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Author: Miriam Cherry


The Gamification of Work (Gamification Post #4)

Given my interest in labor and employment law, I thought I would spin out some of the consequences and issues that surround the gamification of work.  I’d classify the gamification of work into four categories.  First, some gamification is designed to sell copies of more in-depth gaming software or to keep eyeballs fixed on a social networking site or another Internet website for longer periods of time.  This is making customers do “work” by generating value for the company.  Second, gamification may be designed to alleviate tedious and repetitive work tasks by making them more engaging through a gaming mechanism.  This could include matching different players or including a reward for a task well-done.  Third, some gamification of work occurs without anyone necessarily knowing about it – people may just believe they are playing a game or doing some other innocuous task, when they in fact really are working.  Fourth, the last form of gamification involves the converse of the third form, where workers are hired to play video games for others – often utilizing labor from the Third World.  This last form is known as goldfarming.

For now, let me skip to category #2.  We’re all intuitively familiar with dreading a work task that we think is going to be stressful or boring, but then, with the right colleagues, support, or attitude adjustment, the work becomes easier than we originally contemplated.  It is true that many workers find the “daily grind” incredibly boring and repetitive.  If there were a way to structure such jobs to be more like a game, it might lead to people feeling much happier and more satisfied with their work.

That’s the optimistic view, of course.  Gamification, like many technologies, is neutral.  Its promise (or peril) all depends on its implementation. One could imagine a scenario in which work is turned into a competitive type of game, with adverse employment action against the “losing” employees.  Such a high-stakes game could be be far from fun – indeed resulting in extreme stress for workers.  So what kinds of games should we play at work?  Should we look at incentives for winners rather than penalties for losers?    These are some of the important questions in designing games for work.


I Wish the Real World Would Just Stop Hassling Me (Gamification Post #3)

In her recent book “Reality is Broken,” Jane McGonigal suggests that games are structured to challenge us, to engage us socially, to help us have fun. Reality, on the other hand, well… isn’t built that way at all, often filled with sadness, isolation, and frustration (I can attest to this last one, as I’ve spent most of this week making necessary, yet annoying phone calls).  While there are certainly moments of fun and engagement, reality simply isn’t structured to try to make people happy.  Games provide an “escape hatch” that help people in difficult situations make their lives bearable.  And so, she suggests, computer games are satisfying real human needs in a way that reality is not.

Rather than condemning reality by escaping it, or the converse, condemning those who choose to escape reality by “wasting time on games,” McGonigal suggests that instead we might use what we know about designing fun games to design how we live our lives in the real world.  Games, she argues, involve unnecessary obstacles and often involve focused hard work and collaboration and learning to get ahead.  And because games are pleasurable, this is “work” that is done voluntarily.  New technologies, such as crowdsourcing (which I’ve written about here), can be harnessed for positive purposes, such as newsgathering, and in yesterday’s post, I noted that games may lead to more positive health outcomes. 

In short, by being mindful about what games can achieve, we can re-invent our reality to be one that is more appealing.  But what to make of the work/leisure dichotomy that McGonigal notes but does not really analyze?  Given my interest in labor and employment law, my next post will tackle “The Gamification of Work.”


The Gamification of Health (Gamification Post #2)

Yesterday, I wrote a post discussing gamification – the idea of using games in new and even “serious” ways.   Healthcare is on everyone’s mind right now (see Nicole’s post below), especially here at Saint Louis University with our Center for Health Law Studies.  The prediction markets  — another type of game – are split on the outcome.  (Latest per Josh Blackman’s Fantasy SCOTUS: ACA Constitutional 42%, ACA Unconstitutional 57%).  And so, while we’re waiting, I thought I’d provide a little distraction by writing about the intersection of health care and gamification.

I recently finished a book by Ivan Beale entitled “Video Games for Health.”  Most of Beal’s book concentrates on an innovative game called “Re-Mission,” where the player’s avatar fights cancer cells in the body, and along the way receives advice about the importance of taking medication, getting enough rest, and lowering anxiety.  Preliminary results seem to support the idea that the game leads to positive health outcomes for kids and teens battling cancer in real life.  In the health insurance and employment context,  wellness plans are using gamification to motivate plan members to adopt healthier lifestyles.  For example, Mindbloom’s Life Tree allows users to earn seeds (points) for healthy behavior like walking, going to the gym, or getting a check-up.  A cute website and social networking integration provides users with additional motivation, as friends can see a member’s progress toward a healthier lifestyle.

As far as the legal issues, a recent article by Kristin Madison et al.  noted that the Affordable Care Act would allow for employers to provide additional financial incentives to employees who participate in wellness programs.  The article, however, also raised some legal and ethical concerns: will gamification and financial incentives discriminate against those who are ill, even when is not their fault?  Are some of these wellness factors class-based?  How do we feel about tying employment and work so closely together?  Do employees want employers to have their health-related information? Might employees feel coerced into these programs?  Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision we have much to think about.


Shall We Play a Game?

In the science fiction novel Ender’s Game, a young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, believes that he is at military school, learning how to play a computer war simulation game.  In reality, Ender has been genetically engineered to excel in military tactics and is the hope of humanity, who have been attacked by an alien insect species.  As his final examination, Ender must defend the earth from a series of attackers. He passes the exam by attempting a desperate aggressive maneuver, which utterly wipes out the attacker’s home world but which also destroys most of his own fleet.  After completing the battle simulation, the young Ender – along with the reader – learns that the simulated “final exam” was actually a real life battle, and that in fact many of the warships that Ender ordered to be sacrificed were manned by his own friends from the military academy.  The Earth won the war but at a great cost, and Ender became deeply depressed.

Ender’s Game and its element of attack by a hostile alien species is, thankfully, wholly within the realm of science fiction.  However, the idea that people could be working while they play a video game – in some instances without even knowing that they are working – is becoming part of our reality.  In the language of cyberspace, introducing elements of fun or game-playing into everyday tasks or through simulations is known as the process of “gamification.”  Gamification is a hot new trend among Internet companies – and that is no surprise, given how much additional attraction a website can attract with the addition of gaming.  It’s not just Angry Birds or Farmville that keep your attention on Facebook – there are whole companies built around a gaming model.   Take the example of Scvnger, which uses a mobile app to send its customers on “treasure hunts” to different local businesses, allowing them to earn points for mentioning the business on social media.  As Danielle points out in her post below, the data collection aspects of many new technologies (including gamification) are worthy of consideration; in my next few posts I’ll analyze the gamification trend and its other legal implications in more depth.


Showcasing Faculty Scholarship

So, I just received some more reprints in the mail, and a couple of weeks ago, received a request from the library of the school where I am visiting to remember to turn in the reprints so that they can be nicely arranged into the faculty scholarship display case. My guess is that these display cabinets are pretty standard at law schools all over the country. Inside the cabinet there’s a little name tag, or perhaps even a nice picture, and then a nice little pile or stack of articles or books are placed next to your name.

Now, sometimes it looks like someone’s “padding” because they’ve written the introduction to the book but the whole book goes into the case (busted!). Other times, it looks like faculty members will put in something only because it has a pretty cover. The current display for my work is thoughtfully arranged so that the cover of the front law review article will match with the jacket I’m wearing in the picture (red), even though the article is extremely short.  Still, it’s nice to match. And, perhaps most important, this type of display case is low maintenance.

However, aside from matching and maintenance, are these really the most important factors we should take into account? I guess my question is whether this kind of scholarship display case does a good job in communicating the research portion of our job to our students or to other visitors, alums, or community constituencies? The answer in my opinion is, no.

A display case is a passive method of knowledge acquisition.  What if, in addition to a display case, users could use a screen to call up copies of a faculty member’s scholarship on SSRN? Or see a video in which a faculty member presents a summary of their recent article or debates their scholarship? This type of interactivity might also be useful for school websites, to give prospective students a sense of a school and the research projects that the faculty are engaged in. Since active learning leads to positive results in the classroom, i.e. more engaged students, better learning outcomes, etc., maybe we need more of an active and engaged sense in describing our scholarly work as well.  Of course, as we ease into the weekend perhaps passivity isn’t always a bad thing…


There is a 63% Chance that I am a Male

As part of my research on work in cyberspace, in virtual worlds, and through crowdsourcing websites (a phenomena I term “virtual work”), I’ve been visiting a number of websites that are likely to have a significant impact on the nature of work and business in the future.

Some of these (like Elance or Guru) resemble job boards, an online version of the “hiring halls” of the old days.  Others, like Innocentive, are like high-level contests for ideas.  But these sites not only match employers with workers, they also tout themselves as performing screening functions for various skills.

Other of these websites are a significant departure – they’re really fun. Tasks that many would find boring and repetitive are turned into “games,” where users compete to solve problems or make art designs that the customer will like. And I’ve been spending some time “playing” some games on a website called “Games With a Purpose.” According to GWAP’s website, “when you play a game, you aren’t just having fun. You’re helping the world become a better place.”

First I did a game that had me typing some words that people were saying (I think that the purpose is to help with developing speech recognition software), and then I played a “gender guesser” game that asked me to choose which photo I liked better.  At the end of the ten pictures, I was told that there was a 63% chance that I am male.

I love hiking, the mountains, and the outdoors, and so when presented with a picture of pretty much anything and a mountain to climb, I am going to choose the mountain. I did notice that there seemed to be a lot sports pictures and pictures of babies (again, I kept choosing landscapes), and so I wonder what the result would have been if I were trying to skew the results one way or another?

I’m still not sure what the purpose of the game was, though.  It was called a “gender guesser” and at the end the percentage related to gender differences, but I don’t know what the experiment was going to be used for. It would have been good to know. Since I wasn’t being compensated to play the game, and it was a donation of my time, there are probably some things that I wouldn’t wish to participate in (for free anyway).  At least I learned an interesting (if untrue) piece of information about myself.


Texting While Driving (and Invading My Privacy While Texting)

About a week ago, I received an automated message from AT&T telling me that I had a large overage charge for text messages. Considering I had signed up for the “unlimited” messaging plan, this seemed like a non-sequitur. Somehow a mistake had been made in switching me over to the iPhone 4 and I was put on a different plan in error. While it wasted some time, the matter was fairly easily resolved, and the charges were reversed. However, we were discussing the matter while I was driving to school over my car speakerphone (my attempt at multi-tasking) and the customer service rep kept texting me bits of information, like confirmation that my message plan had been switched, or the new amount of money that I owed. I turned it into a joke (there’s a low bar for customer service humor), because the rep had begun the conversation by warning me of the dangers of texting while driving. Every time the rep would send me a text message, I would tell her that, based on her warning, I couldn’t look at any or reply to any of the text messages, and she would laugh.

After the fourth text I didn’t look at while driving, she told me something that I have yet to verify, but which would be an interesting development, if confirmed. The customer service representative said that she had heard that AT&T was cooperating with several insurance companies. In order to reduce the number of accidents related to texting while driving, insurance companies were starting to investigate the cellphone records and texting records surrounding an accident. Your insurance company wants to know whether anyone was texting right before the accident happened. She said that AT&T was working with the insurance companies to deny these claims, and that AT&T was “turning over the records of texting.”

I agree that texting while driving is problematic and that distraction can lead to driver error and an increased accident rate. While unsafe, this behavior is illegal in some jurisdictions but legal in others. I guess what made me uneasy is AT&T’s cooperation to turn over these records, when I think most people tend to think that text messages or phone logs are not subject to being read or viewed unless the user makes them available (or otherwise leaks them). Other questions: what exactly will be revealed to my insurance company? What about the content of messages? Will it make a difference if the driver was texting or just receiving texts (as I was, from the AT&T representative), but not looking at them? My opinion: more transparency is called for.


The Downside of Virtual Work: How To Get Fired From ChaCha

One of my students, knowing of my interest in the promises and perils of virtual work and virtual businesses, told me about a sticky situation that developed when he was working for ChaCha. For anyone not familiar with ChaCha, users text questions to the website, and they are then paired up with a “Guide” who sends answers back to the users in real time.

My student was working as a ChaCha Guide off and on to make extra money before starting law school. For the most part, he enjoyed looking up the answers to user questions, even existential questions or more silly ones like “should I ask out the person I’ve developed a crush on?”*** The way he described it is that some questions would take two minutes to answer, and others would take a lot more searching and be that much more difficult to find.

My student recounted what happened next. After about two weeks of working fairly steadily for ChaCha (and, he says, making below the hourly minimum wage), ChaCha announced they were cutting compensation from twenty to ten cents per search. “At that point they had private message boards for the “Guides,” which is what they called us. So I went to the message boards and tried to organize . . . all Guides [not to sign in] at the moment that the new rates started. And at that point they sent me an e-mail terminating my employment.”

This is certainly interesting. I’ve seen some documentation of the IBM Italy “virtual strike,” which seemed to indicate that virtual organizing could start to take off. This might be much more difficult in the market for crowdsourced labor, simply because many crowdsourcing sites would not have the bulletin boards or any way for one worker to reach the other workers. So, while I remain sanguine about the efficiency gains associated with working with others in cyberspace, ChaCha serves as a cautionary reminder.

***The answer (at least in my book) is “yes,” since otherwise there is the potential to waste time on an unrequited crush, and it is better to get an answer (regardless of what it is) and be able to move on.


When Life Imitates Legal Scholarship

Last year, my Pacific-McGeorge colleague Jarrod Wong and I wrote an article about corporate law and contract law.  A couple months ago, we found out that the selection committee had liked our work enough to give us the faculty scholarship award (named in honor of our colleague John Sprankling’s service as associate dean). It was a great night, and we even received bonus checks to celebrate our win!

But then came the irony. In addition to the bonus checks we were given at the awards ceremony, which we both cashed, and, one of us, ahem, spent immediately, we then received an email informing us that we had each received a second bonus amount via the direct deposit system. We were asked to give the second bonuses back.

The irony is that the article that won us the award was an article about clawback provisions. The first part of the article deals with clawbacks in the context of executive compensation, and most specifically, bonuses. (The second portion of the article deals with investors defrauded in ponzi schemes).

So what did we do? We weren’t entitled to two bonuses, so we of course made arrangements to return the overage. Further, it wasn’t particularly difficult to unwind the transaction.  Some of the critiques we’ve received of our paper, which focus on the logistical difficulties, now seem even more overblown.

Rather than cowering and hiding from the claw like the stuffed animals in the arcade game (who seem desperately slippery and evasive), we, like the sentient alien toys in the “Toy Story” movie, had nothing to hide from the claw.


Greetings from Panera’s Free Community Café

Thanks to everyone here at Concurring Opinions for hosting me as a guest blogger this October. I’m writing this blog post on my laptop at the Café, here in downtown Clayton, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. You may have heard about the rather unusual business model of this Café; it runs on a type of “honor system” where it is left up to the customer to decide what to pay (the menu lists suggested amounts). You decide, however, how much to put into the donation box or tell the cashier how much to put on your credit card.

I paid the (suggested) amount for my lunch, and everything was exactly the same as it would at any other Panera chain, so in my mind, it’s an identical experience. But what are other customers doing? According to a recent story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, 65% of customers leave the retail price, 10 to 15 percent leave more, and the remaining 10 to 20% leave less. The same story reports that the store is breaking even, with the company’s hope that start making a modest amount of money soon.

According to another news story, some people love the café, leaving a little extra to bring themselves “good karma,” and there are needy people who have made this a regular stop, bringing in money when they can afford it or volunteering an hour or two to help out at the café. But others are skeptical. Some don’t want to put in more money than the suggested amount because there is no means testing and it’s unclear where the money is going. The proprietor of a local (cheap) diner is complaining that with the charitable mission of the restaurant, it’s cutting into her segment of the market. Some people have expressed puzzlement that the café would be located in a well-off business district, instead of a place where there might be more need for free food.

My guess is that in order to sustain itself, the Café needs to replicate the experience at other Paneras as closely as possible; it doesn’t want to change the “feel” of the restaurant. As former CEO Ron Shaich said, “it’s a fascinating psychological question . . . There’s no pressure on anyone to leave anything. But if no one left anything, we wouldn’t be open long.” I guess the question is whether they need to make a profit in order to stay open – as a new friend commented to me the other day, the café is generating a lot of goodwill for Panera.

I’m curious to see how the business model fares and I’ll definitely return to the café. I’ve had many thoughts about corporate social responsibility (CSR) in business recently, due to a paper I’ve been working on, and you’ll see several other posts from me on this theme.