Are Incentives Enough to Gamify your Life?

Are incentives enough to gamify your life?I recently read a post on Lifehacker about how a guy had “gamified” his life by setting up a points system to incentivize behavior. In summary, things he enjoyed doing were given a cost value, and things that he didn’t were given a points value. He could then track the points he had accumulated and trade one for another.

At first glance this would appear to be an effective form of gamification as most people would understand it. The question becomes, does the addition of a points system automatically gamify a system? If so, gamification just became very easy to apply.

First, lets look at the positives of the proposed system.

The idea of a points system to track activities, that the player has to do but doesn’t find enjoyable, provides a valuable feedback system. This allows the player to see how they are progressing with their goals, and to predict the rewards that they are going to receive.

Now for the problems with this approach.

The system as it stands is only going to appeal to the achiever player type. The achiever type will be interested in amassing the points. But even then, the predictability of rewards can lead to future disengagement. It is too easy for a player to figure out the optimal strategies of the game and so collapse the decision tree down to very predictable decisions.

For example, if I know I want to go and drink a craft beer (an example of an enjoyable activity the author listed) but I am X number of points behind being able to do it, what sort of activity am I most likely to choose to do? Obviously the task that gives me the most points for the least effort.

This commoditisation of activities can also have other unexpected negative consequences. The book Sway contained a beautiful example of this.

When a kindergarten instituted a charge for the late pickup of children in their care, it lead to an increase in the numbers of late pickups. Parents began to see the charge as a way of alleviating their social responsibility; “I paid the cost therefore my responsibility has been met.”

With the given system it is too easy to avoid tasks you don’t want to do by doing ones that aren’t as difficult (I didn’t phone my mother but I did the dishes so I have enough points to still go to the movies tonight). Something similar is likely to occur with any incentive driven system.

From the perspective of an explorer player type, the game is simply not interesting. The simple trade system is too easy to understand and it has become (or will very quickly become) a solved game.  The rules set does not produce any sort of emergent behavior to explore, nor does it have anything that is opaque that would encourage experimentation. The only possible enjoyment that an explorer would have with the system would be in changing operating rules and seeing how that changed his personal behavior. But again the simplicity of the system makes this too predictable to hold a players interest long-term.

The socializer and killer types have absolutely no reason to engage with the system at all. It does not provide opportunities to interact with or take actions on other players which are their primary interests.

So, out of Bartle’s player types, it is likely to only engage the achiever (and then only for a potentially limited time) meaning the number of people who would enjoy using the proposed “game” is very limited.

In many regards, the system presented is closer to a frequent flyer reward program than a game proper. While both use “game like elements in a non game situation”, neither actually manage to grasp what makes a game engaging in the first place, and fail as attempts at gamification.

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