Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Thoughts on Gamification

I just unlocked the ‘client-friendly’ badge on GoldenLadder (or did I?)

I have been joining some dots between the automatic sharing functionality now being enabled in Facebook and the practice of utilising game theory to increase participation within social networks. Facebook’s new frictionless sharing model generates micro-posts based on current activities: I am listening to a song right now or I am reading an article right now, etc. That seems to be of limited interest, and something best experienced in the ‘river of news’ format of the new sidebar ticker. But from there it does seem to be only a short step to generating more interesting aggregate posts that may give stronger signals about whatever we are focused on.

It is too easy to scoff at the achievement badge notifications showing up in my Facebook news feed: Daphne is the mayor of her favourite coffee shop; Fred has unlocked the AppleFanBoy badge for three check-ins at an Apple Store; and Velma has gone to more than five museums in the last month, etc. I think that something interesting is going in beneath the surface that is worth thinking about a bit further. The gamification model is currently most associated with location-based check-ins, but what other possibilities could it lead too? So setting aside all of the incessant buzzing about privacy, and abou Facebook and Google being “just creepy enough” and the related conversations about advertising metrics and monetisation, let’s take a look at some thought experiments.

At the most basic level now envisaged, we will become able to activate degrees of automated logging and trend-based sharing of aspects of our digital media consumption. Reading articles on The Guardian’s Facebook app being the canonical example in this launch phase. Looking at what might become possible, I have no doubt that I will be able to allow my Amazon Kindle to easily generate badges based on my reading patterns. Something like this:

I just unlocked the DFW_Stamina Badge on Kindle, with 100% of Infinite Jest now read.
Looking at that you can easily imagine ad-hoc reading groups becoming a possibility, and the discovery of friend's similarities in taste you may have been aware of, along with other network benefits. On the downside, will the smug satisfaction of being more well-read than your peers be enough to counteract any minor social shame associated with your holiday pool-side techno-thriller reading?

Then looking to broadcast media, it could be possible for us to set our Sky+ box to generate achievement badges based on our viewing patterns at home. Which could get you into some amiable competition with friends who share your viewing interests. What if:

I just unlocked the Whovian_2011 Badge on Sky+, watching all 13 episodes of Doctor Who, series six.
Now there are already plenty of competing web services that let people manually track their media consumption in this manner. But what tiny percentage of us have the time to manually log anything, never mind the inclination? I have played around with Feltron’s Daytum app, but I could never make a habit of it (and I would be on the early-adopter side of the bell curve most likely to stick with that). Zuckerberg’s insight is that it is only when these activities become automated, as under the new Facebook Open Graph, that the meaningful numbers kick in.

It seems to me that the engineering data-driven basis of all of this can run head-first into any disparity between the personas we choose to portray socially and the reality revealed by our actions. Let us assume that the belief of those constructing such systems is that both persona constructs align for the majority of individuals. If that turns out to be true, then these online behaviours will gain increasing traction and benefit from network effects. If humans turn out to be a more duplicitous lot, then there shall be a finite limit to adoption. In this case the real numbers will tell the true story over time.

Therefore, that leads to the realisation that all choices about what to measure and what to reward in the game mechanics become critical to its success. What class of signals could aggregated achievement badges possibly transmit? For example:

I just unlocked the Too Cool For School Badge on iTunes, listening to ten unsigned, Icelandic, Post-Rock, acts in September 2011.

I can easily imagine Credibility Farmers: a cost-efficient crowd-sourced workforce similar to today’s Gold Farmers who toil away within World Of Warcraft. Yet instead of outsourcing the levelling-up of their in-game avatars, people could outsource the consumption of higher-credibility media content to counterbalance their actual consumption of more middlebrow fare. (Without sounding overly dystopian, perhaps in twenty year’s time, Ireland’s call centres will be replaced by credibility farms with cost-efficient Irish workers listening to hours of high-brow Chinese theatre and business audio books to enhance the credibility metrics of middle managers in Sichuan province…)

On a more short-term timeline, what happens when our evolving publicness begins to embrace our careers and professional responsibilities? If there is any one area where game theory operates, it surely has to be on our career ladders. Could we start to see many of our friend’s business achievements and little victories appearing in our activity streams? And what might that read like?

I just unlocked the Client-Friendly Badge on GoldenLadder: with five client meetings for BFK this month.

It will be interesting to see how the redefinition of the existing private/public boundaries that we see taking place in the personal sphere will translate into our professional activities. Obviously, my mock-ups here only map readily to the quantitative aspects of our roles and responsibilities. The intangible value-added we all bring wrapped up inside our own mental black box can probably still only be shared with a story, whether over coffee or in a blog post. We are a long way yet from computing a metric for “I just delighted my client with a novel insight that neither of us expected”.

That said, I can see these kinds of applications of gamification and automatic sharing migrating towards the realm of our working lives. It is not that people seek validation from an auto-generated 64-pixel image file being appended to their Facebook database. It is that we are social animals and letting people know what we are doing and what interests us is built into our mental models. We are in the midst of a grand experiment which is taking that to an unforeseen scale. Exciting times indeed.

Since I wrote this article there has been a lot of discussion about frictionless sharing. These four posts give a representative sense for all sides of the debate.
— Starting with How Facebook Is Ruining Sharing by Molly Wood.
— Then Why Facebook’s Seamless Sharing is Wrong by Marshall Kirkpatrick.
— Richard MacManus responds to both of those posts with Facebook Hasn’t Ruined Sharing, It’s Just Re-Defined It.
— The last word for now has got to go to MG Siegler, who cuts through a lot of the hand-wringing with Pushing The Envelope, Not The Share Button.