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The Stanford “marshmallow” test is a famous experiment conducted in the 1960s and 1970s. Its purpose was to measure preschoolers’ ability to delay gratification. The experiment, conducted by psychologists Walter Mischel and Ebbe Ebbesen, consisted of presenting a child with two options: get a reward immediately or a get a larger one later.
A child could receive one marshmallow (or another favorite treat – a cookie or pretzel) immediately, or, the child could get two marshmallows later. The two marshmallows were given only if the child waited for 15-20 minutes to pass, seated alone in a room with a table on which stood a plate with the two marshmallows and a bell. The child could ring the bell to call the researcher back into the room before the allotted time. If the child managed to wait the entire time, they got the two marshmallows. If they called the researcher, they could have just one.
Most children chose to delay the reward and not receive the immediate one marshmallow. Of the children that chose to delay the reward, about one-third managed to wait the time required for eligibility for the full two marshmallows.
Originally, the purpose of the experiment was to gain a better understanding of how children develop deferred gratification and their strategies for maintaining the ability to wait for a greater reward. Children’s strategies varied – self distraction, imagining the two marshmallows are “just a picture”, humming, singing, kicking furniture, rocking on chairs and even turning their back on the marshmallow.
The full significance of the marshmallow test was realized in its follow-on studies. In 1988 Mischel found that preschoolers that did well on the original test, were described by parents, ten years later as more competent adolescents. Later on success in the test was correlated with higher SAT scores (210 points more compared to the most impatient children), educational attainment and even lower body mass index measurements. Successful delay gratification also correlated with better mental health outcomes.
Let’s assume you’ve decided to use gamification – the use of game mechanics to encourage behaviors – such as checking in (foursquare/swarm), selling (CRM scenarios), completing coursework (eLearning). Let’s assume it is in an enterprise gamification context. Maybe you’re gamifying learning, call center activities, or sales.
Now let me ask you a question: is your gamification project going to be addictive? Or how about this question: should it be addictive? Are you hemming and hawing and refraining from an outright answer? I was when I was first asked this.
I’ll admit that I myself hesitated when I started to hear these types of questions from gamification novices. After all, isn’t addiction a bad word? Its dictionary definition is “the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity”. THAT’S BAD. And if addiction is BAD (notwithstanding addictions to chocolate or coffee or extreme sports), then isn’t gamification kind of diabolical?
Well, it IS NOT. I was reading Erin Hoffman’s post, Life, Addictive Game Mechanics, And The Truth Hiding In Bejeweled. And then it hit me: game mechanics may compel us to act. But they are not addictive or evil, and the sometimes naive portrayals in the business press (“in the future we will go to work and think we are playing a video game, but in fact the big corporate will be playing with our mind”) are incorrect.
Employee engagement has been monitored by the Gallup Institute for several decades in dozens of countries by periodically asking hundreds of thousands of employees a couple of questions about their engagement levels. And the results are pretty shocking. Only 16% or employees in Switzerland are engaged. Unengaged employees cost the economy several billion Swiss Francs every year. And the outcomes matter for each of us. Dealing with a disengaged supermarket cashier, support center agent, bank clerk, or colleague make frustrate all of us.
Now think of players playing videogames. Maybe you play games yourself, or your children. Then you will know what real engagement means. Players can spend hours very focused on achieveing their goals. And this often includes many failures, but still players are trying to tackle again the obstacles.
Research shows when people are engaged they are more productive. That’s why gamification has caught on in the corporate world. The clever combination of fields such as game design, psychology, motivation theory, neurophysiology, and behaviorism has been shown to benefit stakeholders in surprisingly effective ways.
Leaderboards are one of the most popular game design elements that gamification designers have in their toolset. Ranking players by their achievements is something that we are all familiar with, as it has been used in most sports to showcase the winners and losers. But leaderboards are not just isolated. They build on other game design elements, such as points or medals to be functioning.
While leaderboards (and points) are extrinsic motivators that come from outside an individual, they need to be connected to intrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivators including epic meaning, learning, or relationships benefit from the quantitative aspect of leaderboards. Short-term extrinsic combined with the long-term effect of intrinsic motivators make a gamification design strong and engaging.
When choosing a leaderboard as a design element, a gamification practitioner needs to make sure that it plays its part for the long-term goal. Leaderboards alone tend to encourage competition, which may be counter to the goal of collaboration in an organization. After all, that’s why we create companies, because together we can accomplish more than as individuals. For short-term and occasional initiatives a leaderboard may be perfectly fine. It may give the necessary energy boost to an organization and de-emphasizing the competitive aspect can help improve metrics. Use it to drive sales, but only do so occasional. Excessive use may lead to unethical behaviors, as the ranking may dominate over the real benefits that a customer may get.