Gamification and infinite-games

What’s the point of gamification? Could it have useful applications in enterprise-architectures?

I’ll admit straight off that I’ve never been one for most kinds of games, whether in school-days or anywhen since. I’ve never been able to see much point in competitive sports, and I don’t see the point in collecting ‘badges’ or whatever just for the sake of acquiring them. To me it seems there’s not much point in playing ‘winners and losers’, because someone who ‘wins’ in one game usually ‘loses’ in another; and the wrong kind of competitiveness – winning over others rather than winning with others – seems to bring out the worst in almost everyone. Oh well.

One side-effect of this… well, bias, or even prejudice, I suppose I’d have to call it… is that I’m naturally wary of any attempt to convert tasks into competitive ‘games’. Sure, some software apps such as FourSquare have made a big deal out of this – and a big pile of money too, so far. But does such gamification work for everything? – especially in the workplace? I have real doubts… and now, a much more solid understanding as to why I hold those doubts.

What started this one off was a Tweet from Sinan Si Alhir:

Go read that post right now: if you’re involved in any form of architecture in the enterprise and have any interest in gamification of any kind, it’s essential reading. When you’re done, come back here for the follow-on.

The note about ‘flow‘ is a reference to a key concept on skills-psychology, initially developed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi:

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. …

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.

In a business context, that’s actually what we’re after: ‘fully immersed’, ‘energized’, ‘completely focused motivation’, ‘harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning’. And at a first glance, it might look like gamification would really help in this: certainly around immersion and motivation, anyway. Yet it’s what happens after that first glance at gamification that’s interesting here… In short, just how well is gamification going to help in this, in the business context?

My quest for an answer takes me to three further sources: Simon Sinek and Daniel Pink on motivation, and James Carse on the nature of games.

First, Simon Sinek, and ‘start with why‘. One of the key drivers in business-motivation is clarity around the ‘why’ for any given task. Yet the whole point of gamification is that the game provides its own ‘why’: collecting ‘badges’ or whatever becomes the nominal focus of the task. The catch here is that we need to find a way to link the goals of the game with the much broader goals of the overall enterprise: if we don’t manage to do this, the rather empty goals of the game supersede the goals of the enterprise, and eventually become the overriding aims for the activity – which is not a result we’re likely to want.

[A more everyday example of this occurs whenever people ‘game’ the business-metrics for bonus-pay and performance-prizes – which may be good for the individual, but often with bad or even disastrous outcomes for the organisation.]

Next, Daniel Pink on ‘drive‘. Pink identifies three key drivers for motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. All of those can be sort-of supported by gamification, but there are a fair few catches – of which the most obvious is the point above about ‘which purpose?’. Perhaps more subtly, ‘mastery’ under gamification is likely to be mastery of the game, rather than of the tasks and decisions in those specific business contexts – which again is not likely to be a desirable outcome. And there’s a real danger in the pseudo-autonomy of a near-addiction to the ‘game’ aspects of the game – as so many of us know from the bad old days of FreeCell on the work PC! So yes, there are opportunities that could arise from gamification here, yet real risks too: hence, again, not the ‘no-brainer’ that might seem at that first glance.

To me, though, the real key to this is James Carse and his work on ‘finite versus infinite games‘.

Both games are played within rules, as agreed upon by the participants; however, the meaning of the rules are different between the two types of games. … Boundaries are “rules” that one must stay within when playing a finite game, in contrast with horizons, which move with the player, and are constantly changing as he or she “plays”.

So far so good: again, at first glance, this looks like it would fit well with gamification either way round. Yet there are fundamental differences between the two types of games:

Starting and ending: Finite-games have an explicit start-point and end-point (hence ‘finite’). In the business-context, a project or a distinct sales-process could be viewed as a finite-game. By contrast, infinite-games have neither an explicit start nor an explicit end (hence ‘infinite’): instead, participants enter and leave an infinite-game, whilst the game itself continues on.

Carse asserts that the only infinite game is life itself, yet it’s arguable that much of what we see in business fits well with that kind of description: the business of the business, the ongoing relationships with customers, suppliers and others, and all those inevitable wicked-problems that have neither a clear start-point nor any predefined ‘stopping-rule’ that brings the ‘game’ to an explicit end.

This suggests that gamification would only fit well well with a quite narrow subset of the business-context, where explicit finite-games can be identified within the overall infinite-game space. If we do apply gamification there, we need to be aware of the ways in which doing so will impact on the broader infinite-games.

— Rules: Finite-games generally require the rules to remain stable, and applicable, throughout the duration of the game. By contrast, infinite-games expect the rules, boundaries and horizons to change.

This suggests that gamification is only well-suited to the ‘controllable‘ subset of the enterprise  space – in other words, those aspects with flat-calm ‘variety-weather that are often a better fit for automation than for human ‘players’. Which, if there are no human ‘players’, kinda defeats the object of gamification in the first place?

— Winning and losing: Finite-games generally have definite winners and losers – indeed, that’s often the whole point and purpose of the game. By contrast, in infinite games ‘winning’ has a very different meaning, and is often much more personal: as Carse put it, in a finite-game the aim is to win, whereas in an infinite-game the aim is to learn.

In each finite-game, there are those who win, and those who lose (or at least, don’t win in this game); but in an infinite-game, either everyone wins, or everyone loses. In a finite-game, there’s often a zero-sum ‘win/lose’; but in an infinite-game, ‘win/win’ is the only viable option, and ‘win/lose’ is actually an illusory form of ‘lose/lose’.

This suggests that if gamification is to be used, it must be clear about which type of game is in play: applying ‘win/lose’ concepts to an infinite-game will cause damage to the viability of the game.

— Optionality and the nature of play: Finite-games take place when people choose to play the game, and to abide by the rules of the game for the finite duration of that game. By contrast, people may have no choice but to be engaged in an infinite-game – especially at large scale, where people literally live their entire lives within the infinite-game of a culture, a country or life itself. Yet as Carse puts it:

It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely.

Or, to put it the other way round, as Carse does as his last assertion in the ‘manifesto’-like section of the book:

  • Those who must play, cannot play.

This suggests, rather strongly, that if something is mandatory, then there’s not much room for play – and faking it up through misapplied gamification will only make things worse. There may be some amusement in Foursquare in getting a ‘badge’ that says “I ousted Mr Toad as Mayor of Toadsville Dry Cleaners”; but in something like a mandatory use of Microsoft Word it would be a literally pointless distraction.

It’s essential to remember that what we really need in our architectures and the like is to create conditions for that state of ‘flow’. Where gamification could help in creating that, then it’s an option that could well be worth exploring – subject to those constraints outlined above. Yet gamification for its own sake, and/or where applied in inappropriate ways as described above, is likely to be more of a hindrance than help – sometimes a lot more of a hindrance, if we’re not careful. You Have Been Warned, etc?

1 Comment on “Gamification and infinite-games

  1. It should be stated that finite games can be played within an infinite game. The difference between the finite and infinite player is the former is playing seriously and the latter, playfully. Gamification of life and business can be said to be variables in the finite games played WITHIN the infinite game.

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