Gamification is a word. If it’s a word you’ve never read, used, or heard I’d caution against pronouncing and hearing it as “gam-ification,” such as in a noir novel’s way to describe a woman’s legs: “It’s them gams I tell’ya, not your mug, makin’ all the news!” I could’ve gone with the whaling version of gam, or the old-timey Scottish use related to teeth. Either way it’s “game-ification,” meaning to turn something into a game. It’s sort of an esoteric term in the technology field and like other terms of art or newfound verbiage I believe it is still looking to round out its meaning in the English language, outside of legs, teeth, and whales.
I say it is new but note that newness of language is not measured like vehicles, films, or crops. At Pennsylvania State University, in 2006, its student-produced newspaper appears to be the first to put it into print when it warned that “The ‘gamification’ of romance sends the wrong message to kids raised on video games.” Excellent point. Romance, like other life experiences, isn’t a game. Mostly. The word’s genesis was meant to describe how one effective and novel way to impart a lesson is to turn it into a game. Parents, as just one example, have been doing that same thing for eons with chores, summer reading, and other unpleasantries. It took some college journalists, presumably unskilled in parenting, to formally characterize the tactic in one tidy word.
We humans tend to desire many facets of a gaming experience. Concepts like being social, competing, improving then mastering skills, and achieving status all are at play while we’re involved in a game. A reward of some type signals that success has been attained in one or more of those areas. Winning the game may be the ultimate reward. All along the way, though, you can see that incremental measures provide satisfaction for many gaming desires. Those of us still engaged in NCAA, despite our teams more likely playing video games, know that from the tip-off to every bucket, foul shot, three-pointer, to beating the buzzers at both halftime and the last horn all present rewards even when only half the players get to cut the net down.
Some years after its first in-print use, gamification made its way more meaningfully into technology. Around 10 years ago software developers intentionally began incorporating gamification techniques into their development efforts, those beyond actual game development. Where tech is part of the culture, in the Bay Area, the San Jose Mercury News ran a headline in 2010 entitled, “Get ready for the decade of gamification”. It described how half of the venture capital pitches seeking funding for software applications included some form of the root word, “game.” In turn, a new company, Badgeville, was created with $15 million in startup funds to provide gamification services to software firms.
Outside of technology, gamification has also been implemented as it restyles the learning process, which can be part of countless training environments. In China, authorities are developing a gamified manner to rate its citizens. The Social Credit System creates a platform whereby one can boost (or lose) their credit by earning points for good behavior and societal merit. Across the world educational systems are gamifying lesson plans. New York has designed such an experimental school where traditional education methods are supplanted by gamification in order to connect more to today’s children, the “digital natives” some would say. Why does it work in such a diverse set of the human experience?
It’s more than merely being competitive and needing rewards. Those desires and needs stem from the brain where attention, memory, and learning activities rely on dopamine. When we win, or even receive one of the more incremental rewards, the dopamine neurotransmitter leads to a pleasing sensation in the ol’ noggin’, and we like that, and then we want more. Like other dope, though, there can be too much of a good thing.
How about gaming getting gamified itself? Not to go full meta on you, but in that sense we recently found that gamification has limits. I’m talking about GameStop and its stock price fiasco. Wall Street, altogether, might be looked at like a game. Somewhat of a gambler’s game you could say. The wise investor knows the information and the rules behind the “bets,” but none but the few investor-owners have real influence over the game’s results. GameStop trades on the New York Stock Exchange so that anyone can gamble by buying its stock low and then selling when it is higher. With GameStop, you could have bought five shares in late December for $100 and within 30 days amassed $3,000. It’s not because GameStop was worth diddly more than it was a month prior.
Robinhood is an investing tool in the same general category as Edward Jones, Fidelity, and other brokerage services, but modeled on gamification. It’s highly tuned to millennials, digital natives, and others seeking new modes for old activities. Through gamification, Robinhood creates a place to trade on Wall Street in a manner that masks the severity of investing with the same rewards, bells, and whistles plied by GameStop, ironically. Your first stock pick is presented as a lotto card that you virtually scratch off.
The Robinhood user faces psychologically moving color palettes and sensory motivators similarly deployed in casinos. Robinhood’s GameStop game during 30 days truly did provoke emotional responses. Thus, the irrational rises and falls of its stock price. With the consequences masked in the gaming features “game over” took on a morbid meaning when one young investor believed he’d lost $750,000 so took his own life.
Gamification can be effective. However, reality must be kept in check, and not virtual reality, mind you. Here, it might not be only a game. There may be serious consequences. Play on … with caution.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at email@example.com.