“Gamification”: Making intrinsic motivators better?

“How do I get people to do X”, or “more of X”? That question is pretty much the motivation for the notes I write myself here.
We economists are pretty expert at answers of the form “pay them the right amount, at the right time, as the right function of observables”. But on the interwebs, the question often is how to get people to work harder or contribute more for free. For one thing, a lot of ventures don’t bother with things like, well, revenues (at least initially). And often more important, the transaction costs of identifying, contracting with, and setting up and executing payments to a large number of micro-contributors exceed the benefits of paying them.
So, there is much attention to intrinsic motivation: making people feel good enough about what they’re doing that they want to do it without something messy, like being paid. A lot of sites have been developing and refining tools like leaderboards and badges to give people a sense of accomplishment, some recognition, perhaps a reputation.
More recently, especially following the explosive success of lo-fi casual social gaming (can you spell F-A-R-M-V-I-L-L-E?), folks are trying to combine gaming with intrinsic motivators, in what is called “gamification”. Foursquare does this with its badges; so does Scvngr. A recent article in Incentives Magazine (of course) provides a pretty detailed overview of the emerging gamification industry. A number of firms now sell tools, widgets and platforms allowing folks to gamify any web site.
Games have been used for a while to induce socially useful work: these are usually called “games with a purpose”, and their early growth and success is due largely to the work of Louis van Ahn and Laura Dabbish. The idea behind GWAP is to deisgn a game that is intrinsically fun to play, but the playing of which directly produces useful work. One well-known example is the ESP game: two people anonymously matched over the web are shown the same images: they type in labels. The more times they type in the same labels, the more points the score. Meanwhile, labels that are popular are saved as tags for the image. Google uses this system now in its image labeler.
The gamification business generalizes this. The games themselves need not produce useful work: rather , the fun of being able to play them motivates the user to do something (not necessarily the game) that the provider values. For example, customers might stay on a site longer, or engage more so that they remember the site (or develop loyalty) and return later.
I particularly like the following observation from the article, because it touches on the critical importance of storytelling in effective (and persuasive) communication: storytelling. Barry Kirk, solution vice president of consumer loyalty at Maritz Loyalty & Motivation, said, “before slapping badges on everything, make sure your ‘game story’ is well thought out”. He added, “If this were a game, would it be interactive, playful, and engaging? All good games are special experiences, and how to apply gamification is just getting started.”

4 thoughts on ““Gamification”: Making intrinsic motivators better?”

  1. Jeff –
    I wrote about the City of Ann Arbor’s unpromising foray into incentives for recycling here:
    In response someone on a private mailing list referred to low-dollar cash incentives as “micro-bribery”, and discounted the ability of money to motivate people to play if the money was insufficient to the task.
    The rather naive economics that I remember being taught about human behavior is that people would always prefer an extra dollar at the margin, all else being equal. I suspect there’s some very fundamental untruth to that, in that paying someone zero might be preferable to underpaying them. That suggests a role and function for game-based rewards – you can get people out of the world of evaluation of choices based on money, and into some kind of imaginary points realm, and even if you let people cash out their points to dollars in some future time they don’t have to bear the burden of thinking they’re being cheated out of their work.

  2. Hi Ed. It’s probably reasonable to think that people always prefer an extra dollar at the margin, if all else *is* equal. However, there’s been a fair bit of research in recent years by behavioral economists and social psychologists that address this question more closely when things aren’t always equal. For example, the value of a dollar on the margin can vary a fair bit when contexts are switched. Indeed, in some contexts, introducing money in the first place (extramarginal) can, apparently, change the psychological framing of the context, and the dollars may actually have a negative effect. Could be because people find monetized transactions distasteful in some settings (many people who try to monetize incentives for their life partner’s behavior have learned this). It also appears that our norms about appropriate behavior may change when we perceive a setting as one that is monetized or not; see Gneezy and Rustichini, “A Fine is a Price”, J Legal Studies, 2000 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/724635).
    I think this is quite relevant to gamification: a social game context may elicit very different behavior than a market transaction context for the exact same work.

  3. Really excited to read about this, and your programs in Michigan. We just wrapped up the first round of GameSave (see associated link) and I’d love to see how we could connect for future rounds.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s