What if everything were a game? What if you could beat your friends at washing the dishes? What if there were rewards for putting out the rubbish? What if you stayed up all night to achieve a top score in tea-making? What if, what if, what it…? Wouldn’t everything be so much more fun?
This is the basic idea behind gamification, which was discussed (in comedic fashion) on Radio 4 recently. Gamifaction takes the features of games – points, prizes, Bruce Forsyth – and applies them to the more mundane parts of human life. It encourages us to do certain things by making them more enjoyable. Or at least that’s the plan.
You might have come across gamification without noticing it. In many cases, it is done discreetly. One example from my own everyday life is the small ‘karma’ score in the top right-hand corner of my computer’s to-do list programme. Complete tasks, and it goes up. Leave them undone, and it goes down. You have to be efficient or your karma suffers.
But gamification has many more applications than this; some of them to do with motoring. The Radio 4 show alighted on the amazing example of the Stockholm Speed Camera Lottery. This came about from a competition– what else?! – to find fun solutions to trenchant social problems. The winner was a speed camera that doesn’t just catch out speeding motorists, but also places non-speeding motorists into a draw for cash prizes. This is a lottery that rewards good behaviour.
And what happens when good behaviour is rewarded? Easy – it’s encouraged. This is what happened in Stockholm. Apparently, the average speed of passing cars was reduced by 20 per cent in the presence of these new cameras. Everyone wanted some of that lottery money.
For those that follow the public policy debate in Britain, this may sound similar to the ‘nudge’ theory that was bandied about a few years ago. This was popularised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book of the same name, and aims to get people to do things without forcing them to do things. Hence ‘nudge’, not ‘push’.
An example is provided by, of all things, tax returns. In a trial a few years ago, HM Revenue and Customs sent out a new style of reminder letter for those who hadn’t yet coughed up. This letter didn’t threaten incarceration or banishment. It simply mentioned a little statistic: the percentage of people in the area who had already paid their dues. Whatever emotion this triggered in the recipient – shame? public-mindedness? – it worked. Repayment rates in the test groups rose by 15 per cent.
It’s easy to see why governments are so keen on this thinking. By making a small change, as small as changing the wording of a letter, they can achieve big results; which is particularly handy at a time of fiscal constraint. Our own Government even enshrined it within British politics by establishing a ‘Nudge Unit’ – officially called theBehavioural Insights Team – on Whitehall. That team has since spun off, and is advising politicians around the world.
This work is not without controversy, though. There are those who regard it as just a stealthier, but no less sinister, form of coercion. If the Government can use our psychologies to make us act in particular ways, aren’t they trampling across democracy and free will? When does encouragement become exploitation?
These questions certainly apply in the case of gamification, and we can add more to them. In an article for Slatein 2011, Heather Chaplin asked: ‘You want to transform peoples’ lives into games so they feel as if they're doing something worthwhile? Why not just shoot them up with drugs so they don't notice how miserable they are?’ This may seem like a particularly sour way of putting it, but it represents some general concerns. What if we don’t want to play these games? What if we’re bad at them?
The answers may have to arrive on a case-by-case, or game-by-game, basis. Among the many considerations are whether the ‘game’ yields good outcomes, whether it’s unobtrusive, whether everyone has a chance of success, whether it’s fun in the first place… and so on.
Which is why the Stockholm Speed Camera Lottery is such a fine example. It doesn’t ask anything of its participants other than what was asked before: that they drive within the speed limit, for the sake of safer roads. It just makes the whole process happier by adding cash prizes. Who could complain about that?
And the same goes for some of the other ideas from that completion. Staircases that work like pianos? In-car entertainment systems that prompt children to wear their seatbelts? These are good ideas, not evil corporate control.
It is the responsibility of gamifiers to make sure it stays that way. This is a powerful and exciting tool that they have developed – and I, for one, would like to see more of it in action. In the meantime, though, I’m off to Sweden to make a quick buck by being slow.