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Gamification: A Tool that Government Should Not Ignore

Some argue the teaching and learning tools of gamification not only have a place in education, but in government, too.

by / September 1, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. — Games aren't something we typically associate with government, but some in the public sector are beginning to find that “gamifying” to engage with constituents, and internal and external stakeholders, is an effective means of reaching goals that might otherwise go unmet.

Use cases are only limited by the imagination. Though the “games” aren’t what you might associate with typical fun, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Government's Dr. Shannon Tufts and Maurice Ferrell explained to attendees of the North Carolina Digital Government Summit* on Aug. 31 that gamification is a tool that should not be ignored.

To be clear, gamification doesn't mean that serious work, like Child Protective Services cases, will be turned into some sort of winner-take-all, paperwork footrace. It’s more about offering employees and customers the opportunity to engage through a nontraditional channel.

“So a serious game, or gamification, means that you take the theories of games — rules, points, badges of some sort — and you apply them to a real-world scenario,” Tufts said. “The interesting thing about gamification is that we’ve been doing this forever, and it actually relies on human psychology to make people learn.”

For example, Tufts explained that a simple star rating option on an online Q&A or comment page can drive use of the feature. People given the opportunity to compete, even if just for a better rank against other unseen customers, are likely to engage more often — even more so than when they're offered tangible incentives, like gift cards.

Learning, she said, is the main purpose of this process. When given the right tools, the pair said a game can change real behaviors.

When tools are leveraged for outside stakeholders, Tufts and Ferrell said they can change things like calls from the public and office visits. The reduction in in-person interactions allows staff the time to work on more pressing issues and improves overall productivity.

“One of the really critical things, I think, about gaming is that it forces us to make decisions," Ferrell said. "You cannot allow a situation to sort of sit. In many of our organizations … there are probably decisions that you are waiting on for some answer to be made."

Additionally, the tools allow users to test outcomes in a safe environment, where the consequences of a risky decision do not translate out into the real world. This safety can lead to research and development when a game is applied correctly.

“If you look at our organizations, many of our organizations are risk averse because we don’t want to stick ourselves too far out there because of the repercussions we may feel from making a decision like that or taking a risk like that,” Ferrell said. “The game does sort of give you a safe place to do that.”

When gaming was applied to delivering babies in Sub-Saharan Africa, Tufts said that doctors, nurses and midwives were able to step out of their hierarchical boundaries and test decision-making and communications strategies before deploying them into the delivery room.

Researchers concluded that use of the tool effectively saved the lives of mothers and their children.

But there are, of course, caveats to the serious and traditional gaming spaces. The game PokemonGo, so popular just a little over a month ago, is now losing roughly 15 million users a day, according to sources cited by Tufts and Ferrell. Other sources cite losses of more than 12 million active users since the game's mid-July peak of 45 million users.

“The reason people are dropping out of PokemonGo is that it is very repetitive,” Tufts said, adding that glitches, a summer release date and technical problems are other reasons cited for the decline in participation.

Engagement, whether internal or external, must evolve to maintain the interest of the target. Tufts points to actual games like the popular World of Warcraft series, in which players have logged more than 6 million years of playing time, according to her sources. The duo attributes this success to constant and considerate evolution.

They propose that any organization looking toward a gamification solution consider the following: use game-like mechanics (badges, leaderboards, etc.) but don’t build a toy; know your end goal or the problem you are aiming to correct; look at the feedback frequently; add the competitive element; and make the gamification fun and engaging for users.

*The North Carolina Digital Government Summit is produced by the Government Technology events division and the Center for Digital Government, both owned and operated by e.Republic Inc., the same parent company as Government Technology magazine and Govtech.com.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:25 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2016 to include another source for the number of users PokemonGo has lost since it peaked in mid-July.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.