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Gaming the system

by EN

Simon Clayton, chief ideas officer at RefTech, on why the gamification of exhibition stands may not encourage useful interaction.

Gamification has become quite a common way for companies to create specific human behaviour, to encourage participation and create habits. Games are not just for kids or geeks anymore – we only have to look at the number of fully grown adults still walking around trying to catch a Pokémon. We have all embraced gaming in some shape or form, even if it’s simply paying Sudoku on your smartphone, or doing a jigsaw on your iPad. Many of us also have a competitive streak and so we are seeing the use of leagues and rankings as a way of pitching ourselves against other anonymous users. These leagues are used to further motivate and to build FOD (Fear of Demotion) with warnings alerting you that your inactivity is going to lead to relegation to a lower league. No one wants to be demoted, so we do what we have to do to stay up.

Unfortunately, it’s widely documented that with any system, it’s only a matter of time before users learn how to cheat and find ways of achieving their goals or even higher positions in the ‘game’ without necessarily doing the behaviour it is trying to encourage.

Take Duolingo – everyone’s favourite language app with over 300m users worldwide. It boomed during lockdown as everyone strove to do something useful with their furlough time and endeavoured to create better versions of themselves. At the time of writing, I’m on a 1690 day streak, which means that I’ve been using it to learn German for over four and half years. It’s based on a principle of repetition and ‘little and often’ – and so they encourage you to spend time on it every day – hence the build-up of ‘streaks’.

A year or two ago, Duolingo introduced leagues; depending on when you first use the app on a Monday, you are then placed with a small group of people who also used the app at same time as you, and you compete with those people. Human nature (and my own experience) showed that the people that used Duolingo at 8am on a Monday morning were very different to the people using it at 11pm that night. The 8am-ers were keen – far too keen for my liking. They were very enthusiastic, competitive and high achievers who then went on to complete lots of the app and make it harder for me to compete.  On the other hand, the 11pm-ers were the ones who had maybe forgotten to do it during the day, but had rushed and just about squeezed in ‘under the door’ to get their work done before the nightly cut off. Getting into a league with the 11pm-ers was far better for me as they offered little in the way of competition and so my chances of demotion were lower. I played the system because that’s human nature.

This is very ably demonstrated in the book ‘Freakonomics’. One of the authors, the economist Steven D Levitt took over the potty training of his daughter, Amanda, and created an incentive scheme where she was rewarded with sweets every time she used her potty. Within two days she was happy to use the potty and he was one proud father. But on day three she’d cracked the incentive system and was able to go the potty and release a few drops of urine in order to get the reward, only to be able to repeat this over and over again for multiple rewards. As Steven says: “In three days, a three year old had come up with a way to beat the incentive scheme that I, an economist, had developed. So, what hope do we have of incentivising the whole country.” That’s the thing with incentives – you don’t really know what works. Many things will make sense on paper and have sound reasoning to say that they should work, and they may actually work with some people but not with others.

It’s really hard to create a reward system that isn’t open to cheating and only encourages the right behaviour. We have all been to industry events where visitors are encouraged to visit certain stands to collect stamps in a passport and then submit it into a draw or to win a small prize. But all this is just another thing for the salespeople to sell. It may encourage visitors to come on to your stand, but they are only there to get the stamp. I’ve been on a stand, chatting to the exhibitor about my genuine business requirement only to have our conversation interrupted by another visitor looking for a stamp for his card. The weary exhibitor simply stamped the card and shooed them away – and to think, the exhibiting company had paid more to be part of a tiresome ‘game’ that could have jeopardised a genuine sales enquiry. I know that serendipity could lead a stamp collecting visitor to uncover an exhibitor that they didn’t know that they needed, but I think this is few and far between…

Activities such as these are more often than not incentivising irrelevant behaviour rather than the behaviour that is intended – humans are human and they will find a way to game the system.

Image source: Unsplash

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