Oct 16 2013

Why Gamifying Tasks Is Good for Business

When work no longer feels like work, productive things happen.

Gamification has gotten a bad wrap. Like many buzzwords before it, this trend, which has swept the startup world and education, has been simplified and distilled to a gimmick: Digital badges.

The location check-in social network Foursquare was one of the early startups that successfully leveraged gamification to achieve business goals. By awarding badges and crowning users who checked in often from certain locations as “mayors,” Foursquare “tripled its user base and added 10 million users in about one year,” according to a report from Mashable.

While badges may seem passé to some, the gamification example that Foursquare set is still one worth following. By gamifying the check-in, which is otherwise boring and uneventful, the company was able to encourage users to help it build what it really sought: a crowdsourced map of business locations with a layer of customer activity on top.

New York University journalism professor and PandoDaily Editor Adam Penenberg explores how gamification and work overlap in meaningful ways in his new book, Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking. He shared an excerpt of the book on PandoDaily in which he highlights the invention of the CAPTCHA verification system, which helps gamify online security.

Luis von Ahn] traces the germ of this idea to another invention he came up with as a graduate student called CAPTCHA, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. (Alan Turing was a computer scientist who in 1950 invented a test to analyze whether a machine could pass for a human.) Yahoo had come to Carnegie Mellon and asked [Luis] von Ahn’s advisor if there was any way to stamp out online fraud. Fraudsters were deploying armies of spam bots to automatically register email accounts on a massive scale, and the company needed to do something about it. Von Ahn’s solution was ingeniously simple. He came up with a system to create numbers and letters that would be fuzzy enough so that a machine couldn’t read them but a human could. Ever since, people have cursed him for it. Nevertheless CAPTCHA works and is used on millions of sites.

One day, von Ahn learned that roughly 200 million CAPTCHAS were being typed everyday. If it took the average person 10 seconds to complete one then he calculated that humanity as a whole was wasting 500,000 hours every day typing these annoying numbers and letters. This prompted him to come up with reCAPTCHA, which was the same premise as CAPTCHA only the material came from old books. It was a way to take an act that was unproductive and derive something from it on a mass scale.

To scan an old book and digitize the contents is a laborious process, akin to snapping a photograph of every single page. Then it’s up to a computer, using optical character recognition (OCR), to decipher each and every word. The process often results in plenty of mangled text. For older books, those published more than fifty years ago, pages have often yellowed and the ink has faded, which leads to an error rate as high as 30 percent. Von Ahn is taking words the computer can’t recognize and getting people typing reCAPTCHAs to recognize them for him. He offers two words because one comes from a book, which the computer doesn’t recognize, and the other is a word the computer already knows. The system doesn’t tell the user which is which. If she types the correct word that the computer knows the answer to, it will assume she is human and have some confidence she typed the other word properly, too. If 10 people agree then the system has successfully edited another word.

With major companies such as Cisco Systems, Hilton and Domino’s Pizza incorporating fun, competitive games into their businesses, the trend is bound to trickle out to more and more businesses over the next few years.

This means IT leaders should begin studying their teams, identifying motives, examining case studies and potentially consulting with gamification experts so they don’t get caught up in the badges-and-stickers trap.

Brian Burke, research vice president at Gartner, sums up the challenge nicely in a recent report the firm put out on trends in gamification.

“As gamification moves from being leveraged by a limited number of leading-edge innovators to becoming more broadly adopted by early adopters, it is important that CIOs and IT leaders understand the underlying principle of gamification and how to apply it within the IT organization,” he says.


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