Big Data and gamification

We must be absolutely clear on this point before we can proceed. The game is not the experience. The game enables the experience, but it is not the experience…As designers, we don’t really care about the [proverbial] tree and how it falls [if no one is there to hear it] – we care only about the experience of hearing it.

– The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell

While attending a meetup tonight regarding Data Visualization, I unsurprisingly met a number of people working with Big Data. More interestingly, when I described my research on gamification, a number of people too were familiar with the concept from their work on consumer and enterprise applications alike. But their familiarity with and application of game-concepts was limited to points, badges, and leaderboards (For the Win, Werbach and Hunter) and the primary purpose of gamification was to increase engagement.

Reading the website of Badgeville, one of the companies providing tools for quick inclusion of basic gamification techniques into enterprise software, I see similar descriptions of how gamification can help companies:


Perhaps no one is feeling the engagement crisis more than today’s marketer.


The Behavior Platform can deliver on the promise of online communities by driving higher user engagement and retention.


Increase CRM adoption and revolutionize sales performance management.


The Behavior Platform can increase user engagement by 50%, improving customer retention and reducing churn.


The Behavior Platform can increase employee productivity with key services systems and reward customers’ engagement with support communities.


The Behavior Platform can increase employee engagement by 50%, reducing churn and accelerating productivity.

My conclusion is that people are missing the bigger picture here about what gamification and game design can contribute to the development of traditional software. Instead of embracing the complexity of game design, tool developers are mushing together into a single term, engagement, the many refined concepts that game designers use to craft games successfully. And by focusing on the game mechanics rather than the experience, they are limiting their gamification efforts from achieving, besides increased engagement, increased experimentation, craving, feedback, conflict, volunteering, teamwork, advancement, and creativity, which are all end results sought after in game design.

For example, a company might introduce badges into their internal communication and collaboration tools with the intention of incentivizing certain behaviors that are beneficial to the company. That indeed is gamification. But it stinks of over-simplification. Unless those badge entities were fashioned with great care and purpose, I would argue they under-exemplify a commitment to gamification and I would anticipate users losing interest in the badges before long. Sure, the company could offer financial incentives or promotions as reward for accomplishments in the game, but that’s cheating. It’s like needing to offer a kid $20 to beat Halo. Shoot, if the kid doesn’t want to beat Halo for the sake of beating Halo, then Halo has failed as a game and instead is just an obstacle to be overcome.

Good games are not easy to create and certainly do not succeed because of the application of standard techniques or incorporation of standard elements. Good games access deep psychology and inspire both mind and heart. Good games emerge from deep listening (Game Design, p11). Good game elements cannot be outsourced. They are context sensitive, and must be fashioned specifically for their audience.

In chapter 8 of The Art of Game Design, a chapter titled “The Game is Made for a Player,” the author states “You mush know what your audience will and will not like, and you must know it even better than they do…We know that all individuals are each unique, but when creating something meant to be enjoyed by vast numbers of people, we have to consider ways that groups of people are the same. We call these groups demographics…For game designers, the two most significant demographic variables are age and gender.”

Yet I have not heard of a company creating multiple interfaces of their tool or website for the different ages and genders of users they are trying to gamify for.

And here is where it gets super-interesting. When you tell this to a product manager, as I did tonight at this Visualization/Big Data meetup, they become interested AND start to wonder about the age and gender analytics of their product. While it is clear to many that Big Data and Visualization are tied together, I argue that Gamification is tied to them both, as well. Big Data is enabling companies to understand their users and their users’ behaviors better than ever, and that can feed the process of game design as much as it currently feeds market analysis and product customization.

My hunch is that gamification is the missing element to unlock the potential of visualizations. People love visualizations and enjoy realizing the insights they can unlock. But designers and developers create visualizations. Never do users of a data dashboard see a visualization that wasn’t prepared for them. So in a way, the designer/developer is the game player, getting to play with the data and explore its meanings and hidden secrets. The end-user just gets to make the useful discovery, as if Columbus took a sleeping pill for the voyage, and left the work of the journey to his sailors. The reality is that the holy grail of data dashboards, where end users can mix and match datasets into arbitrary visualizations to discover their own hidden secrets, is too complex to build. And so the challenge is discovering a way to let users be the players of the data insight game. And I am thinking that gamification, or games even, are the answer.


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