Gamification and Manipulation

I enjoy walking. I like to walk for the sake of it, as a way of getting from a to b, as a way of keeping fit, as a way of clearing my head, as a way of coming up with ideas.

My relationship with walking was shifted to another level by my friend John Hudson. Towards the end of 2014 John invited me and a few friends to take part in a Runners Week challenge, which I vaguely recall involved a commitment to running at least a mile a day for 30 days. I opted to walk instead of run, and I enjoyed this new found frequency so much, I kept going once the 30 days was done. Carole then got me a Fitbit for Christmas that same year, and on I went. I’m reliably informed that I’ve walked almost 6,500 miles since the beginning of 2015.

A few months after I started using the device, I noticed I was becoming hung up on achieving a daily target of 10,000 steps, and receiving a welcoming Fitbit buzzzz for doing so. If I was short of steps towards the end of the day, I could be found walking round and around the kitchen table. This way I could keep continuous streaks going, and earn badges, and… oh dear. I realised I was forgetting all those things I enjoy about walking, in favour of ‘earning’ of all things, a digital badge. Not even a real badge, what a chump!

Maybe 2015 was my year for this sort of thing, as I also got stuck in what became a rather dull, daily meditation chase the streak, chase the badge rut too. I shook off both of these compulsions, and got back to practicing for the sake of it.

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Fast forward to 2018, and a few weeks ago I accepted another Fitbit challenge, then another, then another. Once again, I found myself enjoying a sense of competition and shared motivation at the beginning of this new cycle, I even won three straight first places in some workweek hustles – woohoo!

Then, one morning last week, I was heading out to collect the car from where I’d left it the previous night about a mile and a half from home. It was a cold day and there were a few hints of light rain in the air. I ended up going right past the car, and enduring a much longer walk as the weather rapidly deteriorated. About half way around Beddington Park it dawned on my increasingly wet, cold, miserable self that at least in 2015 I’d had the good sense to stay indoors and clock up the miles in the kitchen! And so it was, that after 40 consecutive days of at least 10,000 steps a day (totalling 273 miles – we can’t forget those eh?!), I stepped off this latest human hamster wheel.

Maybe I’m just not very good at this stuff, but it strikes me that if I am not careful, when I’m subjected to gamification, I’m distracted from the important stuff, and I end up chasing the game. I worry about how gamification manipulates and affects us when we’re working and learning. Don’t get me wrong, I love to play, but I prefer to do it for its own sake. How about you?

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

4 thoughts on “Gamification and Manipulation”

  1. Hi Doug
    Your post is a great example of intrinsic v extrinsic motivation. It sums up the issue I have with Strava and all such game based tools. It’s just a tool but the danger is that we lose our sense of joy by comparing ourselves with others and with the stats. True satisfaction in my opinion comes from being alive and in the moment and enjoying what we are doing for it’s own sake.
    PS what about your very important role in helping a Lands End to John O Groats walker get off to a great start back in 2013!!!

    1. Hi Flora – great to hear from you. I like how you’ve articulated your thoughts around true satisfaction – that feels good to me too. And how remiss of me to fail to reference our Cornish adventures!! That was a walking highlight for me, though it wasn’t until later that walking became such a regular part of my life.

      Cheers – Doug

  2. First of all – for ANY intrinsically driven behavior an incentive (whether money, psychology, etc.) will start to replace the joy of the action.

    All nudges are about either breaking or maintaining behavioral inertia. Therefore if something is truly intrinsically rewarding we shouldn’t need or want outside intervention.

    That said most of us NEED something to help us focus on those things in life that are both necessary and not intrinsically rewarding. Filling out expense reports, doing meeting notes, exercising, painting the house, etc. Those are the things that will require some intervention.

    The problem is we blame the tool when it is poorly applied. A scalpel in the hand of my mechanic isn’t a good idea – but it isn’t the scalpel’s fault.

    Don’t blame the tool. If you feel manipulated it means you didn’t need the nudge in the first place.

    1. Hi Paul – good to hear from you.

      I can definitely see how the idea of an incentive can replace the joy of the action – nice phrase. In my case – I’m not blaming tools, I’ve no interest in that. What I am doing is acknowledging my responsibility in becoming reliant on things I maybe don’t need to rely on. That for me is a key part of my practice – taking responsibility beats apportioning blame. I see that finger pointing behaviour a lot in my client work and I’m trying to embody a sense of ownership as a way of demonstrating what I think is a better alternative. Note to self- this reminds me of past conversations with John Sumser, need to revisit those and possibly get clearer on this as part of why clients engage me.

      Don’t tell anyone but I’m secretly kinda hoping someone else invites me on another fitbit challenge so I can wilfully go super lazy for a week! 🙂

      Cheers – Doug

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