On “goal gifts” and gamification: buy yourself a gift, get it only if you reach your goal

I was thinking about motivation mechanisms, and had this idea.  Say you are trying to achieve some goal, such as remembering to check your blood pressure or get up by a certain time every day; and say there is an objective way to verify completion, e.g.  a Web tool that recorded your blood reading or awakeness,

Now, what if, at the start of the week, you had bought yourself a $10 Amazon gift certificate / voucher, a special one with the property that it is redeemable only if you complete your daily task every day that week?  Would this work?  How much might it change your behavior?

Some interesting aspects of this “goal gift” model:

  1. Goal gifts could be bought for someone else — an “improving” gift;
  2. Goal gift could be offered to any member of some group, to encourage a  desired behavior such as school attendance or better grades (there are dedicated programs that do this now, but they are not generalized to allow any goal to be incented by anyone via an online system).
  3. Both sellers and buyers of goal gifts could have real profit incentives.
    Why is that?  Because any non-trivial tasks would have less than 100% success rates;  so a seller of task vouchers might profitably sell them at a discount from face value, as long as the price was higher than the average success rate.  In turn, a buyer might “earn” money by having above-average success at tasks.  E.g. a $10 voucher is offered at $9 for a task with an average success rate of 80%;  seller makes $1 on average;  buyer makes money if he can succeed at task > 90% of the time.

I’ve been trying to find prior examples of this model, and imagine it’s been done in some way, and/or examined in academic psychology or behavioral economics before, but I haven’t found an exact precedent.  However, it’s closely related to many other motivation systems,

For example, Lorcan Dempsey of OCLC recently highlighted several motivation frameworks which he described as examples of “gamification,” the application of game mechanics to non-game services and systems such as education or healthcare.

There is stickK.com, a startup founded by two Yale professors and a grad student (in Law, Economics, and Management, respectively) which offers an online framework for setting and managing “Commitment Contracts”.  To help you reach goals, you set penalties (they charge your credit card, and optionally donate it to charity), assign a friend to be the Referee to verify your progress, and even set up Supporters to cheer  you on.  stickK is based on behavioral economics research and field testing:  “the principle that creating incentives and assigning accountability are the two most important keys to achieving a goal.”
Comment:  requiring a credit-card to sign up is scary.  Overall it sounds like a lot of punishment (Referees?).

Keas.com is a startup co-founded by the former head of Google Health (now shuttered),which lets you set health goals, and then compete in teams for points and other rewards.  Originally it was conceived as a service to help individuals manage health information, but after a few years of model evolution, it is now centered on “the power of [group] play” and is pitched to companies as an employee wellness system.
Comment:  competing with co-workers in teams, in order to lower your company’s healthcare costs, to me is creepy, sounds like Maoist social control via work unit.  I probably wouldn’t be signing up.

Sites that let you announce goals, and get social support for them, have been around for years.  A recent example is Fitango, “a fitness and goal tracking web site that goes beyond merely logging your progress and offers guides, expert-created plans, easy tracking, and peer-based motivation to keep you moving towards your goals.”

There is even gamification of library use, Dempsey discovers, with the Lemon Tree project at the University of Huddersfield in the UK:

Lemon Tree seeks to increase the use of library resources through a social, game based elearning platform. Users will register with the system and be able to earn points and rewards for interacting with library resources, such as leaving comments and reviews of library books. Integration with other social networks such as Twitter and Facebook will be built into the system.

This one I find a bit uncompelling because the goal is defined as increase the use of library resources — which is the goal of the library (the system designer), but not a goal of or necessarily beneficial to the library users.

Gamification:  What’s New, Actually?

I said that Dempsey categorized these sites as “gamification” examples, but I’m not sure I quite agree.

The problem is that the prevailing definition of “gamification,” as the application of game mechanics to non-game scenarios, is so vague as to include practically any interaction.

Games use a huge range of mechanics (rules, features, rewards, etc.) — see the extensive catalog of them at http://gamification.org/wiki/Game_Mechanics — including just about any type of economic or psychological incentive you can imagine.   I think it may be necessary to find a more precise definition, in order for the term to be analytically useful and not just a buzzword applied to any vaguely related initiative.  Also, in order to not forget that many of these dynamics have long been used and studied in other contexts.

So, what dimensions of “games” are not unique to games, or are widely understood under other terms?

1) incentives:  setting up incentives is not, in itself, gamification.  Amost everything we do in life is within a field of incentives, whether in terms or money, social capital, pleasure/pain, etc.  There’s a universe of social science already established, which examines how incentives work in innumerable contexts, e.g. economic or psychological, and it would be unfortunate for that knowledge to be obscured by moving to a different, “gamification” vocabulary.

Some interesting examples, from a social-reform standpoint, include initiatives to pay students for better grades in tthe U.S.,  (extensively researched by Roland Fryer at Harvard’s EdLab) or better attendance and medical habits, (done on a large scale in Mexico and Brazil).

2) “social” (e.g. peer support or peer motivation).
Making something social doesn’t make it a game, nor vice versa.  stikK, for example, has social aspects but very little game aspect.  Most gamification commentary I’ve seen seems to forget that games have no need to be social — even the paradigmatic case of video games have always been predominantly played alone.

One of the most famous of all behavior-changing systems, Alcoholics Anonymous, is very much social, but not gamelike.  It’s about peer interaction;  which, argues NYT reporter and Macarthur grant winner Tina Rosenberg in her recent Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World (2011, Amazon), is the key way to catalyze social investment and reform.

3) commitment mechanisms
This is a broad concept from economics, that might incorporate incentives or social structures, with the common denominator being ways to shape one’s own future action. A common example is when employees pre-commit to diverting any future pay raise into a retirement account.
stikK.com is mainly a commitment-mechanism system, as reflected by the name of it’s central feature, the “Commitment Contract”.   (reflecting the academic perspective of its founders..).

4) Surety bonds (aka Performance Bonds, Completion Bonds)
This is when an individual or other party posts money (or collateral) as a guarantee they will complete some obligation.  Wikipedia notes that such devices have existed since ancient Mesopotamia;  common contemporary examples are “performance bonds” posted by filmmaking teams in independent productions, and “completion bonds” posted by contractors in construction projects.   Surety bonds are incentives, and are loosely a type of commitment mechanism, except applied to a commitment to some other party, not to oneself.

Anyway, why does it matter?  Because when you recognize the above concepts in action  in some new site or service, you can better understand and categorize the service, and relate it to the universe of what else has been done.  You can better draw upon economics, psychology, law, etc., for new ideas, rather than thinking only within the terms of gaming.  And you can narrow in on what may be more unique to gamification, which is the subject for a few other posts but, just to take a few guesses, might include:

  • creation of a new intrinsic motivation source —  e.g., you play because it’s fun, and incidentally it does something useful like help process email or fill out forms.
  • continual feedback and progressing challenge, with careful calibration to ensure neither too easy/monotonous nor too difficult/unforseeable problems.
  • a continually-unfolding problem, with new information released in stages (aka “cascading information”).
  • progressive, visible, stable markers of attainment.   yes, alas, badges and levels.

Applying this to my own proposal, I’d say “goal gifts” are essentially a self-commitment mechanism, and barely gamelike.  But they’re interesting for other reasons, such as the profit potential for buyers and sellers of tasks, as described above.

for more information:
a great article is  “The purpose of gamification: A look at gamification’s applications and limitations.” by leading gamification expert Gabe Zichermann.   see also the enlightening and extensive discussion in the comments, between Gabe, Kathy Sierra (of “Headfirst! books fame) and others.

Also, more information at the Gamification Wiki.

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