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Gamification: Overjustification Effect and Cheating

An example of unusual user behaviour gives me an excuse to talk about Overjustification effect and cheating in gamification

Happy New Year everyone. I was going to start the year with a little article on how I problem solve, but an opportunity arose to write about something that I have been wanting to write about for a while!

When extrinsic rewards go bad

A couple of nights ago, I was bombarded with notices about comments on one particular blog post. Each was from a different, but similar anonymous email address and contained “Nice post xxx” where xxx was a number. Each comment also came from the same IP address.  I was about to block the IP totally, when I noticed that the leaderboard on my site had one very clear leader. It also showed that had a very unusual stream of activity – multiple comments on one post, multiple likes and tweets and g+ across pages and more. They had found a loop hole in the way CaptainUp manages scores. I knew it would probably happen and truth be told the culprit was not a great surprise to me.  What did surprise me was an article that he then published about his experience with gamified systems on my site and another.

In the article he explains how his interested in our sites went from enjoying “playing” with the system, through to enjoying the content and reading and exploring. This is exactly the sort of behaviour that these systems are meant to encourage. Encourage you to do more whilst you learn about the content. The goal being that people come back to enjoy content and not just the game.  However, it all took a dark turn as he admits that “at this point fun became obsession, and weekly top ranking was no more engaging monthly was needed”.

What he was going through (other than a mild addiction) was Overjustification Effect, the extrinsic reward had overtaken his intrinsic motivation to be active on the site. He was no longer there to learn, he just had to stay at the top of the leaderboard.

The User Type Journey

This user’s journey is an interesting one and something worth dwelling on for a moment. If we map it out against Amy Jo Kim’s Player Journey and throw in my User Types, you can see how they evolved in the system.

Gamification: Overjustification Effect and Cheating gamification

The Disruptor User Journey

At the beginning, they came in as a Player (Consumer type specifically). They were looking to play with the points and badges system, whilst learning how the system all worked.  This was the onboarding phase of the journey.

Next, they began to enjoy learning from and exploring the content, putting them into the intrinsic “Free Spirit” and “Achiever” types. This was the habit forming phase.

However, the mastery phase took a sharp turn. Rather than staying on for intrinsic reasons, the game took over. Part of the reason for this was a lack of new and challenging content – “The new materials started to dry up, as I had no new activity to do, and still I was way behind the number one player”. So rather than being there to learn more aboutgamification from the content, they decided to learn how that game system worked and exploit it. At this point they became not just an Exploiter type, but a full disruptor.  They wanted to prove the system was wrong whilst still beating it.

Is it cheating?

When I talked to him about this on Facebook, one of the things that came up was the fact he felt he had been treated unfairly by the system. For over a month, a bug had meant he was not getting points for certain activities.  So, he decided that it was fair to game the system to recover the points he felt he was owed. This is a little bit like not getting a refund for something in a shop and then going and stealing from them until you feel the debt is paid.

The thing is, he had not really cheated.  The system allowed him to behave in this way and there were no explicit rules written stating that this sort of behaviour would lead to some kind of penalty. The trouble is, we tend to believe that everyone in the world will behave to adhere to certain social norms, the truth is that this is not the case. Whilst he may have spoiled the game for others who were playing “fairly”, he got what he wanted – position on the leaderboard.

How do you handle this? The first thing is to make sure that if you don’t want it to happen, the system does not allow it.  One option is to have a system that makes repeated behaviours in a day worth less each time. This makes it pointless to continue spamming. The other is to clearly state how you expect players to behave and have in place a system to penalise or ban offenders.

Also, remember that cheating is percieved differently by different people. Richard Bartle has a great presentation on this!

He once said that it is not possible to really cheat in a gamified system like you can in a game. In a game most voluntarily enter a social contract with other players, one that has implicit expectations of behaviour (gentlemanly conduct). With gamified systems you don’t do this, you are forced into it. Whilst this is true of some systems (enterprise being the biggest case for this), a system like CaptainUp is totally voluntary. No one is forcing you to play, so should you be expected to enter the same social contract of implicit expectations as a game? I think the answer is yes. Will everyone? This whole post proves the answer to that is no – of course not!

Lessons Learned

There are a few lessons here. The first is that CaptainUp needs some options to help limit repeat spamming, above just plain ban. The option to remove points that the moderator feels were unfairly awarded would be a nice start.  Create a simple set of rules that can be seen easily. This will give more weight to decisions made about who is “cheating”. You can’t break the rules if there are none!

You need constant fresh content. If you have nothing but the game, then people will just play or leave – they won’t stay to learn as there is nothing to learn!

The other interesting thing is that in a weird way, the gamification worked perfectly. The user in questions has obviously learned a great deal as he explored the sites – his article proves that!

Head over to the users article to see his side of this, it is a fascinating read and an important lesson to us all! Confession of my engagement with a gamification system.

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