Home > Uncategorized > The Counting Trick, a Reflection on Gamification

The Counting Trick, a Reflection on Gamification

My Grandmother had a sharp tongue. And as she progressed into her eighties, it got sharper.  As if her internal “maybe I shouldn’t actually say what I’m thinking” filter had worn out.  For example, one day she said to me:

Years from now, you’ll look back on how you wear your hair, and you’ll think “I don’t know how I ever could have been so unkempt!”  I know–my children went through this in the sixties.

I did love her–was as close to her as anyone. She was brilliantly intelligent, and fascinating to talk to about pretty much anything. And you just had to take the insults in stride.  After a while, I started counting her insults.  The average was three.  In a day spent with her, you could expect that she would insult you three times.  And once I started counting, it made it OK.  Instead of thinking “I can’t believe she just said that. I wonder if I can invent an excuse to leave early?” I was thinking “Two so far today!” and trying not to giggle.  It was a kind of gamification of a tense social situation.

The counting trick is useful in lots of situations.  If you are planning a high profile event like a wedding, you can expect that approximately three things will go majorly wrong.  I absolutely expect three things to go seriously wrong at CSCW at the end of the month, a conference I’m co-chairing.  And when they happen, I’ll laugh and increment the count.  

A good friend is going through a stressful major life transition and her family is being unsupportive.  We decided on the phone last night that she would get some posterboard and start a chart of how many times each parent and sibling has said something hideous.  (Her Mom is in front, but sister is only two insults behind and closing fast!)  So now we have a multiplayer counting trick game–a first!  And no computer is required to play!

Gamification is all the rage lately–it is being used for the design of every possible kind of computer application.  My kids’ elementary school uses a program called Accelerated Reader (AR) where they read to earn points and points win your prizes.  I could write volumes about what is good and bad about the program.  Ideally the children should be reading for the love of reading–for intrinsically motivated reasons.  We know that extrinsic rewards some times drown out intrinsic motivation.  But on the other hand, for the kids who are not developing an intrinsic love of reading, I suppose just getting them going is an accomplishment.  And maybe they’ll learn to love it later?  There’s an empirical question here, and I’d love to see a rigorous experimental study of the impact of AR.  And of other examples of gamification.

The controversy about AR is that the gamification is substituting a made up trivial thing for something good.  And shouldn’t you want that good thing in itself?  The cool thing about The Counting Trick is that it substitutes a made up trivial thing, your count, for something bad.  Our wedding band told us they would “play something appropriate” while the audience was settling down before the ceremony.  Not wanting to micro-manage every detail, we just said “fine.”  And they played “You LIght up My Life” without the words.  A wedding guest later told me they were giggling in the audience saying “I know Amy didn’t pick this!”  And I was giggling backstage thinking “One…”  It helped.  Points substituting for something bad is a win-win.

If you’ve tried The Counting Trick, leave me a comment–I’d love to hear your story!  And general thoughts and articles on gamification also appreciated.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Pam Griffith
    February 8, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    This reminds me of a study I read about with two chimps and two piles of M&Ms, and one of the chimps had to pick the pile of M&Ms that the other one would get. The chimps seemed to understand the game and wanted the bigger pile, but couldn’t help but point at the bigger pile to give to the other chimp. When they added abstract symbols instead of pointing to the piles directly (I don’t remember if they taught them digits or used dots or something), they had no trouble pointing at the smaller number to give that number of M&M’s to the other chimp and get the bigger number of M&Ms themselves. The theory was that adding a symbol made it easier for the chimps to act the way they meant to without their desire for the bigger pile overwhelming them. Humans are better at the M&M game, but perhaps something similar is going on here?

  2. February 14, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Hi Amy,
    I lived the same life you did with Grandma Florence and I also remember her digs about you. But you were her favorite. I lost it after years digs from her when she told me I wasn’t filling the dishwasher properly.
    As for your “friend” who is going through a life transition I just want to comment that there are two sides to every story.
    Love, Mari

    • February 14, 2013 at 11:34 am

      I think she did that to everyone. I learned to ignore it. It was easier for me than for Dad…. 🙂

  3. Michelle Friend
    April 23, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Reward can overwhelm (and therefore decrease) intrinsic motivation if there *is* intrinsic motivation. So yes, giving points for reading will likely decrease some kids’ native desire to read for reading’s sake. But reward is an incredibly effective tool when there’s no intrinsic motivation. So giving points is necessary for all the kids who won’t read if there’s no reward. The question is whether leveling the playing field in this way is an optimal outcome – is it okay to decrease some kids interest in reading if you’re also increasing other kids’ reading. (Not interest in reading. Just reading.) To the extent that we think reading itself is an important activity – strengthen neural pathways, increase vocabulary, increase reading ability – then it’s worth it.

    I don’t think Lepper did long-term follow up studies, though I’ll be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time with the motivation literature. I wonder if intrinsic motivation returns after the chance for rewards is gone. So maybe kids who liked reading before AR will like it less during AR but then return to their higher rate of enjoyment and engagement at some point after AR is long gone. And part of interest is a feeling of competence, so maybe forcing everyone to read will make reading easier for lots of kids – intrinsically motivated and not – and thus result in long-term higher interest in reading than if they weren’t made to do it.

  1. March 10, 2015 at 12:06 am

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