Gamification will save the world!

GAMIFICATION!!  I feel like this is a concept that needs all caps, because clearly, gamification is going to save the world… according to Gabe Zichermann and Yu-kai Chou, anyway.

Gamification rules!

Achievement badge for showing up!; Author: Steven Johnson; Source:; License: CC BY 2.0

Achievement badge for showing up!; Author: Steven Johnson; Source:; License: CC BY 2.0

I watched this Google talk by Gabe Zichermann “Gamification Revolution”; and this TedTalk by Yu-kai Chou “Gamification to improve our world”; and these guys talk about an amazing gamified world in which elements of game design will be used to provide us, in our real lives, with the intrinsic motivation we receive from games! I can’t wait!  There will be no more divide, in Yu-kai’s words, “between what you have to do, and what you want to do”.  Zichermann also suggests the need to fix and help our “slow, grey world” (reality), not the reinforcement-filled, “fun, friends and feedback” world of games.

I needed a cooling off period after watching all of that.  It was so persuasive to hear them talk about how gamification could change the world.  It sounded utopian, and just the place I would like to live.  Could it be possible to get that kind of rewarding experience in real life?  Zichermann and Chou clearly believe that we can, but it is just as clear that we are not there yet.

Why aren’t we there yet?

Zichermann noted that not

Gamification; Author: Jurgen Appelo; Source: ; License: CC BY 2.0

Gamification; Author: Jurgen Appelo; Source: ; License: CC BY 2.0

many employers have embedded gamification as a strategy in their human resource management processes to date.  Chou also said that true gamification is not just a matter of using the technology to put game design elements onto an experience (e.g. work). He said that just adding badges, levels and leaderboards won’t work; and I have a feeling that those obvious markers of gamification would be the easiest for employers to add to an employee’s work day to increase motivation.

Chou said you needed to engage with people’s motivational drivers, and went on to list 8 core drives that motivate people, even dividing them in to black hat (more externally focussed) and white hat (internally focussed) motivators.  So, it sounds like true gamification is harder to achieve and implement than it seems.

But is gamification new?

Gamification  isn’t new; it’s based on well known behavioural techniques.  I use these techniques myself, every day, in my job as a speech pathologist (although I wasn’t aware it was called gamification – is that a term confined mainly to business enterprise, I wonder?)

Deterding, Khaled, Nacke, and Dixon’s (2011)  definition: “Gamification is the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”; fits what I do – i.e. the use of reinforcement, rewards, and motivation in speech therapy to motivate my clients to engage in therapy, and produce the multiple responses required for them to learn a new speech sound or language skill.

The right reinforcement

The right reinforcement may be different for every child, and also for every adult.  Some reinforcers I have used include:

  • iPad games
  • physical games: skittles, bean-bag toss, ball games
  • favourite toys: e.g. cars, dolls, potato head
  • novel toys: e.g. cause-effect toys, jack-in-the-box
  • board games
  • stickers, stamps
  • puzzles
  • favourite foods
  • praise
  • high 5s
  • tickles
  • music
  • dancing
  • bouncing on a gym ball
  • bubbles (you have no idea how much I hate bubbles after being a speech pathologist for 15 years – it tends to be a very powerful motivator for kids; but eww… it makes my fingers sticky!)

Why do I need to use reinforcement?

The children I see mostly don’t care if people don’t understand their speech, or if they have an error pattern in which they substitute a “t” for “k” (e.g. “tat” for “cat”).  Their parents care, because they can see what might happen a few years down the road if that cute speech error isn’t fixed (teasing, ostracism, behavioural issues, withdrawal); but without an intrinsic motivation in the child for learning and behavioural change, I need to provide the motivation to encourage them to participate.

Speech Therapy with Ben; Author: Wayne Hilber; Source: Personal photo; Used with permission.

Speech Therapy with Ben; Author: Wayne Hilber; Source: Personal photo; Used with permission.

See the photo above? That’s double high 5s right there, and Pop-up Pirate.  My philosophy is to give the child something to make it worth their while to participate. I want them to have as much fun as possible in their sessions with me because changing a motor pattern in speech is hard work – really hard work.  Take a minute right now, grab something to read, and start reading it out loud.  Now, every time you see the letter “k” or “c”, say “t” instead, and when you see a “d” say “g” instead.  You will see that it takes a lot of conscious thought and effort to insert a new sound into words and sentences in everyday speech.

In speech therapy with children, there are many steps along the way to mastery (e.g. target sound in isolation, target sound in nonsense syllables, target sound in words, in phrases, in sentences, in everyday speech).  Clearly, there is a need for a lot of motivation during speech therapy, because it can take a while to generalise those new speech sounds to everyday speech.

But where is my motivation and reward for going to work?

The Bait; Author: nist6dh; Source:; License: CC BY-SA 2.0

There is also a need for a lot of motivation during work, too for many people.  Sometimes (often-times) the money is not the be-all and end-all.  However, if I had someone next to me rewarding me with my favourite things every time I did something work-related, that would be pretty awesome.

Habituation is the enemy!

But as Zichermann says, “habituation is the enemy”. You don’t want to overuse that reinforcer, or it will lose its effectiveness. In speech therapy, I have to be on the lookout for waning motivation, and switch activities before I lose the child’s engagement.

But can you ever stop providing reinforcement?

Well, that depends.  Of course it would be great if I didn’t need to provide all of that reinforcement during speech therapy.  It would save me a lot of time.

But it wouldn’t be a lot of fun for the child, and I would run the risk of losing their willingness to participate and work hard.

And their parents would find it pretty hard to get their children in my door.

And I don’t think I should expect a child to do this hard work for nothing.

There are many reasons for always being reinforcing!

One cool thing I have found is that I can often reduce the amount of reinforcement I provide as the child experiences more and more success, and suddenly becomes internally motivated as they achieve mastery! Of course, then I usually need to move on to another target, and the process starts over again, with the requirement for more motivation at the start when it’s really hard going, then gradually decreasing again as the internal motivation kicks in, and the successes start adding up.

Maybe that’s how motivation should be provided in the workplace. Maybe I need that person sitting next to me showering me with praise and tangible rewards when it is hard going, but then once I get going, they can tiptoe away.