The gaming in software development (part 1)

Yes, yes, yes: Gamification! The term sparks this Tell-Sell voice in my head “Oh my God, this is just A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. Look, I can do what I have to do and have FUN while doing it. Such an amazing discovery. Your work will never be the same.” All delivered in pastel colours by suntanned people. True, this is powerful stuff. It is absolutely amazing but not all that new.

What are we talking about when we worship gamification?
Mostly, we are talking about a perspective change. A shift from doing something you do not want to do into something you do want to do, without having to change what you are actually doing.

The extrinsic reward system we have built our lives on creates postponed certainty and fulfilment; your actions may lead to money/status/physical comfort but the existence of these rewards is only certain in the moment they are given. Before and beyond this moment, these rewards are mere concepts. The physical manifestation (your experience of them) remains uncertain until they become. After they have become, they quickly vanish into your past. The world giveth and the world taketh away. So you hop from (mostly material) reward to reward, connecting the dots and building a life.
The very attractive perspective shift in gamification is to move your attention from the fixed-point-yet-uncertain-reward back to the process you are in. Back from what ‘may be’ to what you are actually experiencing, and making this experience more interesting. You reel in your postponed reward structure and fish out a desired experience. Instead of waiting for a future reward that may never be, the reward of any action starts in the process of the action itself.

If the manifestation of desired rewards depend solely on the results of our actions, these results better be good. We put a lot of stress on ourselves and others (and the planet) to manage the outcome of results before they even exist. We want to make sure that our results will be judged as desirable results and lead to the extrinsic rewards we set out to claim in the first place.
This kills creativity.
In order to make as sure as possible that we achieve what we want we look at who will be judging us, and preferably by what standards they will be doing so, and we try to fit in. Now, please take a moment and try to make friends between the words ‘judge’, ‘standard’, ‘fit’ and the concept of ‘creativity’. The more we try to make certain the results of our processes will be judged favourably, the less creative they must become for they cannot deviate from the norm used by those doing the judging.

Of course there is creativity and there are lots of brilliant and creative people. If you go and ask them you will find that they are more interested in the process than in the results. They need to write, to paint, to solve the puzzle, to build the thing, to go out and sing and dance. In short, they wish to create. The need is not to ‘have written’. The results of their actions are important but creators are most happy while in the process of creating (we all are but we tend to forget).

This shift of focus from result to process clears the way for more creative thinking, for oodles of positive emotions, for a more enjoyable experience of the actions you are performing and ultimately (usually) lead to a better result. Especially in such areas where there is no standard or the standard is irrelevant.
Software development is such an area and –low and behold- the structures they thought up and use to guide development have gone from rigid top-down ‘follow the marked X’s all the way down to the desired results’ to a development style that focuses much more on the process of creating than setting yourself up for judgement.
Crack-developers that should be hired to head such a process are the ones that say
“I think I understand your questions and I have some ideas that may lead to a solution. Let’s start working on this.”

The gaming in software development (part 2)

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2 Responses to The gaming in software development (part 1)

  1. Sergej says:

    See, that’s what I *dislike* about Twitter. I don’t think you can condense a discsusion like that to 140 characters without losing a ton of the content. But I’m also not someone who writes short , so hey.
    I think I get what you’re saying about rhetoric as a parallel to gamification that the skill of rhetoric, separate from maybe the content of the argument, forces you to focus on the wrong thing. If I’m understanding that correctly, then yeah, that seems like a reasonable parallel. It also seems like a reasonable parallel because in many ways the things that can potentially result from the system (rhetoric or gamification) can be good, but it relies on a complete understanding of the subject. The rhetors have to understand the content of the thing they’re arguing, then they apply the mechanics of rhetoric to drive the point home. Same thing here. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, I’m sure gamification can be used to enhance a point. To clear the activation energy required to learn something new, for instance because a lot of learning *does* require some grind, and if that helps get through the grind, great.
    On the other hand, in the hands of evil, or thoughtless people, it’s a tool that can go horrendously wrong. Look at politics these days and I’m not even saying which side you have to look at. It’s all rhetoric, and no content. I’d argue that people are so engaged in the rhetoric that they don’t even *care* about content anymore, except for a very, very small percentage of people who are actually engaged. To me, that’s like the downside of gamification. Everyone’s cranking away on things, but no one knows anything, because they’re not engaged with the content, they’re engaged with the mechanics.
    In the end, honestly, I can definitely see arguments from both sides. I love achievements. I love racking up points. Clearly. We make games that are chock full of all manner of gamification, and I think that we try to use it in the service of good. You are rewarded, for instance, for cooperating in Fleck, instead of antagonizing other players. We try to use the mechanics to drive positive behavior, and I think that in the right hands, in the right conditions, it can be a powerful tool.
    But there are huge numbers of people advocating for incredibly widespread gamification of everything, and the problem, again, is that it’s not just that in some cases it doesn’t work it’s not that it’s a neutral effect at worst. It’s that by focusing on extrinsic rewards, you can actually make performance *worse*. And worse still, it’s subtle. You aren’t likely to know it’s happening but because you’re focused on the reward, you literally can’t see the odd solutions as fast as you would otherwise. I’d actually argue with grades & scores & the current reward structure, education *already* shows this is what’s happening.I went through high school with a higher-than 4.0 average. What did I learn from that? I learned that if you take the right classes, you can get good grades. If you play it safe, you can get unreasonably high scores. Then in college, that got *smashed to pieces* and my GPA, at least for the first year or two, was terrible, because I hadn’t *learned* I’d learned to manipulate the system. It wasn’t long after that that I learned *how to learn* often from trying something new, failing at it, then changing things until I was doing the best I could.I don’t have a good way to wrap this up, really.
    The point isn’t so much all gamification is bad . It’s that it has some unobvious dramatically negative effects. And before everyone jumps on the GAMIFY EVERYTHING! bandwagon, I hope they’ll take a moment to understand why it’s potentially much less effective and *damaging* than it seems.

  2. Pingback: The gaming in software development (part 2) | Priscilla Haring

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