Gaming the System
By Molly Kittle, Vice President, Strategic Services, Bunchball
It exists in every aspect of our society: sports, personal relationships, education/academia, the healthcare system, taxes, dieting, politics, environmental regulation, online communities, driving… It seems that wherever there's a system designed to reward people for good behavior, people will search for a way to manipulate it for personal gain.
The spectrum of language we use to describe various types of ‘cheating’ shows our collective moral ambiguity on the subject. Breaking the speed limit is against the law, but we're all guilty of trying to get to our destination faster than the law permits. Cheating may be excusable when it comes to our diet, but not when it comes to our spouse. If you already have tickets to an event, it might be ok to jump in line with a friend, but cutting to the front of a line that is giving away a finite number of entries means that someone else who waited in line won't get in - so that's not ok. Whether we're bending the rules, taking a shortcut, creating our own solution, finding a loophole... the theme here seems to be that when the impact of our actions is self contained, there's this moral wiggle-room and we can 'get away with it' but as soon as our actions have a negative impact on others, we've gone too far.
As opposed to the previous real-world examples, in the context of gamification, some consider attempts at gaming a system to be (dare I say) a positive indicator of extremely high engagement. After all, it is a sign that people have a high level of affinity with an experience and are willing to go to great lengths to come out on top. This, of course, ignores the moral implications of cheating and the erosion of trust that successful cheating creates. The key is to make sure the experience design anticipates the ways in which people are likely to try to bend the rules and put measures in place to prevent those attempts from impacting other people's experience. Rules make a game fair. Enforcement of those rules provides comfort and makes the game worth playing. Violation of rules erodes the validity of the system you've created - and once people can't trust that a system is fair, they don't want to play.
It's a concern we hear often: "What if people try to game the system?" It's our job to help people understand that the question isn't what if, it's how, and then figure out how to take that reality into consideration as we make a plan. Because while we can't change the human tendency to find creative, morally questionable ways to manipulate systems for personal gain, we can mitigate the impact of their actions on others. For the remainder of this post - let's take the focus off of how we feel about cheating and put the focus on what we can do about it.
Make it matter. Think beyond “what they win” and focus on “why they care.” If you’re creating a system designed for consumers to engage with your brand, find rewards that people who don’t care about your brand won’t bother cheating for. For example, a media company using a contest to rally your participants, should ensure the reward is something that fans intrinsically value (an on-air call-out), rather than a reward that's extrinsically motivating to a broad audience (money). If you’re a company onboarding new sales reps, put the focus on a reward that ties into corporate culture and career – a lunch with the CEO, the opportunity for mentorship with a respected leader.
Put controls in place. Look at the natural activity of your participants over time. How often are they naturally doing the things you want them to do? Once you have that baseline, think about how much of an increase you'd like to see and set reward frequency limits accordingly.
Shake things up! Make sure you're creating a system that has a variety of different earning opportunities. Rather than rewarding people for every video they watch, reward them for watching a specific video on a certain day.
Make them jump through hoops. Create prerequisites that require someone to satisfy a variety of different criteria within a certain timeframe.
Value vs. volume. Reward for quality rather than quantity, e.g. the achievement happens for them when others rate their comment as helpful, not when they submit the comment.
Use Social Pressure. Especially effective for internal programs built on social collaboration tools, foster a spirit of accountability by moderating the community and highlighting any particularly good (or bad) habits in a public forum. For employee engagement initiatives, manager visibility is usually enough of a deterrent to bad behavior.
Incorporate surprise and delight. Rewards that are discovered rather than announced are an important part of the puzzle, so is randomization or jackpot type rewards. You can create a pattern in delivering these rewards that can be figured out – creating a feeling of satisfaction for highly engaged participants – make sure to cap the reward opportunity for that activity at a certain threshold.
Let them think they have the upper hand. If you have highly engaged participants, give them opportunities to feel like they've taken a shortcut or have received a benefit that no one else has. You can do this via messaging and fast feedback, creating a special level or group for the top x% (based on non-cheatable criteria such as a purchase amount) - with exclusive rewards and/or recognition.
Ask for help. Run your final thinking by your legal department - they likely have experience and perspective that can help.
Choose the right tools. Make sure you have the ability to modify your initial gamification solution, as needed, on an ongoing basis, as the behavior and needs of your community shifts over time.
Do your due diligence. Implement A/B testing to see which tactics resonate best with your participants and help you achieve your goals.
In a nutshell:
People will try to find creative ways to win - so solve for that reality
Anticipate the ways in which they'll be crafty
Put safeguards in place for those scenarios to prevent the cheating from having a negative impact on others
Maintain the integrity of the experience for everyone.
If you're interested in other info about why people do what they do I always enjoy reading Dan Arielly's blog.