I just earned a game badge entering my budget information – should I care?

My app just pushed a notification telling me I earned a trophy badge – welcome to the latest trend and hype, gamification.  I love Xbox games, and the flash ‘feedback’ of winning or being eaten by vampires is fun, but in business, many areas require putting all the details into some perspective and insight, and most processes are not particularly trivial. Will widespread adoption of gamification techniques make things better or worse inside companies?

Gameinformer, magazine focusing on video games recently had an fascinating article comparing the current game production industry to the movie industry, equating it to early ‘talkies’, circa 1927.  Games are now so complex, so deeply textured, the script writers, producers and developers all have to track complex story arcs, maintaining a consistent tone and story line to pull you through the story spanning 8 or more hours.  Games are our equivalent of 1000 page novels with all their detail and plots.   Game creation is just starting to develop the concept of being its own art form, not duplicating the techniques of movies or TV.   However, like anything where success requires long term engagement, a compelling narrative has to be foremost and kind of obvious.  At brainstorming meetings, the article quotes, people discuss “what are our big set pieces, what we really want to hang our hats on”.   It’s hardly trivial, gamey features; its core content and deep, compelling game play.  The focus is on getting the player immersed in a complex, deeply textured story.  No matter how many levels and leaderboards you created (all key components of gamification), if the game isn’t compelling, no one will stick with it for the time required to earn those levels.  Content and core functionality always triumphs over trivial add-ons.

Today’s NY Times Business section has side by side series of articles which puts today’s trivialization discussion into sharp, Ultra-HD focus (4D, I believe it’s being called).  The first is about how many websites publish content created under the ‘pay for play’ system without clearly identifying it as such. Often, this gush content is hidden behind slick interfaces, where swiping right to a new story is more fun than reading the content itself.   So many sites push branded/sponsored content right alongside curated content, it’s almost impossible to see which is which unless the branded content is labeled ‘sponsored’, which defeats the business model, and so is not done very often   Publishers, in their own defense, claim there’s a China Wall between content writers and the sales department, but it does not take a PhD in Ethics to figure out what would happen if one of these ‘independent thinking’ writers wrote an article criticizing a corporate customer’s point of view or product.  A user could read hours of paid for content, learn nothing reading a straight ad wouldn’t communicate, all the while earning multiple badges and trophies while accomplishing nothing material.

The second article, right next to it on both the 1st page of the Business section, as well as the continuations on page B4 is about the late Roger Ebert.  Besides an early proponent of syndicated TV (apparently he mentioned the benefits of syndication to his then colleague, Oprah, who, lucky for her, took it to heart), he was prolific and multi-media (TV, newspapers and books, as well as Ebertfest, among others). Why did he have such reach? Perhaps it was his insistence on authenticity, great content, and not gamification tricks.  You read Roger Ebert, or watched Siskel and Ebert because you would get the straight scoop you sought, without the pleasure of earning a trophy badge for doing so.  The payoff was the content, and some entertainment, and the ‘trophy badge’ was not wasting time and money on a bad flick – something real.

Why the need for gamification at all, then?  For optional consumer participation, it can add double digit user engagement and we agree, internal users, like consumers, have to use easy to understand applications or they will leave, or zone out before they leave.  We have a theory about the wide-spread and increasing use of gamification within companies themselves.   David Brooks wrote recently about ‘achievatrons’, a class of people who work hard, achieve goals, and are pleasant but cautious.  Per his recent Op Ed piece in the NY Times, these people can be found at the best universities and thriving inside our companies.  Couple this personality type with the dopamine released during multi-tasking and you get where we are today – the goal is to get something done quickly, not necessarily in the deepest detail or with the benefit of perspective.  I asked one of these people about where they got their news and currents from and they told me they don’t care about the analysis, or perspectives, they just want to be ‘in the now’.  Timing was more valuable than accuracy. Recent brain research shows people who constantly multi-task have decreased attention to detail  and tend not to think things through to their conclusion the first time through.  Which is more beneficial for a company – someone paying attention within a well-designed application, getting the order right or fixing a problem, or giving a CSR who’s multi-tasking their brains out a lovely set of badges?  Do you want to have a leaderboard in Customer Care showing who handled the most calls, or is handling an acceptable number while taking the time to fix the underlying issue going to drive Top Line Revenue? Should the end-goal be the activity or the end product?

Not every user experience has to border on being Dostoyevsky like, but we have to decide when playfulness is necessary (such as having consumers associate us with a dopamine release), and when we need to focus on real transactional value and content.   I have several apps on my smartphone awarding  me badges all the time, but I use the apps because they deliver value to a necessary task.  If they didn’t,  all the trophies and badges they could create would be useless. Humans process images and symbols faster than anything else and your internal user interface is sending a message to your users – forget gravitas, we’re into electronic trinkets, or the message can be ‘we’re here to have a decent day and make some cash for everyone’s benefit’.

A renowned designer once said he developed widely successful luxury goods by taking out features and functions, until only those necessary to accomplish the product’s mission remained.  He then used only the best materials to make these products.  Maybe we should think in those terms for our user interfaces and business applications and processes, or we could give this designer a trophy badge and call it a day.

Richard Eichen is the Founder and Managing Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, http://www.growroe.com and is one of their senior turnaround leaders/CROs, Program Rescue and Interim Executives with over 25 years’ experience reshaping companies, Operations, IT/Systems Integration and key initiatives. Return on Efficiency, LLC specializes in those companies and initiatives where technology is the primary means of service delivery and revenue creation.  He can be reached at richard.eichen@growroe.com