Assassin’s Creed, a favourite among gamers.

Adrian Bridgwater

Games designer and gamification philosopher Jane McGonigal is a regular speaker on the technology conference circuit. She illustrates the virtues of gaming and advocates that we embrace many of the ways gaming can help us become competitive, develop cognitive skills and to learn more across ALL the software applications that we come into contact with.

“My goal is to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games,” said McGonigal in her TED talk, which has over five million views at the time of writing.

Drive to incentivize

McGonigal has said that if we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict and obesity, then games and their essential drive to incentivize us can provide us some of the direction we need. She also focuses on the way games can provide us with a means of gathering collective intelligence (especially within the realm of massively multiplayer online role-playing games or MMORGS) and how we should transfer that energy into real life and try to solve real world problems.

The question is then, should all enterprise software feature gamification elements and challenges? Is this the way all software should be developed and should programmers think about challenges, wins, trophies and badges as part of every app they build for applications in HR, finance and every other aspect of business administration?

One example is Xeropan, the brainchild of CEO, co-founder and English teacher Attila Al Gharawi. This is a gamified English language-learning app that rewards users based upon how well they have mastered the spoken word. Xeropan 3.0 features what is supposed to be entertaining gamified content and AI-driven chatbots that provide students with immediate feedback on their pronunciation abilities and speaking skills. So does Al Gharawi think that all enterprise software should be gamified to feature gameplay elements inside it?

“Basic mechanics of gamification have secretly found their way into most software today. We’ve introduced key features and we give instant feedback to users through features such as progress bars and indicators. However, there are certain applications like training and learning apps, where motivation is key. Users need to work hard for their desired goal, no magic pills. We had to go beyond basic gamification thus we reverse-engineered the psychology of the most popular games today and implemented them to Xeropan,” said Al Gharawi.

Game over for the novelty factor

Looking for wider examples of this trend, Vevox is a cloud-based real-time audience engagement app that creates meetings and classes for people to attend live. It enables meeting attendees to contribute, receive and compare instant feedback both from a group and individual perspective via a live screen.

Question and comments are contributed via the app and ‘liked’ as per social media, with the best ones winning out and being addressed. Poll responses are instantly gamified and scored for accuracy and sentiment with instant reporting in order that the individuals can see how they compare to the group and meeting organizers can see where there are knowledge gaps.

“Gamification has to be integrated into apps in the right way, it has to be meaningful and linked with real world development. If gamification becomes a novelty or is not linked to a goal outside the app it becomes ineffective. In the workplace, you have to have gamification connected to a business objective, whether if it is personal development or business Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). To ensure the rewards in the app accurately mirror real-world business goals, software developers must be given regular exposure to the end user so they are immersed in the real application of the product,” said Vevox managing director Pete Eyre.

Eyre suggests that ‘event apps’ can be an example of when enterprise software gamification can detract from the overall goal. Many events use gamification to such as extent that it requires users to spend so much time uncovering all sections of the app, that in order to win you would miss important parts of the conference you are attending.

Gamification in security

Gamification has an application in security too. According to ISACA research in 2019, around 68 per cent of respondents say their IT security teams are understaffed, while 32 per cent said it took more than six months to fill open roles on their teams. This has made it more important than ever to keep skilled people… and perhaps more importantly, to keep them happy in their roles.

“Alongside more analytics and automation, gamification has a role to play in making security staff more productive and more likely to stay in place. At Sumo Logic, we started off with a simple system for rewarding people for their work and for keeping things secure, whether they were in our DevOps team or in the wider company. In gaming terms, it was like Mario collecting coins. That initial implementation worked as a reward system, but we thought we could improve it further to make more of each individual across the team, rather than taking a one size fits all approach. George Gerchow, chief security officer, Sumo Logic.

Sumo Logic is now implementing a system that works like Fortnite, with levels of experience based on how people develop and stretch their skills over time. This recognizes that people will take time to build up their experience in particular areas, but also that this is something that different people will go at different paces. For more technical staff, there’s more of an element of competition and depth, because that’s where the reward exists for them.

Gerchow insists that gamification isn’t an ‘on-or-off’ system — organizations need to think about the reward mechanisms they have in place and ensure that they recognize truly ‘good’ behaviour. Firms gamifiying elements of their enterprise apps also need to ensure that people can’t play (and indeed cheat) the system.

Playing the software skills game

Interestingly, software development itself is often gamified, so it makes sense that these aspects find their way into applications built for other users in the enterprise.

“Developers often gravitate towards game-like tools for improving their own development skills. Consider the variety of coding challenges you can sign up for, like Codewars and Hacker One, that have daily problems, badges and public leaderboards. These training games can use human psychology to improve skill acquisition: progress dashboards take advantage of competitive drive and individual challenges break tasks into small, achievable goals. All of this motivates reaching larger goals and encourages engagement. As long as the game-like aspects aren’t punitive or used to cause anxiety about performance, people will play and there’s no harm (and plenty of benefit) in adding them,” said Professor Daniel Kroening, CEO, Diffblue.

Kroening’s work at AI-for-code company Diffblue has seen him invent CBMC, a framework for interpreting the meaning of code, which he open sourced. Diffblue uses AI to automatically write unit tests for Java apps. So when does Kroening suggest not to gamify?

“Applications shouldn’t be gamified when company goals don’t align with the aspects that are made into a game. Companies have to be careful that they’re not incentivising the wrong things, like simply tracking the number of commits a developer makes or how quickly they write lines of code and using that as a metric to reward in a game, rather than a more thorough measure of quality. Similarly, gamification can become demotivating if there is a competitive aspect e.g. if a new hire starts at the bottom of the list and feels they will never work their way up. People also get tired of playing the same game every day, so some variety needs to be introduced,” added Kroening.

Gaming for machines, not humans

Kroening admits that software development can be boring at times and reminds us that most of it isn’t about saving the planet or curing cancer. So, in this sense, gamifying is great for engaging employees and encouraging them to reach larger goals. He also notes that interestingly, many of the technical capabilities that make gamification possible are just as useful for encouraging outcomes from machines as in humans.

“The key to gamifying anything is the ability to score the work that gets done with a program that computes your score accurately and displays it right away, rather than waiting for a panel of humans to deliver the score later. Now suppose you have a program that can assign a score to the work you’ve done. What that means is that you’re in perfect territory for applying reinforcement learning, which is a form of training for machines. So if you have the means to gamify an application, you’re not far from being able to use this to teach a machine.”

We can certainly say that gamification is a trend that is playing out (sorry!) outside of pure game apps and featuring as an element in a wide variety of enterprise applications. As in life and as in complex Role Playing Games (RPGs) it also appears that there are positives and negatives to gamification i.e. we don’t want to disincentivize people and knock back skilled people who just don’t have that kind of competitive streak about them.

Enterprise gamification needs a just cause, shouldn’t be a fable and it should always consider the fact that some people have the killer instinct to join the corporate assassin’s creed and become winners, while some don’t.

Vevox is cloud-based real-time audience engagement app.

Vevox

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