Gamification: the fun way to bring a horse to water and make him drink

Ender's GameThere is an excellent book called Ender’s Game, written by Orson Scott Card and which is now a big-budget movie starring Harrison Ford. It uses the concept of children playing video games and perfecting their skills, all the while not realizing that their “playing” has much deeper military applications. This story differs from other movies such as “War Games” and “Tron,” in that it focuses on the “playing” and the need for continuous improvement against a computerized opponent who continually raises the difficulty level.

This fascinating notion of integrating games into mainstream life, exists in many forms today, including simulators for piloting planes, boats and trains, as well as the comparatively new trend of rewarding visitors to social media sites with tokens or stars for registering, participating or referring friends. It is called gamification. Officially, gamification it is described as applying game mechanics to otherwise non-game scenarios. It has been around for decades but, as with all things technology-related, its use is now on the rise.

One of the most fascinating areas in which gamification is used is in software development. Every developer strives to write perfect code, but the fact is that they are human – and prone to error; and even with new technologies and techniques available that can assist them with writing better code, developers can be resistant to adopting these solutions if they disrupt the way they work. The tech world therefore needed a method that would not only help, but also incentivize developers to write better software, and gamification offered a solution.

Coverity LogoJennifer Johnson is Chief Marketing Officer at Coverity, a development testing company headquartered in San Francisco. She describes how her company, which grew out of a project at the Computer Systems Lab at Stanford University in 2003, has developed a fundamentally unique way to apply static analysis technology – enabling it to automatically detect software glitches and defects in complex source code, on real-world codebases that can span into millions of lines of code.

Whereas traditional quality control had been put into the hands of QA teams, it was thought that by making the discovery of bugs and errors more fun – like a contest – the perfection of code could be put back into the hands of the developers themselves. This principle coincided with the rise in popularity of social media where gamification was being used to engage users. The notion of making a game out of quality hit the tech arena strongly and in a positive way, since most developers love games and competition. As Johnson points out, “They take pride in coding. It is as much of an art as a science. Bug contests and leader boards are subtly creating a culture of accountability and responsibility.”

Although using competition to garner higher quality is not a new concept, the principle behind online gamification seems to have brought great advances in the areas of education, employee engagement, quality control, change management, time management and continuous improvement, by aligning with the human instincts of competition, pride and love of fun.

Coverity has enjoyed great success with its development testing technology; some of its more famous achievements have included its work with CERN on the software employed in the Large Hadron Collider; and with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the flight software development of Curiosity, the Mars rover.

Large organizations around the world are seeking to embrace gamification as a new and promising tool for driving change and excellence through the corporation; not through mission statements or team-building getaways, but by tapping into existing human instincts. “Large global organizations involve people having to work together,” says Johnson. “Gamification assists in collaboration, and puts them under a common purpose. Even with geographically disbursed teams, it gives them something enjoyable and compelling.” In other words, she says, “How do you take a group that is ultra-important to software quality and resistant to change and make them enjoy the process of perfection? You use technology itself to make it fun”


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