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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Infinite Gamification

Q&A on the Book Infinite Gamification

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Key Takeaways

• Most managers don’t realise they are actually gamifying their staff
• Comparison is tricky because you need to make it as equitable as possible
• Too often gamification programs become complex because they try to achieve too much with one score
•  The key principle in badge design is that it should mean something outside the context of the gamification program

The book Infinite Gamification by Toby Beresford explains how to create sustainable gamification programs that motivate teams and individuals for continuous improvement, using prime directives, scores, measurements, and badges. Using gamification you can design staff scorecards that drive behavior.

InfoQ interviewed Toby Beresford about infinite gamification, scores and metrics, defining prime directives, creating buy-in and engagement, driving behavior with badges, and  evaluating and improving gamification programs.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Toby Beresford: I noticed that many managers were using quantitative metrics and goals with their teams but didn’t realise they were gamifying them. I wanted to provide simple and comprehensive checklists for any manager so they could think through the behaviours they expect from the scorecards they create.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Beresford: the primary audience is managers working with digital teams - perfect for infoQ’s expert technical readers. So often when managing we share a target or a goal that has a number associated with it. As soon as we do that, we are gamifying those who we are expecting to do something about it; whether the resulting behaviours are the ones we want or not really comes down to how well we’ve designed the infinite gamification “program”.

InfoQ: How would you define infinite gamification?

Beresford: First let me explain gamification itself - gamification is happening whenever you encourage someone to do something in the real world using a game-like interface. For example, a sales leaderboard is a very game-like interface. Most gamification, like many games, have an end, a point where you achieve an “epic win.” When gamification is used for learning, this is typical. It’s what we call “finite gamification” - there’s a point when you can complete it. My focus has been on its quieter, yet actually more prevalent sibling - “infinite gamification”. This is a program design that could go on forever; it is sustainable. A good example of an infinite gamification program is the National Football League. Every year players and teams compete; someone eventually wins the superbowl, and then next year it starts all over again. Infinite gamification is where the big money is - the NFL is worth $91 billion, according to this Forbes article The NFL’s Most Valuable Teams 2019: Cowboys Lead League At$5.5 Billion.

InfoQ: Why are scores so important? What purpose do they serve?

Beresford: We all look at scores everyday; it can be as simple as a quick sanity check- “Am I doing the right thing?” which is very binary. It can also be very sophisticated, taking into account multiple inputs into a single consolidated score.

We all have a number of scores that we believe are important to us as they provide a signal to help us progress on our journey; whichever way we are going, they aren’t static and will change over time, so when you start jogging, for example, an app like Couch to 5k is enough to get you going, but once fit you might engage in something more challenging like Strava or even a virtual event like the running Vitality Running World Cup.

InfoQ: How can we create a good definition of the prime directive for our gamification program?

Beresford: A typical issue with any type of behaviour change (or management with metrics) is that we try to change multiple behaviours at the same time. This is really difficult to get right. Too often gamification programs become complex because they try to achieve too much with one score. It’s usually better to split multiple objectives into multiple programs.

By writing a clear prime directive for each program, we force ourselves to define not just our real objective but who the objective is for. This helps us figure out who should be paying to run the program too!

Schools are a good example where there are different programs for different prime directives. For example:

“To encourage environmentally-friendly travel to school” we will run an infinite gamification program acknowledging children for every day they walk to school instead of taking the car.

“To improve attendance” we will run a program which penalises children for unauthorised absences and we will show them their percentage attendance every half term.

The two prime directives (environmentally-friendly travel and improve attendance) give rise to two different infinite gamification programs in the school setting.

InfoQ: In what ways can we introduce scores to create buy-in?

Beresford: One of my mantras has been “only opt-in gets buy-in”. One of the best ways to introduce scores to staff is by offering them as optional and then encouraging as many as possible to adopt them. This forces us to focus on the benefits of the program for the individuals as well as for the organisation.  For example, when PWC tried to run a “social selling” program for its staff encouraging them to use social media to promote the business, they got a low adoption rate. Instead, they reframed the program as a “PWC Global Power 100” playing to a spirit of light competition among the staff. This program was entirely opt-in and has gained 100s of sign ups since its formation, encouraging staff to promote the business via their personal social profiles.

Beresford: Generally speaking, more transparency is good - players want to know how their score is calculated and they want to find the cheapest way to improve their score. That’s human nature. A good program allows for this and manages the risk of gaming the system accordingly. In my book I list 12 different anti-gaming techniques you can use.

In some cases it’s necessary to be opaque in the exact metrics used - Google does this for example when it gamifies websites using its “PageRank” algorithm. Websites don’t know exactly what gives them a higher score as otherwise they would try to game the algorithm, but Google does provide general principles to guide website designers.

InfoQ: Comparing scores can be tricky. The suggestion usually is to not do it. What healthier forms of comparison can you suggest?

Beresford: For individuals I think it’s always useful to be able to compare your current performance with past performance. When we try to lose weight we do this instinctively - I lost 2lb’s this week versus 1lb last week, and so on. It’s a good example of a metric you wouldn’t necessarily want to compare with others. It really doesn’t matter to me if others in my weight loss group have lost more or less than me.

However, an alternative strategy which can work is to focus on group versus group comparison. So to take our weight loss example, we might put two groups against each other to see which group can lose the most weight each week.

Comparison is tricky because you need to make it as equitable as possible - no one should start each score period with an unassailable or unfair advantage. For instance, to account for different group sizes we might use a metric of average weight loss. If our groups had vastly different starting weights we might refine the metric as “average percentage weight loss,” as this would allow groups with lighter dieters to compete with groups composed of heavier ones.

InfoQ: How can we prevent design pitfalls that reduce engagement or drive unwanted behaviours?

Beresford: The key is knowing the pitfalls so you can avoid them. The book lists several of the important ones to consider. Human nature is inherently complex - there will always be more pitfalls than any one book can list! A new pitfall I heard recently was “adding work to the work” - here the point is that you need to avoid asking your players to track themselves on top of doing the activity. For a sales team this might be asking reps to record manually the number of phone calls they do each day, instead of automatically tracking this via their call logs.

The real problem is that most managers don’t realise they are actually gamifying their staff. They don’t know that they need to consider the gamification design of their program. The reality is that every time you put a score, target, or metric in front of someone you are expecting them to change their behaviour to improve their score - and that’s gamification in a nutshell!

InfoQ: How can we detect when people are gaming our program? If this happens, then how should we take action?

Beresford: There are two types of gaming to consider here - either they are cheating or they have found a cheap way to score points, a loophole in our program design. For cheats, the best way to deal with this is to have a clear set of rules and principles you expect players to follow, then if you find someone cheating you can call them up and explain they are not acting according to the stated rules of the program. In most cases, the person will desist but sometimes you do need to enforce the ultimate sanction of kicking them off the program.

The second type of gaming, finding cheap ways to score points, is for you to fix. The principle here is “don’t blame the gamer, blame the game”. There are lots of techniques you can do - making that activity less valuable, capping the number of points they can earn with that activity, and so on. The book lists these. In order to do this though you need to have framed your program as one that will iterate over time. Too many gamification programs are launched as if these are the final rules and nothing can change - this is a recipe for disaster; most programs aren’t right the first time around. Human nature being what it is, by leaving room to evolve the program, you give yourself the flexibility to get it right over time. That’s why committing to prizes early on is unwise; if you’re offering a prize for behaving according to a set of specific rules (“Get a $100 bonus if you make five new sales by Christmas”) for example, then you are stuck with that until the period ends. A better approach is to keep cash prizes to finite programs with short time periods (“$20 bonus for any sale in the next 24 hours”) and then take the time to evolve the longer-term program (“Top sales performers will be based on the following metrics. Note these metrics and relative weighting are subject to change each month.”)

InfoQ: How can badges help drive the behavior that we would like to see?

Beresford: Badges are a visual way to affirm a particular score or achievement. Using an open badge platform like Acclaim for example has the added benefit of making the badge shareable on social media and searchable by employers looking for specific skills or achievements. I think the key principle in badge design is that it should mean something outside the context of the gamification program. You really want your players to share it on social media, so it should make some sense to their friends, family and former colleagues.

InfoQ: What are your suggestions for evaluating and improving gamification programs?

Beresford: I think this an interesting area for development. I like looking at “player shift” reports, which show how player deciles have shifted in specific metrics over a long time period. For example, we might have a weekly sales program which seems to be giving results, but did the bottom 10% of staff improve their performance as much as the top 10% of staff (or vice versa)? This kind of analysis can provide gamification designers with crucial insight into how they need to evolve their program - a good program needs to drive improvements for everyone, not just the top or bottom performers.  A second line of enquiry is in evaluating business outcomes generated by the gamification program. This is why the prime directive mentioned earlier is so important. One program I ran drove over a million new tweets with the company brand during its time, a clear win for the marketing department. However, the program was being funded by the sales department so this benefit was not valued by the program sponsors. Getting the match between business goals and the behaviour change that the program drives is critical.

Toby Beresford is the author of "Infinite Gamification: How to Motivate Your Team until the End of Time". He is a well-established expert on gamification and social media. He has appeared on Sky News, as a keynote speaker and has worked with organisations large and small including IBM and PwC; he currently works with Veneficus Network. He has even gamified the United Nations to encourage UN staff to use social media to promote the work of the UN.

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