Levers in Gamification

Give anyone a lever long enough and they can change the world. It’s unreliable levers that are the problem.
Small Gods

So, another gamification project went over my desk. This time the project went full behaviorism. Just reinforcement. Personally, I’m not a fan of this approach. I think the cognitivist approach via autonomy, competence, and relatedness/meaning is much more … fulfilling.

And if you go the operant conditioning route … I seriously doubt there are that many levers you can use to reinforce behavior, at least in adults. I mean, look at Skinner’s pigeons or rats. They were deprived of either food or water. That was what’s needed for reinforcement via food pellets or water to work. Also, these pigeons/rats weren’t able to just go to the refrigerator to get some. There were essentially in a prison that would be considered inhumane for … well, a human.

So, yeah. If you have these conditions — a prison in which you can torture people by depriving them of food or water — go for them. But expecting an app to work because you get points (instead of food pellets), or positive messages by an app … not going to cut it. You’d have to be a drug pusher or prison warden to have any effect.

If apps that ostensibly use this method work, it’s because they (accidentally) hit some cognitivist switches. For example, they address the need to feel competent, to improve, by providing feedback via points. Points are not used as reinforcement, they have information value. They address the need for relatedness via messages that could have come from another human being. After all, it’s not like evolution could have build in ways to differentiate this kind of feedback from computer mediated messages by another human being. Or they allow for autonomy by providing multiple, actual choices.

So, yeah, it pays to think beyond behavioristic points and badges (leaderboards have their own problem). At least when you’re dealing with adults, in a civilized society.