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Play Your Way to Wealth and Wisdom

Video Games are Good for Kids

I love a good video game. There is a certain satisfaction when you blast the aliens out of the sky, build a profitable transportation system from scratch, or clear three snooker tables in under two minutes. But all these games are just time-wasters - or are they?

Back in seventh grade, when we started using Apple II computers at school, we learned how to make the Logo turtle move around the screen by entering certain commands. What was the point of teaching us Logo? Was it simply a distraction from regular classwork? The answer lies within an article entitled, "LOGO, the Cry of the Turtle is Heard in the Land" by Ian Gronowski, reprinted from a 1984 edition of the Australian Apple Review, here. The reason, Gronowski says, for teaching Logo to kids is that:
"Logo provides the learning environment, the context with which the child learns how to reason."
In other words, devising the most efficient command to instruct the Logo turtle to move around the screen is an activity that teaches children valuable life-skills.

In a compelling TedxKids talk in June 2011, Gabe Zicherman, an expert in the field, discusses the effect of video games on children. His main point is that society today is very fast-paced and that the multitasking skills acquired in playing modern video games (both individual and multiplayer games) help children to acquire the skills they need to succeed in day-to-day life. Zicherman says that we should embrace gaming as a platform for education (with certain caveats, of course).

I must admit that the most fun I had at learning math was when playing Math Invaders. The purpose of the game was to solve the math problem and shoot the correct alien as it descended towards you. (Incidentally, a more updated version of the game is freely available on-line, here. In fact, Google the term "Math Invaders" and you will find a number of websites that provide math problems in game format.)

I'm not going to argue whether or not video games are good for our kids or not, but certain things are clear: Games make learning fun and kids like fun. This is not to say that games should completely replace traditional learning, nor does this mean that all video games are good influences on our children. But it does mean that there is, at the very least, a place for games in education. I encourage you to watch Gabe Zicherman's talk and make up your own mind.


As of writing this article, Merriam-Webster does not recognize "Gamification" as a real word, although Wikipedia defines this relatively new buzzword as:
"The integration of game mechanics or game dynamics into a website, service, community, campaign, or application in order to drive participation and engagement."
Image from gamification company:

Gamification boils down to one main point: People are motivated by rewards, whether the rewards are virtual, tangible, or just a good feeling. So to get people to join in, turn participating into a fun and rewarding experience.

We have all taken part in a form of gamification, be it playing educational computer games, engaging in an online activity for a reward, or simply completing your LinkedIn profile for the good feeling you get when the progress bar reaches 100%.

Gamification in the workplace

Gamification does not only exist in the realm of education or participation in online activities. Believe it or not, there is a rising trend in the gamification in the workplace, too.

Rachel Silverman wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal, published in the online edition on 10 October 2011, where she talks about companies that use games to encourage productivity. The article is entitled "Latest Game Theory: Mixing Work and Play". Silverman describes how some companies (including IBM, Delloite Touche and SAP) are using virtual rewards, such as badges on the employee's company profile, to encourage things like employee training.

The Gamification Blog at cites an interesting example of gamification, called Idea Street, successfully deployed in a workplace:
"Idea Street is an internal project of the United Kingdom’s Department of Work and Pensions, where employees interact and share ideas. The project includes a few basic game mechanics like badges and leaderboards, but the intrinsic driver of sharing ideas and collaborating on projects is the primary motivation behind the project. Idea Street facilitates the process. There is a case study available on Idea Street from Gartner, and the findings show that within the first 18 months, the project had around four thousand users, generated 1,400 ideas, 63 of which have been implemented within the Department."
Gamification also works to increase productivity. The following is from a May 11, 2011 blog post on
"Meanwhile at Target stores, cashiers are hard at work, getting reinforcement from their homegrown check out game. The custom-built app has proven to be a great way to relieve monotony and increase checkout speed by upwards of 10%. The basic premise was to provide feedback, progress mechanics and fun to improve user performance. This appears to be spectacularly true even in fairly unskilled jobs." lists a number of ways that different types of companies have introduced gamification into their processes.

How widespread is gamification in the workplace?

According to this article from May 2011:
  • The market for gamification will grow to $1.6 billion in 2015, from $100 million in 2011
  • The average growth rate for gamification for the next two years is 150%
  • More than a quarter of the online population now plays at least one game per month on a social network and the industry is expected to hit the $1B mark this year
  • A gamified service for consumer goods marketing and customer retention will become as important as Facebook, eBay or Amazon and more than 70% of Global 2000 organizations will have at least one gamified application, by 2014
  • By 2015, more than 50% of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes
In relation to the last point, a May 2011 Wall Street Journal article by Nicholas Lovell quotes Rick Gibson of Games Investor Consulting as saying:
“Some analysts estimate that 50% of companies will have ‘gamified’ by 2015. That’s 13.5 million businesses in the U.S. alone. That seems pretty ambitious to me.”
But even if it's not 50% but only 25% or 20%, it still signals a major shift away from traditional methods of motivating and incentivizing employees, to increase productivity, idea generation and innovation.

In his blog on the Fujitsu website, Chief Innovation and Technology Officer,  David Smith, says that gamification of the workplace is nothing new, it's just that now it has a name. One example he brings is that of Flexitime: An employee must work a minimum number of hours. Once that number of hours is exceeded, the employee can then cash-in the extra hours for time off. This, in a way, is a type of game.

In a blog post that contends that gamification is not a new concept, Richard Bingham breaks down the advantages of gamification to five points:
  • Better visibility into relative performance
  • More opportunities to compete
  • An engaging process and toolset for competing
  • Opportunity to make things a bit more fun
  • Opportunity to use more technology! 
Downsides and challenges of gamification

Gamification has its negative side. Here are a few:

A flawed game: Gamers will often find loopholes (cheats) in the rules that can be exploited. This is a real problem because if the game is designed by an inexperienced team, there are likely to be flaws that can be manipulated by users for personal benefit.

Game gone awry: In this video, Charlie Kim describes a workplace game designed to encourage employees to drink more water and less soda. Sounds like a healthy goal. However, in this real-world example, the competition became so fierce that people ended up drinking too much water.

Unfriendly competition: While competition in the workplace is often a good motivator, if not kept in check, the gamification of certain activities can lead to unfriendly rivalries. This reduces the standard of the work environment and is ultimately more destructive than helpful.

Coercive: In a strongly worded article on entitled, "Why Gamification is as Stupid as it Sounds", Sam Doust contends that the whole idea of gamification is to coerce users into participation. He says that:
"Cooperation is always better - and it leads to better economic models. Conversely, coercive approaches set limits on growth, innovation, experience and creativity - both in thought and practice."
In the interest of balance, it is important to read Doust's full article. Also see Dakota Reece Brown's article "Badges? Do we need stinking badges?"

Gamification gone too far?

CNN has taken gamification to a new level. In November 2011, CNN fired 50 employees, editors and photo-journalists because technological advancements made them redundant (see email to staff by CNN Senior VP, Jack Womack.) What are the technological advancements? There are millions of people walking around with good-enough-quality cameras built into their phones. All they have to do is take a picture and send it in to CNN. Their reward: an online badge.

Watch Stephen Colbert's wry take on this issue, here:

My opinion

I don't see gamification in the workplace as a long-term solution for increasing productivity or innovation. The rewards offered by companies to their employees may be fun for a while, but I think that adults are likely to view such things as a fun, passing fad, but not worth the effort in the long-term. In other words, I identify with Colbert's sardonic tone when he describes the reward system:
"iReporters don't get paid, they get something even better - badges, which I assume are redeemable for food and rent! Plus, you get...nothing else!"
On the other hand, I think that gamification in the education industry should definitely be taken far more seriously, even more so than in the workplace. Children are more predisposed to playing games and will play the same game repeatedly just because it's fun - for the reward of winning, achieving a higher score or unlocking new challenges. If it is possible to harness the enthusiasm and use it to create competitive, modern, exciting, multiplayer games to enhance the educational experience, I think we are on to a real winner.

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  1. A well written article worthy of consideration. Interesting video - but I'll stick with my book and cuppa.


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