The building that I work in at the Microsoft Campus in Reading was remodelled at the end of the year. It’s all hi-tech and futuristic, with LED displays all over the place and a showcase of our consumer products in the reception area (including a mock living room with XBox Kinect to boot).

However the thing that I’ve recently noticed that is remarkable is a perspex box, about three feet in height, which has a slot in the top. Inside there are three white plastic sheets, each set at roughly a 45 degree angle. The box is where visitors to the building are asked to deposit their guest passes and lanyards, and as they drop them in through the slot at the top, if you get it right, they snake down the box into the void at the bottom.

Today I watched a group of half a dozen visitors queuing eagerly to return their passes. Guest passes are usually something that you find in your pocket a day or so after visiting somewhere – the perspex box is a moment of genius.

It’s not a particularly original idea in of itself – charity collection boxes have used this principal for years, and I can think of a number of examples, be it the old RNLI boxes where a lifeboat would shoot down the runway of on the deposit of a coin, through to the more avant garde perspex collection boxes in the entrance to the Tate Modern. But solving a problem by giving a small reward (in this case, Powered by Physics ™) is a great example of Gamification, in my humble-ish opinion.

Given all of that, I took a little issue with a recent article on techcrunch regarding the concept of Gamification – It’s an interesting article, but the point I had an issue with was right at the end, where is said that Gamification would move to a “world beyond badges: Badges will increasingly become less and less important, and the rise of true virtual currencies will become more prominent to offer users more than vanity accomplishments in the form of badges.”

If you aren’t aware of the concept of Gamification, for me in simple terms it’s how simple reward mechanisms can be used to motivate people to do particular things. The FourSquare service (one of those social things that I personally never quite got), which enables people to “check in” to locations to win awards (including being “The Mayor” of those locations) is a great example of how Gamification can encourage particular behaviours – in this case revealing quite intimate information about one’s whereabouts.

The reason I take issue about the statement about a world beyond badges is because, for me, it misunderstands the things that drive people. Tell an Olympic athlete that they are competing for the “virtual currency” of the equivalent value of their “vanity accomplishment” of an Olympic medal and you’ll be met with long stares (or a good punch in the nose if it’s the Boxing competitors you’re talking to). Tell Fred Goodwin that it’s only a vanity accomplishment that he’s lost in the last week and the punch will be that bit harder. But at a more basic level, tell guests at Thames Valley Park that they’ll get 15p (or whatever the notional value of their pass is) rather than a sliding, snaking exhibition, and you won’t see as many passes being returned.

People play games for many reasons. I’ve no doubt that some of the drivers behind game playing can be used to encourage or discourage changes in behaviours. But I’m not convinced that attributing “real” values to those gaming achievements would make the behaviour change more impactful.

8 thoughts on “Motivating through games

  1. I like the example of the sliding badges.
    My thinking on that topic is that badges make sense when they serve a purpose to achieve the intrinsic rewards. Then they are perfectly fine. But as soon as you think you just slap badges on something and it turns into something great, then you are wrong.
    Badges at the Olympics or in the military have a real purpose and indicate intrinsic values. Foursquare badges not necessarily…

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