Common Misconceptions about Emerging Technologies: Gamification

February 10, 2014

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First in a series on common misconceptions about emerging technologies.

Misconception: Gamification is about giving out badges to users.

I had the chance recently to go through Code.org’s Hour of Code, an introduction to a series of free online courses that are designed to teach children (not to mention adults) the fundamentals of computer science. Hour of Code teaches a few basics of JavaScript using a drag-and-drop interface and exercises with challenges and goals from Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies and other popular games. Students make progress level by level, and after they’ve completed the full Hour, they each get a certificate of completion.

By December 2013, Code.org claimed that over 20 million users had completed the Hour of Code. The course seems to me a prime example of gamification, not just because it rewards users with certificates of completion or incorporates bits of games, but because the entire design reflects a solid understanding of how users are motivated and the game conforms the design to that understanding. Code.org’s designers encourage students to make more and more progress, but equally importantly, they’ve cleared some fundamental obstacles students have faced when it comes to getting a leg up on programming concepts.

If all Code.org did was give badges to users who manage to make it through a given part of a course, it would fall short the way most tutorials do. Programming isn’t an easy subject to teach, and Code.org has a lofty ambition to establish computer science as a part of the core K-12 science and math curriculum in all 50 US states.

The success of any online environment depends on effective design and smoothing out each rough spot or motivational stumbling block a user might encounter along the path. Game companies have learned the basics of effective design the hard way, through trial and error. They have had to find ways to succeed or go out of business. Gamification as a business discipline distills those lessons so that other industries can benefit from the gaming industry’s hard work.

Companies who’ve delved deeply into gamification grasp its central tenets—particularly the tenet of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated users derive deeper satisfaction from participating than users who just receive simple rewards, but that motivation is harder to tap and sustain from a design point of view because intrinsic motivators such as autonomy, mastery, purpose and relatedness are higher up in Maslow’s hierarchy. Providing that level of motivation takes a deeper understanding of human thought process and more work.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation

PwC’s Tech Forecast (2012, Issue 3) focused on the topic of gamification. One gaming company executive interviewed for the issue designed a training course in P&L basics for its own developer teams around competitions. Key to the success of the course was to stimulate the curiosity of the teams by presenting the challenge as a puzzle. Those teams who solved the puzzle the fastest achieved the highest profits. Think about the design factors that went into the building of that kind of environment—it amounted to a business simulation of sorts, with teams, balance sheet education, a series of harder and harder goals, and the intricacies of puzzle building, among many other things….

Successful gamification doesn’t have to go quite that far, but it does require consistent, long-lasting commitment and an iterative, test-driven development process. It requires knowledge of what continually engages customers, employees and partners. And it requires as much attention to tuning the online process as any offline process demands. What examples of thoughtful gamification have you come across at the websites you visit or the apps you use?

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Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffery

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email