Meaningful Gamification sparks intrinsic pursuits


What is gamification, and how do we make it meaningful? The concept of adding rewards, or incentives, to the tasks of our everyday lives is just one example of how society has been “gamified.”

Dr. Scott Nicholson from the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University spoke to staff and students Tuesday, March 11, at UW’s Davis Centre about how we can make gamification useful by removing our rewards-based incentives. This concept is nothing new, as society has been bombarded with points, or reward systems, starting from scratch and sniff stickers in elementary school, to corporate rewards cards. In his lecture, Nicholson presented ideas that would help shift a rewards-based society to one that relies on more intrinsic pursuits.

“This idea of incentivizing people with things that look like games is something that’s been around, so [we’re] trying to look at it more seriously and say ‘how can we do it in a way that doesn’t rely upon giving people money, [or] giving people rewards, but actually helping people to find things that drive them,” said Nicholson.

Nicholson’s lecture explained that rewards can actually diminish performance, and that those forms of incentive could be harmful. If society only participates in activities to achieve certain goals as opposed to being influenced to achieve them on their own terms, progress as a whole may come to a stop. This can become problematic for a developing society if it chooses only to develop itself as far as the carrot on the end of the string will allow.

“If you have someone doing something for which there’s no creativity, there’s no intrinsic motivation, [and] it’s just a road to task, then rewards will make them do it faster. If however, you have a task that involves creativity, that involves something that people have a desire to do, then rewards actually reduce the quality of what they created, because people focus on doing just what they have to do to get the reward. So there’s a lot of danger when you drop these gamification scenarios in places where you want people to change their lives.”

Nicholson said that “meaningful gamification,” which is enabling an individual to find their own connection to real world context, is crucial in developing areas such as reading, or health care, which require intrinsic motivation to progress as opposed to shallow incentives.

“I’m concerned about the implication of health care. When you’re trying to change peoples behaviour for the long term, that’s where this really matters. When I think about libraries, trying to bring about a love of reading, that’s where this matters.”

The gamification of society has taken the form of rewards-based incentives and has placed limits on how far society is able to advance. Nicholson suggested students should be aware of the advantages of promoting intrinsic incentives, as opposed to the old-fashioned reward system.

“If you’re going to be doing any type of management, or if you’re working with kids, or you’re parenting, anytime you are encouraging others to do things, think about how to encourage folks to do things based out of their intrinsic interests, as compared to just relying upon rewards.”

Nicholson’s meaningful gamification research can be seen on the Because Play Matters Game Lab website,