Gamification of agile software projects

…or smacked by the motivational carrot


Gamification is hot and is becomming increasingly interwowen into more and more contexts all around us. Probably first introduced through frequent flyer milage point programs where the points are easy to collect, but often harder to spend. But now a core part of many online content contribution systems as a mean to engage and motivate participation. And why shouldn’t it? Many tedious tasks can be made much more fun. And why shouldn’t we enjoy work as much as we possibly can?

In ‘The Art of Game Design’, Jesse Schell iterates a couple of time upon the definition of what a game is made of: ‘A Game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playfull attitude’.
Prior to making this definition, Schell also lists ten qualities which consitute a good game. Some of these are that games are entered willyfully, have goals, conflict, rules and a win/lose outcome.
Games have always been around, but should any completion of work where there is a bit of competition involved be considered as ‘gamified’? Well, actually the gamification community does differentiate between a ‘game’ and something being ‘gamified’. To gamify something is to add game-like mechanics to a process or experience. So it isn’t to add a lot of complicated rules or construct a game specific habitat.

I have been meaning to write a bit about how gamification might be incorporated into project development practices. There are already a multitude of game-like activities being used in design, planning and learning phases. ‘Game-like’ in the sense that we wrap something extra around an process in order to make it more inclusive, creative or simply refreshing.
So when we’re already in a game-like setting, I suppose that gamification is the next obvious step?

As software developers we have goals, some set by the customers, some by managers and some by ourselves. Nobody is probably forcing us to work, of course we need our pay check to make a living. But I still wouldn’t call my specific working activities something that I’m forced to do. I could, at least in theory, just find something else to do.

Recently I stumbled upon RedCritter’s Tracker product, which seeks to introduce gamification into an agile project setting. Having viewed their presentation video, two questions remain with me:
1. How suitable is gamification as a mechanic for motivating employees in a professional software development setting?
2. If so…is agile values & gamification a good match?

In a quick fly-by, I observe Tracker adding the following features to their project management tool:

  • Badges, which can be unlocked through completion of many different scenarios. Badges are displayed on participant profile pages and in communication.
  • Points, which are earned for completing project tasks
  • Reward Store, where you can spend your earned points
  • Leaderboards, which list the participants according to achievements.

Nothing new in this. But it (for me) is the first time I see them mixed into project management. Mike Beaty, Founder/CEO of RedCritter Corp, explains why RedCritter believe that gamification of projects not only boost quality and efficiency, but also adds a lot of fun. Mike exemplifies this by linking to his own Tracker profile page.

The concept of being rewarded by completing assignments stirs something in me. Maybe it’s my (Danish) cultural background, maybe it’s fear of ‘losing’ the points race with my co-workers…or leaving other behind in the dust :-) Maybe it just resembles patterns of failed parenting to much?

When we enter into a game setting, some of us experience a (slight?) shift in behavioural and cultural norms. Bartles four player categorizations illustrate the potential tensions and dynamics in any given group of people engaged in a game. Some of us might find it very difficult to not be overtaken by our game-driven ‘alter-ego’, and others tend to react very strongly to very engaged co participants in the given game. Either way, the more game-like a setting we find ourselves in, the more likely it is that we would experience these tension points becoming more obvious.

So what happens when these forces are introduced in a professional environment? In a setting where a lot of us has a lot of identity closely coupled to our profession. In a setting where our presence it not ‘just-for-fun’, but also a matter of making a living, maintaining a family, saving for retirement and whatnot.
It is probably very hard not to consider gamification metrics into a professional setting as a pretty obvious way of adding team member performance assessment in a way that becomes very public to anybody, not just in the team but the entire organization.

I guess that one of the goals of pairing gamification with agile project management is to achieve a state of ‘Blissful Productivity‘. But adding rewards to tasks that are essential mandatory, is perhaps not really that sustainable in the long run? At least i might not remain blissful. Pointification can be beneficial for temporary sprints, but will it remain fun in the long run?

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