manjoo describes is simply poor game design. In a sense, he's taken a term and applied it to a narrow, controversial niche within the whole. It's a bit like saying technology is bad because it can be used to make products that can hurt you.

Gamification isn't just something that can be applied to the office. It covers a much, much wider range of possibilities. Canon’s repair techies learn their trade by dragging and dropping parts into place on a virtual copier. Cisco has developed a "sim" called myPlanNet, in which players become CEOs of service providers, and adopted gaming strategies to enhance its virtual global sales meeting and call center, lessening call time by 15 percent and improving sales between 8 percent and 12 percent. IBM created a game that has players run whole cities.

What's more, L'Oreal created games for recruitment, for gauging the skills of potential employees and helping them discover where in the corporation they would most like to work. Sun has games for employee training. Meanwhile, Japanese automaker Lexus safety tests vehicles in what it brags is the world’s most sophisticated driving simulator at its Toyota research campus in Japan. FedEx and airlines deploy game simulations to train pilots, and UPS has its own version for new drivers — one even mimics the experience of walking on ice.

These are many more examples, but you get the gist.

Manjoo warns that gamification companies' "nascent success should be a warning to us all: If you work in the information business; if you sell, market, create, track or are involved in any other endeavor that can be quantified, gamification is coming for you" -- something he says he dreads.

He's really talking about data, though, and how it is used. But data is not a game, and neither are points.

[Image Credit: Lisa Padilla on Flickr]