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Gaming the System


I walked into the Mac repair shop deep in industrial Brooklyn, observed the passive-bordering-on-comatose expressions of the store clerks in skinny flannel trousers as they stared at me through Buddy Holly frames, and started crying. My broken laptop contained most of a book I had co-written with a respected author and business guru, for a publisher that I really, really wanted to like me. It wasn’t backed up. What I needed was for somebody to care. What I found was a menagerie of hipsters who averted their eyes before pulling out their iPhones and drifting listlessly into their computer screens. The moment was so sitcom-perfect that I should have been laughing instead of wiping my nose and eyes all over my sleeves.

The problem with my life at that moment was that it had gotten away from me. Most things just sort of happened. I was Dakota Fanning’s assistant talent manager for six weeks because my boss believed she was hiring someone else.

I got my first book deal because a literary agent and I had a crush on the same guy. Meanwhile, there were too many dirty dishes, too few working batteries in my house, and a constant, stressful understanding that dogs in Brooklyn can’t walk themselves.

Nothing seemed to happen to me specifically. It’s like I was simply the conduit for the thing, never the thing itself. In fact, most of the time I found myself writing books I wasn’t sure I understood, including a sex book or two and a little tome about college pranks I’m pretty sure is actually life-threatening. So when Gabe Zichermann approached me in 2008 to co-write a book about a hot business trend called gamification, it seemed remarkably appropriate (because the idea of me writing on gamification couldn’t have been less appropriate).

Now, as we approached the deadline for our second book, The Gamification Revolution, I felt more out of control than ever. I had taken on a greater chunk of the research load this time. And by “research” I mean I moved into the Merriam-Webster’s—actually checked in, took a room, and proceeded to look up every other word, followed by every other word of the definition, followed by every other word of that definition until I’m pretty sure I just started writing in Elvish. Even more distressing for someone in my state, the premise of the book was all about deliberate management—about motivating people’s actions through games.

Gamification, I had spent four years discovering, was a way to motivate, entertain, and corral people into very specific, very deliberate behaviors. From offers of travel miles for visiting particular destinations, to badges and titles for checking in at places on a mobile device (like Foursquare with its “mayorships” and “school night” badges when you’re out past midnight during the week), companies were adding game mechanics all over the place, and we, the customers, knowingly or not, were engaging in them.

As any gamer will tell you, successful games have rules and rewards for following those rules. There is a big role for positive reinforcement. People who believe the younger generations have been rewarded too generously, too regularly (a position summed up by the phrase “kids today!” accompanied by the shaking of a fist) blame trophies and no-losers policies for spoiled and undisciplined conduct, as well as the skinny flannel pants trend.

What gamification teaches is that kids didn’t get rewarded too often—the rest of us didn’t get rewarded enough. The solution, I learned over four years of writing with Gabe, was games.

Gamify everything! From job performance to weight loss, adding well-designed games drives engagement and motivation. I had studied example after example. L’Oreal recruited employees using a simulation game called Reveal. Nike reclaimed the running-shoe market with its Nike+ technology, which allowed customers to virtually race friends anywhere in the world and provided instant feedback and rewards (including recorded messages from celebrity athletes) upon completion of milestones—all of which increased the odds that the runner’s next pair of shoes would have a swoosh on them. On a smaller scale, companies were adding challenges like staff-wide Biggest Loser contests and surprise bonuses or sports days to keep their staffs healthier and better engaged. One company even offered random emails reminding people to take a minute and drink a glass of water or phone a loved one.

But in every example there was order and compliance, rules and follow-throughs. Roll the dice, move six spaces, land on Boardwalk, and buy or pass. It was an ordered and organized world in which I decidedly DID NOT LIVE. Even if it was the world I wrote about, a lot.

As I stood before this crew of Mac-repair-shop hipsters, crying my eyes out, I realized this was exactly how I was not going to win. They would will themselves ever deeper into their iPhones—and I couldn’t blame them. I’d probably do the same.

Then it dawned on me. My broken computer did not have to further the desperate, out-of-control reality I was used to. I had the answer in my pocket, or at least in my unreachable Word program: I could gamify the fixing of my computer.

Now, I had never actually gamified anything myself, even if I had played the design-your-own-Dominos-Pizza game and amassed a modest collection of frequent flyer miles that once got me an upgrade from Philly to New York. As soon as I felt I could speak without spitting, I turned to the hipster standing the closest to the cash register and laid out my proposal:

“I am desperate,” I began. There was no response, because I think we could all agree, this is what desperate looked like.

“I am writing a book about games.” This piqued some interest. Another guy looked up from his screen, where, let’s face it, he was probably playing a game. “When the book comes out, there will be press.” They nodded cautiously. “If you guys fix my computer by the end of the day, I guarantee I will write and sell an article about how I used games to get my computer fixed, and then praise your repair store for your help.”

As an afterthought I added, “And I will buy you all drinks at the neighborhood bar of your choice.”

The neon lights continued to buzz overhead. Hipster One blinked. Hipster Two looked at Hipster One. Hipsters Three and Four blurred together. Finally, slowly, a huge smile spread across the hipsters’ faces.

“So, you will write an article about us, about how good a job we did fixing your computer, if we fix your computer quickly?” One asked.

“And buy us drinks?” Two added.

I nodded, smiling back tentatively. “Those are your prizes,” I clarified. “Press and a drink.”

“What if we can’t?” asked Three, locking down the rules in archetypal tech geek fashion. “What if we fail?”

I knew the answer. I had been writing about the answer for years. “I promise,” I said with the confidence of a That ’70s Show alum at a celebrity poker final, “I will not badmouth you or even mention your name if you fail. But if you can fix my computer today I will talk about you throughout the article—your skill, your attention to detail, the way your hair gel shimmers like a shellacked fruit bowl . . . ”

I could tell they were interested because they were collectively ignoring a surprisingly colorful and eclectic village of Brooklynites that had formed a line-like crowd behind me. My computer was whisked to the back while I was offered a seat, a cup of artisan coffee, and a Boston cream croissant—you know, like a doughnut but way cooler and a little bit life-changing.

One of the hipsters was relegated to dealing with the line while the other three disappeared to the back. I waited, doing my best to carry on a series of telephone interviews for the book from the Mac repair store, feeling woefully unhip as I employed that miracle of recording technology, the ballpoint pen. After a mere thirty minutes, I was called back to the counter. They walked me through every step they had taken, from cleaning the hard drive to performing a system reboot to opening up the machine and studying its innards to a deep cleansing facial followed by a mani-pedi with cuticle shaping.

Unfortunately, it was to no avail. They had located the problem, but they could not fix it. Something had rusted. A replacement machine was my only option. There was a certain level of disappointment for all of us.

The Mac repair shop didn’t win the prize—hence the generalization of the employees’ appearances in this article (although, yes, one of them wore plaid). I left the store unsure if I would ever see my book again. With time slipping away, I bought a new computer and then hailed the miracle that is Google Docs, where a great deal of the book had been retained during a recent period of co-writerly document sharing. In the end we were a little bit late on the deadline, but not too late. The book met with the publisher’s approval, and was praised by Blogcritics.org as “highly informative.” What’s more, I had learned as much from writing it as I hoped people would learn from reading it.

I learned that even though the Mac guys had lost the game, the game itself had been a raging success. From the moment I handed it over the counter, my computer had become the Mac guys’ number-one priority—before emails to girlfriends, phone calls to pot dealers, or rounds of Modern Warfare. I was treated like a VIP (did I mention the Boston cream croissant?), the whole time knowing that my computer was undergoing extensive tests, from software to hardware to heart rate monitor. As for the Mac guys, you could see by their interest—by their engagement—that, win or lose, they enjoyed themselves. I will go down in Mac-repair-store history, not as the hysterical customer with the impending deadline, but as the hysterical customer who tried to gamify her repair. While the outcome wasn’t what any of us had hoped for, the process served us all.

I am beginning to think that gamification is not a bad plan for living. At its heart, it’s about setting goals and moving toward them, with clear and tangible rewards laid out along the way. When I view my life in those terms, it suddenly feels cleaner, better organized, slightly less overrun with dirty dishes, and, frankly, more fun. What counts is not whether you win or lose. It’s not even how you play the game. But that by playing the game at all you win motivation and that all-important prize: clarity about what you want and where you want to go.

Joselin Linder, J98, is coauthor, with Gabe Zichermann, of The Gamification and Game-Based Marketing. She has contributed to NPR’s This American Life and Morning Edition AOL, and gamification.co, and writes an entertaining blog at joselinlinder.com. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband.

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