Podcast 27: Is gamification manipulation?

Welcome to this week’s question of gamification. My name is An Coppens, I’m the show host and the CEO or chief game changer at Gamification Nation. And this week’s question is an interesting one which was asked at a conference of people who make a simulations. Primarily question was is gamification just simply manipulation? And I didn’t have a chance to answer the question there. And then so I also had it in my mind and sort of play with my mind what is manipulation really. So if we think about it, how and what do we consider manipulation? So I went on a bit of a fact finding mission to get the sorts of dictionary explanation of manipulation before sort of jumping in and giving my opinion on, you know, is gamification manipulation. Yes. No. Or, you know, is it as black and white as that and in the dictionary, when we look at manipulation, it says, “it’s the skilful handling, controlling or using of something or someone, whether it’s a sculpture you made in an art class or how you convince your friends to do your homework.

Both are considered manipulation in the negative sense. It’s also explained as exerting shrewd or devious influence, especially for one’s own advantage. And so it sort of shows even in, I suppose just pure dictionary terms where you’re trying to explain a concept. It’s not that straightforward. It’s not always negative. It’s also not always positive because if we look at is from making a sculpture perspective, because money pinata, it comes from the Latin handful. It’s, you know, it could be handling something and skilful handling can be positive. If it is, let’s say a sculpture handling a piece of wood or a piece of clay or a piece of stone to sculpt a beautiful piece of art out of it. Yes, it’s manipulating the brick to become something different and you wanted to be, and you know, for some people that’s probably why did you waste a really good break or really good piece of wood.

But for others it’s, it’s an amazing piece of art and I think it’s not that far removed from, you know, when we actually give or exert influence over an individual or someone to do something. Manipulation can be, you know, something good and something bad. And I see it as, you know, a potential of having two faces, both positive and negative. And I actually see gamification in very much the same light. Any good tool used for bad reasons or bad purposes will have bad outcomes. And you know, that’s the same with great technology to world over. Even games on simulations can be used to influence people to make decisions that really you want them to consider twice or maybe not make at all. So it’s, it’s not as clear as black and white. It’s more of a gray scale. And then it’s kind of how many shades of gray do you need to go to before?

For you. It’s a, it’s a no, no. So if we look at gamification, so gamification in my view is a contains nudges. It contains game elements. It contains an element of understanding human behavior and what are we tending to do and tending not to do and how can we then come to an outcome that is best for the individual for whatever older purpose the gamification was designed for. So let’s look at it from a coaching perspective and that smile original background. So I come I suppose to, to world of gamification through the lens of, Oh, a former coach, I was first a sports coach. I coached basketball for years and years and also played basketball for years and years. So for me, coaching always was about understanding where the individual is out with their skills level and then trying to, you know, nudge them forward into their next level of ability.

I think back to the team, I coach two of the longest, which were in basketball and in Belgium we had the microbes, the microbes were the youngest possible kids that could take up basketball. You had to be five and a five years old on that category. I think around even all the way to nine if I’m not wrong, I’ll be wrong on that. And then from nine till 12 he became a Benjamin. So I had the microbes and I also for a time had the Benjamins and then occasionally I was a sports coach at sports camp for the Belgium basketball Federation and stuff. So I suppose did try out, I did study as much as I could learn about coaching, Dysport of basketball. Also did all the certifications that you don’t were required to make sure that you could coach out that particular level, et cetera.

So what I always wanted to achieve, I still think back to, to my microbes, he had a nickname. It was an and the Hoovers. Now if you’ve met me, you know, I’m not particularly told, and all of my microbe team or table Heights [inaudible] you know, some of you who would say even, you know, a sitting room table, how you split out. We’d say kitchen, table Heights. And so the kids were small, but they were all very young. So they were all just five or just six. And we had one or two older brothers in the team. So it was, it was really funny. So we were super fast. We created a lot of dust, which is why we had the nickname, the Hoovers. We hoovered up all the dust. What we were at a disadvantage. I mean in basketball, LinkedIn is a, is a positive.

We were at a disadvantage with height but my kids had passion like no tomorrow. And I always looked at it and said, you know, we had a little kid called Kevin and Kevin had a real fight. Her spirits, you know, grew up on, on the streets, I think playing out on the streets and you know, fighting his way to be noticed type of thing. He was the youngest of a family. And then we had, I think it was, yeah, I think it was called told him who was an only child in a, in a very lovely family setting and you know, much more protected. And I don’t think he was ever allowed to play outside. So the difference in terms of skills was actually quite significant. You know, Kevin’s goal Dominican joined was to score. So whatever he did when he got the ball, he would throw it from wherever he was standing to go on obviously.

When you’re a table height, that’s not a, not a mean feet. So we had to teach him the basic skills to go at score, but his goal, his outcome, his desire was to score and little tone was a bit different. Tom was much more scared of the ball and he was afraid that he would get hit or lose it or do something wrong. So for him, actually I set him the goal because he was too scared to set a goal. And I said, look, let’s catch the ball. And then you give it to Mike who is the dedicated receiver. And it was then Mike’s job to make sure that when you saw that Tom had the ball to common beat close to tell them to, to collect it. And you know it works. I mean, boats, kids, both Kevin and Tom the first time they actually hit their goal, I was their biggest champion and biggest cheerful leader kind of jumping up and down.

Yay, well done. Fantastic. And I still to this day in my, you know, can see their faces like you know, glowing and you know, so delighted. I think Kevin grew 10 centimeters in size, just purely out of pride. And the same with Tom. Tom was super delighted he did it and you know, we had a big celebration about it. Now in the larger scheme of things, did we win the game? No, we didn’t. We were well overpowered by elders, but duh in the short term was not our power, our priority or, and even mine as it coach my job, because they were the first introduction to basketball they ever got. My job was to sort of instill the basics. So all of the training sessions, all of the games we did play, you know, we, the focus was on getting the basics right, learning to dribble, learning to pass, doing a layup.

And you know, yes, scoring was great but was icing on the cake at the beginning. And then once we won a few games, it became a bit more interesting too to do a bit of tactical gang plate. But for kids that age, the reality is, you know, you need to teach them the basics so that later on in life they can then do all the fancy footwork with special tactics and specialists, coaches on that fraud. But for us it was important they learn the basics of attack, the basics of defense, and that we didn’t get hammered by every single team. Well, we did when it was a massive celebration and it did happen the first year. It was a bit, I think we only want that one game. The second year it came a bit better and little by little there was progress. But as a coach, I always felt, look, I need to make sure that it’s still fun because for kids, so five, six, seven, the a to Z awesome is amazing.

You need to direct it. But also it’s about nudging them into doing what’s the right way of doing it and coaching them, teaching them to some extent what will get them the best results. So you could say, and you could argue that you know, always manipulating them to be better players. Now the fact that you’re joining a sports team and you know pretty much all your family wants you to get better and that you may like it. Look, Kevin have the objective to score your first goal or for Tom to catch your first pass. Those things were major on yet, so achieving or you know, so rewarding once they achieved it. So from my perspective, yes you could call me the manipulator as a coach, but you could also call me the facilitator, the enabler, the person that actually set them up to be better at basketball.

You know, you could argue both sides and I actually really think I see came with vacation and very much that light, any technology used for bad reasons will have bad outcomes. If we look at the most gamify systems today, which in effect are social media systems. Yes they can have a negative effect. If for example, you were suffering with a low self esteem and you see everybody in your circle of friends doing much better than you or they get the likes and you don’t get the lives for anything you post you know there is social pressure. There it is, you know, peer to peer oriented. So, so can it be bad? Yes it can. Can it also be good? Yes, I do think it can. And you know, the fact that we data share is what made the social media take advantage of us because they know us better than most.

I mean they see what we respond to, what we react to. But that’s been the science of marketing and market research since, I don’t know, day one of their existence because they knew duh, if you knew your customer better that can design better campaigns, more engaging campaigns and gamification in effect is no difference because we borrow from market research and marketing the fact that we are studying our target audience that we want to see what are their preferences, what are their tendencies in order to move them towards a given goal. Now that goal is where the differentiation is in my view, which we need becoming manipulation or something much more positive. You know, if we consider manipulation to divide version because the way the question was asked, you know, was clearly seen that manipulation was a bad thing and you know, whatever the opposite is, let’s call it enabling was seen as a good thing.

So I would say we still have free choice and even in the coaching situations all the kids have the choice to ignore my advice on how to do something. And you know, in the execution you sometimes forget the basics and you just do what you think at the time is the right thing to do under saying with social media, you don’t have to have it on your phone, you don’t have to have it on your computer, you can choose to log in or not. But a lot of us have been conditioned by that woman. One simple question, what are you up to today? What are you sharing today? So there is, you know, an our curiosity of being nosy, of what everyone else is up to, what’s happening in the world and the world being your little universe on whatever the algorithm presents to you.

So, you know, it’s an algorithmic AI level that I think we need to be much more careful than with the game accounting scene effect. And those need to be, are within with a lot of ethics in mind. But I think gamification, like anything needs to be designed with ethics in mind. And question, is it good for the person or is it not? And actually if you look at the Nobel prize winning works from Richard tolerant, he’s collaborators on nudge. I mean I would highly recommend the book knowledge. Do you have the same consideration in behavioral economics where in fact if we are left to our own decisions and our own devices that we actually do not choose the most optimal choices for us, we actually are inherently seeking the path of least resistance and that’s the majority. Again, that’s not every single person on this planet.

There are outliers and everything, but in his work he basically said if we are designing a cafeteria for people to eat and make the right choices, Don our best for their bodies, then it’s about layouts, but it’s also about education. It’s about much more than that. So you know the nudge teary is about nudging people and reminding people that, Hey, are you definitely choosing the best option for you? It’s not about after the facts analyzing, Oh, you did wrong. It’s before the facts and making whatever choice you want to make as easy as possible, as convenient as possible so that that part to least resistance is opens and open up for you. A few odd in game mechanics and gang dynamics into that play. Then immediately I would say is you wanted really know your user very well to see, okay, what are they trying to achieve?

So imagine a gamification from a purpose of learning and some applications like Duolingo have a a good balance of over mix of, of game elements. Well one of the ones that is very much oriented for teaching you to do the right thing because you know that if you’re left to your own devices you won’t do it is the winning streak example where the game accounting basically entices you to practice a little every day and to get her with energy levels of the words that you’ve already learned. Those two in combination will show, okay, am I actually still improving on how do I practice a little every day? It’s like all your Fitbit’s your sports and exercise tracker is giving you the notes. Hey, you said today was a good day to remind you that you know it’s a good time to go out and exercise. So the nudges is what keeps us going.

The same with my basketball team. If I had not been the person to celebrate, I would have taken away from their achievement when both Kevin scored and told him took the ball. So in some sentence both of them go reinforcement to say, Hey, job well done. That was exactly what we trained for and now we can level up and do the next step. And that was, to me that was key and I think that’s, that’s how I see gamification is yes, you want to understand the user enough. If they sign up for our learning gamification app, like I’m learning a language, then we can expect that they want to improve their language skills. So nudging them forward to practice a little everyday and keep the energy off of their memory fresh and their vocabulary fresh I think is a positive. Is that manipulation in the strictest sense of the world?

Probably yes. But then the underlying question is, is that a bad thing? Because the person has indicated by downloading the application though they wanted to learn our language and you know, you know that it’s best to do a little bit installments every day. The same with the person setting two reminders in the fitness app that every three days to see it together, reminder to say, Hey, it’s time for us to take a bit of exercise. Is that a bad thing? Is that manipulation? Yeah. You know, you could call it manipulation. I mean in the true technicality of the world, it’s, you know, skillful handling, controlling or using of something or someone. So yeah, you know, it’s hand holding, you’re subject to their desired outcome now where it becomes a lot more dodgy. And I would say also a lot more questionable is when you set the goal and not the end user, when you enforce or force someone to take gamification as part of their pathway and they have no choice to opt out.

Now there is very few systems where I’ve actually seen that it’s completely enforced. But you know, I would always say, you know, make it free to play on a voluntary to engage in, not everybody’s gonna love it. And that’s okay. Some people prefer simple design on everything. It’s like the search on Google. You don’t need anything else but search because this the simplest, most straightforward way to, to getting there. What would help about Google and me is if I could give a rating on the kind of quality of search results I’m getting back because algorithmically it’s not always optimized for me or for what I’m looking for. And the fact that you know, every search I do trains my computer to think, Oh gosh, she must be looking at problem data angle. But when you do a lot of learning design and design of different projects, it’s a right mix.

So what I give back as recommendations and suggested reading is often different to the next person. So, but that’s not gamification as algorithms. And that’s artificial intelligence. That’s us teaching computers what we like and what we don’t like. So that’s where I think we have a far more deep going question of manipulation, ethics and a whole range of things. So, so those types of things I would say careful, but when it comes to gamification and people actually opting into your system to achieve a specific goal and a lot of gamified systems actually ask you to set a goal and then assist you on getting there. So a lot of the work we do in learning and HR is very much optimized and the controls are handed over to the individual user, at least in our designs. I can’t obviously speak for everybody else’s, but you know, we are trying to give people the choice sometimes explicitly.

Sometimes it’s, you know, what we think is the best for them based on the goal that they’ve indicated. Because every piece of gamification design has a goal. It starts with a purpose and then we build a journey to get people to their end result. No. In for example in you may taught me argue this one in a lot of compliance related learning, we see the requests for all, we must get our people to do this and you know by making it more fun by art gamification, people will do it. Now I would also then question, okay, can they prove that they don’t need to take it? Because to me part of compliance and training for compliance is to actually test if people understand what they’re supposed to do or not to do. Give them scenarios where you basically test their knowledge and based on the score they get today, either get to take part of the course the whole course or none of the course, but they do comply with the certification that actually they understood in every single part of the situation what they should or shouldn’t do because effectively that’s what your end outcome is.

And if you think about it in that way, even forcing someone to take a blind straining, you know, as long as the outcome is reached in the way done the end user has the choice on, has the free will to take part, not take part to complete it fully the traditional way or to test out because they’ve proven they have the knowledge. That to me is end result achieve. There is always more than one way to get to a destination. So is game-ification strictly speaking, manipulation. It can be manipulation for good manipulation for bad. If it is for bad people still have free choice. You don’t have to take part. I do believe that there is a big request for ethics on a big need for it to be ethical. So, so yes, but people still have choice. So is is by default manipulation? No, not by default.

If given and put in the wrong hands and billed for the wrong purpose, it can have. So it’s not as clear cut as yes it is or no, it isn’t. If in the wrong hands, yes, he can be considered manipulation if in the right hands with the right intentions. I mean look at it in recruitment. So we do a lot of work for defense forces and some people say, Oh, we don’t need to create war. In actual fact, one of the works that we did is was to showcase all of the humanitarian and more social oriented work they also get to do, especially at times of peace. You cannot get away that you know that are there for defense reasons. So they’re actually virtual. The world word means that they’re there to defend the interests of the country, not necessarily to go and actively attack on other because otherwise they would call the attacks as opposed to the defense forces.

So there is different ways of portraying everything, but people that are really not interested in careers in defense forces will do take our par games or will they express interest at the end of a gamified process for them? Probably not. If they really have an aversion to everything to do with equipments, dots, you know, it can be used in both. Good and bad ways, then yeah, they’re not going to and, and that’s okay because then those people would not be the right people for digital, I would say. So you know, when you’re looking at manipulation, what I would say when you’re looking at gamification, I would say design it with the outcome in mind. Does best for the end user first of all. And for an outcome that they can assign or agree with. I mean, of course you don’t want them to do something they don’t want to do.

You need to have a way out if they’re in a job that they don’t like, if you want to stay there with them to stay there or do you want them to do find somewhere where they’re happier? Well, I think I know what I will, but that’s me. So declare coach answer is gamification. Manipulation in my view, it can be yes. And it can be no. So it’s a dual answer with a lot of gray between what makes gamification positive is when it’s in the interest of the end user ideally set up so that it’s built to design to hit the goal of the end user on nudging them towards that goal is where the game mechanics actually make the difference. And it also always should include the option of freewill voluntary participation and you know, freewill to opt out as well and turn it off unfree will where possible.

And that’s the recommendation for them to only share what they want to share and not make it an enforced you have to share or else you know. So there is multiple ways of seeing it, but in my view, gamification is it positive thing? I would say that I’m in the business, so take it with a pinch of salt that you need to, but I hope this sort of makes you think and makes you consider, okay, while you’re, are you doing gamification? Is it good for us? Is it good for the company? Is a good for the end user? Is it good for them to achieve their goals? If you can positively say yes to all of it, then you know, gamification can go ahead without it becoming a political discussion. If, however, there is nos in the mix, then the question is why? Yes, why no and where do you need to be careful? So think it true. Don’t just take it as a blanket yes or blanket no, it’s yes, maybe on, you know, if maybe den, what do we need to make sure that we get right in, in that potential mix. So this is a question of gamification this week. I hope you are enjoying the show and please share it forward. If you do on, send us your questions. I’d love to answer them.

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