Meet Mr Gamification: He's got a NUDGE or two for you

Geddit?!?

Battle of Ideas Do you ever get invited to talk and wish that Steve Bong was there instead of you? That’s what happened to me last weekend. The subject was "gamification" at the Battle of Ideas. Things got really strange, really quickly – I think you’ll find what is coming up to be quite eye-opening - but I’m sure Steve would have taken it all in his stride.

The brief was to ask whether techniques of play – or "fun-nification" – in marketing were a gimmick or not, but it quickly spun into a pretty heated discussion of public policy; of whether manipulation works or can ever be justified; whether there’s any science behind the much-hyped "new psychology" touted in best-sellers like Nudge and Thinking Fast and Slow; and behavioural economics.

The chief advocate for “gamification” on the panel was the flamboyant “chief play officer” at PlayGen and founder of the “Digital Shoreditch” event. Apparently PlayGen had “applied gamification and games to deliver engagement on issues ranging from attitudes toward extremism to teenage pregnancy, from flood policy to climate change and from drink driving to helping young people explore their future career potential.” A bit like Live From Golgafrincham. But real.

I doubt if you there is anyone in the world who more deserves the title Mr Gamification than Kam Star, and if they’re out there, I’d like to see them try to wrestle the title off him. He’s even taking a PhD in Gamification. I bet you didn’t know such a thing exists.

Kam had brought slides (a first for Battle of Ideas, I think), and began with an MC-style call-and-response with the audience. (“Louder, I can’t hear you” - another first) before being told to get on with it. What he did for a living, he said, was “games for the Greater Good”. PlayGen had even “gamified gamification itself – we’re the meta of meta”. We never did find out what this meant.

He also announced that he had “£3.3m of free money to give away. Come and see me if you want some free money!”*.

It turns out that PlayGen has quite a lot of this. As well as commercial clients, it does social policy things too. One client was the police for whom he’d developed games “tackling extreme violence, and humiliation – all those difficult things”.

But it was through publicly funded research that PlayGen really seems to have hit the jackpot. Funders for its work include the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK), NESTA, the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), the JISC and three other research councils. And the EU. And universities. And quangos. Things you’ve never heard of. (I bet you haven’t heard of the "Serious Games Institute" – I hadn’t).

Here is a sample of Kam: Kam assured us this was based on the latest science, behavioural insight, but it didn’t always work. A meta study (whose name I didn’t catch) showed only 23 per cent of gamification projects worked, or made things better. Meanwhile, 26 per cent of the time it made things worse. Kam pre-empted what everyone was thinking: that was a bit rubbish. But that’s 23 per cent success, he insisted. And 97 per cent reported a change in motivation.

The “free money” had strings attached, it would actually be given out for nagware, such as “encouraging healthy behaviour”, and “collective engagement”.

After Star, a genial Norwegian, Tor Gisvold, CapGemini's head of digital, spoke on how games allow us to understand the "digital native" – young people who really understand technology, as opposed to old farts who merely make it – like you, probably. His insistence that "digital natives" had to be young and old people couldn’t qualify seemed like an unnecessary introduction of intergenerational conflict to me.

It's all awfully manipulative, really

The sparks really flew when panellist Shirley Dent began to examine the subject. She had nothing against about nice or clever design – “a playful nudge” that helped you cross the road without thinking, for example. The problem came when it started to fill the void of political engagement. This was parking the tanks up on Kam’s lawn (of “collective engagement” and “behaviour change”). And then she started firing.

“Where game-playing and story-telling are concerned, I think it is a perversion of our very human instinct to tell stories and play games. Where politics are concerned I think it is an abnegation of political conviction and argument,” she said.

She quoted Oakeshott’s definition of a human conversation: which is not a contest, and not a profit-mining exercise, but “an unrehearsed intellectual adventure”. The point of a conversation, like gambling, is not the "winning" but the taking part. So a conversation has an outcome that is “not an authoritarian’s to determine”.

Gaming at its best, said Dr Dent, could match that – in games like Journey, for example. But unlike conversations, gamification encounters have a predetermined outcome and a strictly defined winner: you’re playing to be nudged towards a defined goal, to Do The Right Thing. Choice is based on an individual’s judgment, but gamification and nudge denies that.

“Rather than convince me with rational argument, woman to woman, and allow me to make the choice about whether I should smoke or not, you manipulate me like a child with some tricksy game playing,” she complained. Gamification was a “pernicious social engineering project – all a bit Pavlovian for my liking.”

Cracking stuff, and I’m not sure Mr Gamification was prepared for this. “The opposite of serious is dull,” he told us, to puzzled looks all round.

Only in a Shoreditch Dictionary, I said. The opposite of serious is frivolous.

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