Currently reading: Lots of Robson et al. articles on gamification

I started reading an article on gamification by Robson et al. and then went down the rabbit hole of their other publications. But at least now I have thought about gamification in a new way!

Robson et al. (2015) define gamification as “the application of lessons from the gaming domain to change behaviors in non-game situations“. Their examples come from a business context: How can they get customers and employees do basically what the company wants? They say by reinfocement and emotions. They use Skinner from 1938 to argue for reinforcement — that reference I haven’t seen in a long time! Together, reinforcement and emotions make players repeat the desired behavior. Reinforcement can be intrinsic (like having fun or other positive emotions) or extrinsic (like winning rewards).

What I find really interesting that Robson et al. (2015) distinguish between 4 different ways to be involved in a game:

  • designers: in an organisation for example the HR people that want the gamification, understand the framework described below, define the goals, set the rules, oversee the whole process
  • players: the person actually playing — either in their mind (absorbed) or with their whole (virtual) body (immersed)
  • spectators: people that are observing, but that with their presence influence the game itself (e.g. a supervisor who is watching)
  • observers: people watching that are further removed that spectators and only indirectly influence the game, e.g. by the players’ awareness of all of the company following the announcements of winners in a game.

Especially the last two I find really interesting, and also that rules can be fluid: Observers can potentially become spectators, and even players. Players can go off shift and become spectators.

Robson et al. (2015) then introduce the “MDE” framework to construct the experience all those people are involved in. MDE stands for mechanics, dynamics, and emotions.

  • mechanics, i.e., the goals, rules, and rewards in the game. There are three types of mechanics: setup mechanics with the rules that are known and fixed before the game starts and remain the same for every game; rule mechanics that determine what happens, how players are allowed to interact, how much time they have, what happens when they land in a specific spot or are dealt the UNO reverse card, progressing to the next level after a successful round of something, if they are measured against a standard or relative to each other; and progression mechanics, like scores, rewards, bonus points or lives, badges, leaderboards. For rewards, they can be zero sum (some win, some loose), or positive sum; with different motivational effects and costs.
  • dynamics, i.e., how players enact the mechanics: do to bluff, cooperate, brag, cheat?
  • emotions, i.e., how players feel toward the gamified experience. A mix of emotions during the game is usually desirable, but the overall emotions must be positive for players to want to stay in and repeat the game (which is the ultimate goal).

They then discuss American Idol as a gamified HR process, where music producers basically let potential employees work for free during a probationary period, and the audience/customers act as free feedback that helps the company tailor their products to what the audience likes.

From this, they derive a framework with five points to consider:

  1. A clear goal is needed. That is ONE clear goal; if there are several, they might compete and effects might cancel each other out
  2. All roles should be considererd and leveraged, not just the designer and player
  3. What happens when people try (and succeed) to break the rules?
  4. The game will (and should!) develop over time, so make sure you monitor what is going on and modify it to work towards your goals
  5. How will the game end in a way that all involved will want to engage in future games?

In a follow-up article, Robson et al. (2016) explore how to engage customers and employees. For this, they look into the differences in potential players along two axes: player orientation (towards their own growth, personal achievement, etc; or towards learning about or connecting with others) and player competitiveness. This leads to four types of players that react positively to different kinds of mechanisms:

  • socialites, who are interested in the social aspects of doing things in community, but not in winning. They need multi-player mechanisms! And they like “infinite plays”.
  • slayers, who want to win against others. They like leader boards, increasing task difficulties, end goals that you can reach and then the game is done and everybody knows who won, and multiplayers (as in competitors).
  • strivers, who want to better themselves and beat their own high scores, and don’t care about what others do; they like rewards like badges and points, increasing difficulty, and a finite end.
  • scholars, who just want to learn from the game by themselves; they like infinite plays with new levels, but don’t care about having competitors or gaining points.

They then give examples of successful and unsuccessful gamified experiences, where for example the rewards were not appealing because they revealed ifnormation that players did not want to share, or the player type did not match who they wanted to address, and provide points to consider in relation to who is playing:

  1. Figure out who will play (in terms of the personality types described above) before designing the game, so you can use mechanisms that work well for that type of player (or at least doesn’t put anyone off too much, if you are trying to reach all kinds of players)
  2. Make sure the reward happens close enough to the desired behavior that the link is clear and the desired behavior is more likely to be repeated (speaking of conditioning…)
  3. Make sure to adapt the game to what is happening in it, but in a way that rules don’t change unfairly or too abruptly so that players don’t leave because they feel betrayed and frustrated
  4. Managers must be referees and deal with cheating or other unfair behavior so that the personal relationships in the company are not damaged because of the game
  5. Figure out metrics to keep scores and evaluate the game

Next article down the rabbit hole: Robson (2019) on motivating professional student behavior!

Here, Robson first reviews the recent literature on the use of gamification in higher education and mentions all the benefits that it can bring: increased student motivation, attendance, quality of work.

Then, she presents the study: A gamified “personal branding assignment” intended to teach students how their behaviour influences the impression they convey to other people. It is designed as a non-zero sum game so students play with- rather than against each other, and points are awarded for desired behaviors like class attendance, engagement, extra readings, or sending professional emails with linking class content to the real world; while points are deducted for sleeping in class, playing on your phone, asking questions for which the responses are on the syllabus. You can also use your points to buy extensions of due dates or do-overs for exams. From the students with the most points, one will be drawn who gets to skip the final exam (I wonder how that works with the rules at that university!).

The main observed behavior change was a higher attendance and a lower phone use in class, points were most often lost because of unprofessional emails.

I am a bit conflicted in how I feel about this. I loved reading all the articles, they are so well written and captivating. And I love the idea of making learning more enjoyable. But this example somehow rubs me the wrong way, but probably mainly because I am thinking of students are more grown-up and professional than they might have been in this study. To me, this feels more appropriate with kids than in higher education. But that said — I am wondering if this team has done more studies on how to use gamification in education, since their articles are so fun to read. Definitely something to check out after my vacation! :-)

Robson, K., Plangger, K., Kietzmann, J. H., McCarthy, I., & Pitt, L. (2015). Is it all a game? Understanding the principles of gamification. Business horizons, 58(4), 411-420.

Robson, K., Plangger, K., Kietzmann, J. H., McCarthy, I., & Pitt, L. (2016). Game on: Engaging customers and employees through gamification. Business horizons, 59(1), 29-36.

Robson, K. (2019). Motivating professional student behavior through a gamified personal branding assignment. Journal of Marketing Education, 41(2), 154-164.

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