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.