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A question of morals?

  12th February, 2018 By An Coppens

Is nudging someone into optimal choices for their health, learning, productivity and life, something we should encourage? It is a moral question that popped up as I was reading the book “Nudge” by Nobel prize winner and esteemed economist Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. He writes about experiments carried out at high schools in the USA, where depending on the layout and design of the cafeteria, the choices of students could be influenced. He then named it libertarian parentalism, basically leaving the freedom of choice, whilst also leaving a visible trail of optimal choices.

In a way, to me, it seems like this is reverse engineering what advertising and product placement companies have been doing for years. Typically in their case for a company to make a profit on it instead of focusing on the individual’s well-being in the equation. Gamification for behaviour change, threads this same fine line of manipulation versus encouragement.

In my opinion, gamification should always be based on voluntary participation and allowing for personal choice. It should also allow you to learn from your choices with feedback loops. Life will give you feedback in any case, but some of this may come so much after the facts, that you may no longer remember what was the original cause for it. Instant feedback thanks to a gamified solution, may enable you to make a new choice or stick with a choice if it is a helpful one.

Because we work in the HR and learning space, I am always mindful of the impact we can have both positively and negatively. When we design to increase productivity, the individual still needs to have the choice to set boundaries, when to switch off and when to continue. Personalisation based on preferences from individuals, I believe is essential for the long-term success and buy-in of our work and this includes a preference reset if the individual wants to do this.

From the book, we learn that most people will not even exercise the right to choose, which begs the next question. When a choice is required, but not made then should the default setting be optimised or just set to 0? It is an experiment the authors researched in the case of renewing benefits on annual basis at a university for its staff. Reminders worked for some, but not for everyone and some people simply didn’t have the time. The majority preferred their choices from previous years to remain instead of a full reset to 0. In this case, optimising was preferred.

Gamification by default raises some of these questions. The very introduction of certain game mechanics introduces a work dynamic which may be collaborative, competitive or other. How we as gamification designers work with these choices requires a sense of morality and in my view often also life experience or an insight into human emotional impact. I am always open with my clients when we start talking about the gameplay options about the kind of effects and impact they may create. Sometimes the enthusiasm to design a game experience distracts the clients from being mindful about what they are starting. So we need to bring that into play and discuss it from the outset. I would rather see gamification for good, than anything else.

What do you see as the moral questions in relation to gamification?

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