Gamify yourself

Tl;dr: As an industry we have got gamification wrong. We need to allow people to set and monitor their own targets as part of their normal jobs. On the way we will cover my personal weaknesses, Transactional Analysis, Theory X and Y, Gamification, Duolingo, Beeminder, Akrasia, Weight Loss, Organisational Metaphor and Plato’s Cave. Hang in there.

No one has ever told me what to do.

I have always waited for the sensei to arrive in a karate kid fashion. Someone who recognises my potential but kicks my arse to make it happen. Some have come close. My biology teacher at school (but not my chemistry teacher). My first editor when I was a technical author, daubing my passive prose, still warm from university, with red pen until it dripped. The occasional boss. Most successfully, of course, my wife. There was no one to guide me at university except me, leaving a degree squandered (but probably for the best). But usually I am left to drift, protected by a bristling aura of aggro that I am not aware of most of the time. A force-field of me. Sometimes it flicks back at me and I am suddenly aware of feeling defensive or self-piteous.

Usually however I am left to make my own bed, to make it well, or in moments of downward, soil it with my abject laziness. Stephen Pressfield (of the War of Art) calls it “The Resistance”. Resistance wants to break you and leave you mediocre. I have tried it all. I am now forty and overweight. I like to think big thoughts and I wring my hands at all of the thoughts unwritten. I don’t want you, dear reader, to think I consider myself a failure. I am good at what I do, a good husband, father and son. When I need to ship, I ship. When something is a passion, I am consumed. If it is a duty, I am there, present and correct.

But when it is learning a language, getting my thoughts out through my fingers, or hitting the sodding treadmill? I fold.

Extrinsic forces for personal change (known as nagging) result in a change in relationship between the nagger and naggee. In transactional analysis terms it can force people from Adult to Adult, to Adult to Child. Depending on your inner Child this can result in different responses. My inner Child is a knocky 14 old with enough bluster and misguided argumentative reasoning to make-it-your-fault. Other inner Children may sink back into the comforting blanket of early childhood. Mummy and Daddy will tell me what to do. I can carry on playing. Passivity is an unattractive trait for modern business.


I have always then looked at the Enterprise Gamification movement with derision. The thought that you could take adults and give them badges or what-not and they would start dancing around like twats at a school disco seemed a really-bad-idea. The main reason being that it is an industrial strength way to fuck with people’s incentives. Taking an activity that someone is supposed to do out of duty (such as asking my 6 year old boy to pick up the lego that he has played with) and then laying systems of gaming around it messes with the incentive. “Rufus I’ll give you a pound if you pick up your Lego,” will almost certainly result in a clear rug. It however raises the stakes about why the poor boy would ever now do for free for what he used to do out of duty.

The Seinfeld trick

I have however just taken a swift spiritual and conceptual kick to the head with the advent of some tools that are getting it right. The first is Duolingo, a language learning application on which I am scraping together some competency in Italian. It has the usual gamification bells and whistles – everything is a quiz, you need to pass the quiz to get points. The lessons are arranged in levels, you  wish to progress through the levels. You are asked to choose a target number of points to do every day — in my case 50 points. There is game currency called Lingots that are earned and can be spend. But the main driver, for me anyway, is that of “the day streak”. It tells you how many days you have hit your targets for. This is a simple application of the productivity hack known as the Seinfeld trick – attributed to the comedian Jerry Seinfeld who writes a red cross on a wall planner every day that he writes. The red crosses join up into a chain and he tries to keep the chains as long as possible – don’t break the chain.


The second mind blowing change has been my adoption of a tool that I have been aware of for a while but hadn’t tried. It is called Beeminder and it will change you. Beeminder takes the Sienfeld trick and extends it in delightful ways. The interface, based on a graph, is unabashedly geek chic, but the idea is pure genus. The basic idea is that of “Akrasia” — a concept first postulated ancient Greece. If we know in our conscious mind why a course of action is a good one, why do we act against our own best interest. If one was to make a plan to run three times per week for the outcome to become fitter and healthier, why wouldn’t you? Well, you are tired, it is raining and dark. Maybe not tonight. Therefore short terms interests trump long term goals. Beeminder takes the concept of Akrasia and tracks the goal against a graph – it makes the small goal (running tonight) part of the bigger goal (running, say 500 miles by the end of the year.) Just a graph yeah. Well no. For the full Beeminder effect, you effectively bet with your own money (with your well intentioned reflective self does) that you won’t quit (with your fallible slob of a visceral self). If you “derail”, Beeminder keeps your money. I am currently tracking eight goals with a $5 punt on my weight loss. For me the five bucks is remarkably unimportant compared to keeping each of those eight plates spinning, because… well just because. I have successfully told myself what to do.

The wifi scale

Which brings us to number three:

The third is really set of tools. I bought a wifi connected scale from Withings. It squeals to the Internet when you stand on it, and through the miracle of OAuth can let other services know. One is Beeminder, the other is the rather abysmally named MyFitnessPal. Withings also acts as an ersatz step counter in your pocket so can let MyFitnessPal know if I have an active or lazy day. Into MFP goes the estimated list of what I have shoved in my gob, and together with the likely extra energy expenditure it works out when I should stop eating.

This all works. It works very well indeed.

Theory X and Theory Y

These tools have entirely changed my thoughts about gamification. [I prefer the term persuasive technology, a term coined by BJ Fogg from Stanford] But for the enterprise believe virtually everyone is getting it profoundly and wonderfully wrong. Theory X and theory Y were theories of personal motivation defined by Douglas McGregor in the 1960s. In theory X employees were work shy and lazy and it was management’s role to whip them into shape. In theory Y we assume that employees are quite capable and keen to get on an do good things and management are there to help.

Gamification in the enterprise is all far too Theory X for my liking. It is an attempt at manipulating others for the ends of the management. Within enterprises gamification techniques risk forcing employers and employees into an Adult-Child relationship. But:

In the enterprise we need to deploy tools that allow employees to define, surface and monitor their own intrinsic goals.

Let’s consider Theory Y. People want to get on, they want to work, they want to do the right thing and at any given reflective moment they would tell you about how they want to do better work. In the moment and the hurly-burly of the day things get pushed out of the way and excuses proliferate.

This is the same as jogging, getting to the gym, learning a language and losing a bit of weight: Akrasia.

Imagine a Beeminder service for the enterprise. For now, let’s ignore the monetary aspect and let’s just play for fun and for honour. It is theirs to use, and can indeed even be entirely private. It is recommended that employees consider their own goals, and consider ways that those goals can be measured. Systems and services have APIs that allow data to be logged that represents their goals. Tickets Completed, Pages Tagged, Check-ins completed, Bugs squashed, Clients helped, Sales made. These streams of data are people’s personal KPIs and they can be shared with their managers at review time, but maybe not.

Throw the money thing back in and you are maybe messing up the incentives again and people would feel it is a big old losing machine. Do you want to go on the losing machine? No thanks mate. Make it a winning machine then? Bet some of your salary that you can hit the target? Well, you’ll cheat won’t you. No, I think this needs to be you versus the mountain. The game is doing what you are paid to, but in a better and more rewarding way by revealing all this feedback to the reflective mind. This is commitment processing software.

Organisation as machine and the temptations of Theory X

The temptation is there, and you are thinking it. You’re thinking that the organisation is like a big machine, and this is lovely data that you can used push people with and make them more efficient. The stick, the carrot and the bastard boss. I can squeeze more out of you. I can use this to put pressure on you.

No. Stop. Draw back. There is more of one way of conceptualising an organisation and the machine is tired, turgid, entirely fictional and holding us back in the last century. There are eight metaphors for the organisation. Yes eight (as defined in Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization but very well explained by Venkat Rao):

  • Organisation as machine
  • Organisation as organism
  • Organisation as brain
  • Organisation as culture
  • Organisation as political system
  • Organisation as psychic prison
  • Organisation as system of change and flux
  • Organisation as instrument of domination

Morgan talks about what makes metaphors so important – they maximise the image in our minds about what is common and make the characteristics that are not shared disappear. “That man is a lion” is a metaphor that brings us imagery of heroism, strength and bravery, we don’t think of the whiskers, the fur and the cute ears. A mechanistic view of organisations seemingly proposed by most adherents of gamification, ignores all the aspects of organisations and people that are NOT machine like. Akrasia, is exactly one of these non-machine characteristics. We are not agents with fixed parameters with programming. Rather we have different whims and fickle desires depending on the time of day and the stress we are under. We are a both little bit X and a little bit Y.

Think about the organisation in terms of organism, brain, culture and, most interestingly in terms of change and flux. Imagine allowing individuals to create and pull their own games from what they are supposed to be doing for a job. Back to the idea of Transactional Analysis, Morgan even talks about patriarchal systems in “Organisation as psychic prison” (the prison being equated to Plato’s cave, with the prisoners mistaking the shadows of the outside world for reality itself):

“Critics of patriarchy suggest that in contrast with matriarchal values which emphasise unconditional love, optimism, trust, compassion, and a capacity for intuition, creativity and happiness, the psychic structure of the male-dominated family tends to create a feeling of impotence accompanied by a fear of, and dependence on, authority.”

But, if we regard gamification as a tool of an Adult to foster his or her own self, fully aware that our wills are both strong and weak in different moments? Well, imagine the possibilities! They come to work. You chose them to work here. They are normal healthy people. They are already playing the game of life, don’t fling badges and levels at them in lieu of meaning and purpose, because they AREN’T behaving like machines enough.

This is a world of discretionary effort where people are self motivated and upon succeeding, level themselves up. If you treat people as children, there they remain – it is comforting for many to wait with beak open for mummy to return to the nest to stuff our gobs full of worms. Treat them as adults, even if that takes games then they can step into the light of self actualisation. Finally a grown-up, but never a machine.