Using Gaming to Foster Engagement Can Be Like Simulating Engagement in Lab Testing

My morning visit to the intart00bz has produced this little gem: Clive Thompson on How Games Make Work Seem Like Play.

The whole point of the article is to highlight how creating a gaming paradigm around some daunting task made the task more palatable as it took it from something seen as a pain in the @$$ to something that motivated people to compete against one another and gain rank. What’s really nice about this particular article is that it points out two instances of this where it wasn’t something trivial; rather, one instance was to find and investigate frivolous spending on the part of parliament members, and the other to offer ideas around reducing global warming. Essentially, games were created around two things that tick off the average person and made them an active member in resolving (or attempting to resolve) the issue.

When I first read this article, I thought this was a nice idea on a superficial level. What something like fitting a gaming paradigm to bothersome tasks does is encourage the task to be completed, possibly in a rote fashion without any understanding of the issues underlying the task, or the ramifications of the task not being solved. A perfect example of this is that of wasteful spending by parliament members. As gamers were completing the task of scanning receipts for suspicious purchases, all they were doing was a matching task: Finding an item that seemed unrelated to public duty or that seemed too extravagant for the purpose of public service, and then checking that item’s purchase price to verify whether it surpassed some sort of internally defined threshold for “wow, that costs too much.” As people were doing this, the focus was on the item and its cost, but what did the people take away from the exercise? Did they gain a better understanding of what excessive spending on the part of politicians means for their bottom line? Did they perhaps gain an understanding of the duties of parliament officials, or the items needed to complete those duties effectively? I’m going to say maybe quite a few people thought it through on the former, and nobody at all on the latter.

At the very least, this first example points out that gaming can get the average Joe engaged superficially in some task, but it might not impart a deeper understanding of the topics related to that task. In a way, this reminds me of user testing. When conducting lab studies, usability practitioners very often focus on the interface ‘in a vacuum’. By that I mean they focus on it without looking at the interface in the intended use environment. Given the purpose of lab testing, which is to provide a general guide about how usable an interface is, this might not be such a big deal. But to expand those results to say that an interface will definitely be used in a certain way when ‘out in the wild’ and have certain issues and outcomes without having actually observed the interface in the actual use environment or a similar interface can be irresponsible.

Having been both a consultant and an in-house researcher to large corporations, I have both seen and been informed of–sometimes very rudely–that my observations during lab testing did not translate to the real world. Part of this is because outside of the intended use environment there were variables impacting use that the research team did not know about or that could not be simulated. As a result, the level of engagement in the lab by the user to working with the device was different than that of the user working with the device in the actual use environment. When working with users in a lab we are already at a disadvantage merely by being in a lab–the veil of reality is slim, probably not existent. Furthermore, we are creating a scenario that, while it may be a very real scenario, it is still open to interpretation by the user who might be misinterpreting it, or interpreting it differently than if they had been in the scenario in the real world.

So at the end of the day, the lesson is this: You can create some sort of paradigm to make performing a task easier or more rewarding, but the actual level of engagement is debatable.