Incentives and Gaming the Real World

The announcement of Epic Win, an upcoming iPhone application spread across the Internet last Friday, was heralded as a new way to make every-day tasks more enjoyable and compelling. Epic Win takes traditional elements from RPGs – quests, XP, rare loot – and layers them over the demands of daily life, with the expectation that the application will inspire us to “Remember that birthday card, send that email, or drag ourselves to the gym on a regular basis.”

As Jane McGonigal mentioned on twitter, Epic Win isn’t the first to attempt to apply lessons from RPG design to everyday chores. Chore Wars, which launched in 2007, “lets you claim experience points for household chores. By getting other people in your house or workplace to sign up to the site, you can assign experience point rewards to individual tasks and chores, and see how quickly each of you levels up.”

Since the details of how Epic Win sets experience point values for goals, or structures larger quests, its not possible to comment on their application. Chore Wars, therefore, is an excellent starting point for a discussion of what works, and what doesn’t, when companies try to make applications that leverage ideas from game development.

Points and Badges Don’t Mean Games

On the New York Times Bits Blog Nick Bilton notes that, “Everything seems to have a game element to it these days.” I’ve written elsewhere about the dangers inherent in the ever expanding number of external incentives that are springing up to encourage behaviors as diverse as frequenting specific restaurants, to watching particular television shows. The common thread for most of these services is that the “game element” implemented consists of mapping points to a pre-set list of activities. When the user completes tasks they are given points, which are further rewarded by badges for meeting certain levels, or for certain behavior patterns.

An eloquent critique of these systems is offered by Game Developer and Georgia Tech Professor Ian Bogost, in his Gamasutra article “Persuasive Games: Schell Games“:

“[W]ho cares about deliberation if we get the results we want? If achievement-like structures can get kids to brush their teeth or adults to exercise more, why does one’s original motivation matter?

Because to thrive, culture requires deliberation and rationale in addition to convention. When we think about what to do in a given situation, we may fall back on actions which come easily or have incentives attached to them. But when we consider which situations themselves are more or less important, we must make appeals to a higher order.

Otherwise, we have no basis upon which to judge virtue in the first place. Otherwise, one code of conduct is as good as another, and the best codes become the ones with the most appealing incentives. After all, the very question of what results we ought to strive for is open to debate.”

In this light, it seems odd that a single person’s to-do list would benefit from an application that provides pre-defined levels points and virtual objects for, e.g., sending emails. Undoubtedly the reason why I’ve, for example, not gone to the gym is based on factors such as my level of fatigue, the other tasks I need to complete, or because I’ve already gone four days in a row. In short, it is a dangerous practice to layer incentives on top of actions without taking into the reasons why I haven’t just completed my to-do list in the first place.

To this end, one of the most important things that Chore Wars does differently than the recent crop of real-world games is that it puts the game’s player-community in charge of what actions are rewarded, and what value particular actions have. By allowing players to co-develop objectives, and giving them the opportunity to compete, or co-develop strategies, with other players when completing objectives, the game’s system does not rely on rote completion of tasks in order to get points. Instead, players can negotiate “what results [they] ought to strive for,” – which, I think, is where the true power of bringing games to real life lies.

When applying RPG dynamics within companies, it is all too easy to draw up a list of tasks, corresponding XP, and badges, and call it a day. What we learn from Chore Wars, however, is that in order to meaningfully use these mechanics in the workplace it is essential to involve employees in helping set the objectives and rewards for quests.

So, will it be more like Foursquare or Chore Wars? I am very interested in seeing where Epic Win falls on the Gaming the Real World spectrum.

Guest Baxter Mathias Crawford is a researcher at the Institute for the Future, and part of the team behind Signtific Lab, the massively multiplayer thought experiment. His current passion and research is in the art and science of game design.

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