Let the games begin

As children, our parents made up little games to motivate us to complete difficult and mundane tasks.

‘Hop in the car please’ never worked. ‘Race you to the car!’ did. ‘Quiet please’ saw us chatting seconds later. ‘I’ll time you and see if you can stay quiet for 1 hour’ hushed us for half that time.

A few choice words had our 5-year-old selves tackling the simplest of tasks like they were the greatest personal challenges of our lifetime. How so?

If I run and don't Strava, did I even run at all?

If I ran and didn’t Strava, did I even run at all?

Well, games are fun. Life admin, a balanced diet, regular exercise, work health and safety, though vital, are not so fun. What if one could equalise the other? What if we could gamify the difficult and the mundane, to get us a little more motivated, a little more emotionally invested in vital tasks? Would we play along ? Well, we already are.

Last night I went along to PWC for a seminar on ‘gamification’. Until now I had misunderstood gamification to mean applying  game theory and design principles to online systems, to make administrative processes more intuitive. It turns out gamification is far more literal than that.

Gamification isn’t just about making dull tasks fun. It’s about tapping into people’s motivation and engaging people at an emotional level to participate in a task. The psychology and technology behind gamification is not new, but the technique is being applied in new and different contexts.

It’s obviously useful in education and no doubt kids these days have learning apps at every fingertip. This is nothing new. My favourite subject in year 6 was ‘computing’ because we got to play a game called ‘Kewala’ for one hour straight (anyone remember this?). It was a ‘touch typing’ game in which you became a cartoon koala navigating your way through the Australian bush and you had to type faster and faster in order to avoid certain dangers. It was excellent fun and full credit to it for giving me the skills to type this very sentence with one eye on House of Cards.

Gamification is also big in health and fitness. Did we ever care so much about our steps, or our vertical metres, before Fitbits and MapMyRun and Strava came along? Never before have we been so accountable to ourselves, or each other. Throw social media into the mix and accountability quickly converts to competition.

Gamification has application in corporate and professional life. Last night we looked at how gamification could be used by governments and employers to educate and motivate certain behaviours, such as work health and safety compliance and cybersecurity awareness. A very extreme example of government nudging behaviour through gamification can be found in China, but I will get to that in a moment.

There are certain things that our governments, and our employers, want us to know. In fact, there are certain things that our governments and our employers need us to know. Not just because they have a legal and moral duty to ensure that we know them, but because it is in their commercial interest for us to understand them. We ought to be told about work health and safety so that we avoid harm. We ought to understand work health and safety because a safe workplace is a more productive workplace is a more profitable workplace. And also litigation.

PWC has come up with game that puts senior executives in the position of hackers and in doing so teaches them about cybersecurity threats and prevention. Apparently it’s quite good. I’m tipping it’s a little more sophisticated than your average e-learning material (“Click on the electrical cord to read more about trip hazards!”). Perhaps we will see more of this coming through our workplaces.

But for now, let’s get back to China. The land of the extreme. China has made ‘obedience to the state’ into a game. Yep, like Tripadvisor for humans. Except the state determines your score, through a scanning system that pulls material from your social media sites and online purchase history. ‘Like’ an article about democracy on Facebook – lose two points. Purchase a text book on communism from Alibaba – gain two points. But wait there’s more. Much like Qantas loyalty points, your ‘obedience score’ buys you a higher level of government service. Faster processing of travel documents, priority loans. Your obedience score is even calibrated against the obedience scores of your social media acquaintances. This creates an incentive for you to unfriend (read: socially isolate) those who do not conform the state’s expectations. It’s social engineering through peer pressure. And it’s set to be compulsory by 2020.

Currently there are no penalties for a poor obedience score, though that may change. Perhaps one day a low obedience score will render people unable to access finance, social welfare or even health care. Perish the thought.

You really have to see it to believe it.

I’m really not a gamer. But if a cartoon koala can get me hooked on touch typing, surely the right game can get me learning about anything. I hope someone develops a game that will teach me about superannuation, ‘cos that stuff’s too boring for words.



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