Gamification, Call Centres And One Single Cookie

I am 20 years old and I hate my job.

I’m a student, I work part time in a call centre. It is my job to convince strangers to take a survey, a survey they couldn’t care less about. A survey I couldn’t care less about.

One day my supervisor arrives late. I’m on the phone, but from the corner of my eye I watch her place a cookie on the communal desk. It is a very big cookie. It has smarties inside the cookie. I want to eat this cookie, more than anything I want to eat this cookie.

Weird. I don’t even like cookies that much.


Suhas Kelkar is here to talk about gamification. It’s a polarising subject. You’re either with Ian Bogost and gamification is bullshit, or you see the benefits that come from virtual incentives. You may even be enslaved by the wiley tendrils of gamification, by point accumulation and the virtual rewards it reaps. Either way you’ve most likely formed some kind of opinion about it.

I know I have. It scares me and — I like to think — it doesn’t really affect me.

“Suhas says he can find a way to make people who work in Call Centres not want to kill themselves,” said Angus Kidman, Editor of Lifehacker. Angus had spoken to Suhas at some Lifehackerey conference.

My ears perked up. Instantly I knew I wanted to speak with Suhas Kelkar.

But first, some background: I spent a lot of my student years in call centres. I don’t know if working in a call centre ever really made me want to kill myself, but I know what it feels like to succumb completely to that empty despair of repetition, the fear that I’ll be good for nothing else — the potential, claustrophobic horror of doing the same task for the rest of my life. It’s a bad feeling. A very bad feeling.

Suhas Kelkar believes gamification can make that feeling go away. I’m interested in what he has to say.

“Call centres are already doing some of these things,” begins Suhas, his accent broad and Indian. “Working in a call centre is a repetitive job and boosting employee morale can be a difficult task.

“Here you have a bunch of people resolving tickets or answering calls and it’s a very difficult job. It can be boring. It’s possible to use game mechanics in order to aid their behaviour and motivate them.”

Suhas Kelkar is the Chief Technology Officer for APAC. He believes that the gamification of business is an inevitability. He believes it can transform the way we motivate employees performing menial tasks.

“Take a team of 10 people,” he says. “Say it’s their job to help people and resolve problems. You can use gamification to make certain behaviours within an application have point rewards.

"You can have leaderboards that show who is scoring more points. That leaderboard can be made visible and naturally there will be some competition between employees regarding who gets the most points.

“This is a simple way of using points systems to drive people to resolve as many issues as possible, using the basic human motivation to compete.”

In sterile, creepy synchronicity we yank our headsets off. I have headset hair; an imprint bores into my skin a millimetre deep. My supervisor begins to speak, so I listen.

“First person to rack up 20 completed surveys gets this cookie,” she says with an empty smile, tapping at the biscuit like a sociopathic prison guard. “Starting now!”

The cookie probably cost no more than three dollars, probably from the local 7-11. Dry as dust. Meaningless. But I want that cookie. I don’t even know why I want it. I just want it.

I put on my headset and start dialling.


“You’re right,” says Suhas in response, “gamification is not new.”

I regale Suhas with tales of my time in Primary School — I was seven years old. Our class was split into five teams. We were given points for everything we did right — homework, helping the teacher, cleaning up, being nice to one another.

Five points to Gryffindor!

The fundamentals of gamification have been laying dormant in our culture for as long as human beings have been playing games.

“Gamification has been around for many years in different shapes and forms,” continues Suhas. “Frequent flyer miles is a good example of that. That’s a way of driving people towards brand loyalty. Gamification as a concept has been around for a while.

“What is changing is the need to add these things to enterprises. In this day and age we have a much younger work force, and the younger workforce comes from a gaming background. They also have a short attention span. We have to think of new ways to engage them, so this sort of thing has become more and more important for businesses.”

I look around at my competition. A woman in her 50s wearing a cardigan; she sips delicately on her newly made cup of tea. A teenage girl, just out of high school dithers with the zip on her tracksuit top. A man in his mid 20s scratches at his beard and continues doodling.

I feel a bursting pressure in the base of my sternum. A bitter, hollow desire to compete. My cold calls become more aggressive, my technique more persuasive. I figure a way to ask questions that manipulate, I develop a technique. I make it virtually impossible for strangers to say no.

I peer over the shoulders of my peers.

I’m winning this competition. Easily.


“Once you have the gamification construct, then you can do some interesting things with them, says Suhas. “You can allow users to buy virtual objects, people like to accessorise their avatar, for example. Secondly, you could give out movie tickets or even cash rewards.

“The third thing you can do is link it to some sort of corporate social responsibility. It could be charity related. This might appeal to different demographics or people in different age groups. You are doing something in your day-to-day job that is helping society.”

Virtual rewards. That’s the beginning, and the obvious touchpoint in gamification, you become ensnared by working for something that doesn’t exist. My primary school teacher used to dole out mini Mars Bars to winning teams at the end of the week, but it was never about the chocolate. It was about the status.

“There are other mechanics that can be used,” continues Suhas. “One of the things we learned by observing people who played video games is that they like challenges and they like tasks. There are different ways you can sense achievement, and gamers like that sense of achievement.

“An example would be creating challenges, then changing those challenges so you are almost moving from level to level, in a similar way to games. So there are other game mechanics you can utilise based on the idea that people like challenges and enjoy accomplishments.

“The challenges also become increasingly difficult and you also accumulate some sort of status. Just like Foursquare where you become a mayor of a particular place. Mayor as a title is a status symbol that people like to show off, so this is another thing you can use.”

Yesterday, in the course of an eight-hour working day, I managed to convince 23 poor souls to take part in the mind numbing survey I’m being paid to pimp. With a single carrot on a stick, I’ve managed to secure the same number in just two hours. The person closest to me has 14.

I win.

The cookie sits in front of me. I rip open the wrapper. My stomach protests with that full feeling — my body doesn’t want this, but I eat regardless. Chewing slowly. Carefully. I gulp it down. So dry.

It almost goes without saying — I expected this to taste a lot sweeter.


Gamification is a delicate thing. At its root it’s an exercise in manipulation. How do we convince people to compete for virtual rewards? How do we assign value to that which has little to no value? This is particularly pertinent in the work space, where Gamification will no doubt be used to encourage employees to work more efficiently, for goods that won’t necessarily match the value of their extra effort.

And if gamification isn’t implemented correctly, it could be dangerous.

“If it’s not done correctly this sort of thing can backfire,” claims Suhas.

“You might have people disregard it, and just have no interest, or you might find people starting to gamify the gamification process! If you can get a hundred points for just creating a knowledge database, then people might start making really crappy knowledge databases just to get the points. That defeats the entire purpose.

“There are pitfalls — the whole thing isn’t completely straightforward. These things have to be designed.”

The next day I trudge into the office. Yesterday I broke my record — doubled it, in fact. 46 surveys completed in eight hours. Mostly as a direct result of a cookie that cost the company less that three dollars.

My Supervisor walks in with the same dead smile.

“Today we have another challenge,” she says. “First person to get 30 surveys can go home early for the day — full pay.”

Against my best intentions I get the same tangled pressure in my sternum. I dial quickly. I’m aggressive. My sales pitch is perfect.

Two and a half hours later I walk up to my supervisor’s desk and slap my work sheet on the desk. I’ve done eight hours work in 150 minutes and I want to go home.


Awkward silence.

“Sorry, I didn’t think you’d finish so quickly.

More awkward silence.

“I can’t let you go home this early.”

What? Injustice.

I stumble over to my desk — deflated — slump in my chair. After completing 30 surveys in two and a half hours I pick up maybe five during the rest of the day.

The next day I call in sick.

The day after that I just don't bother turning up.

The day after that I quit the job I hate more than anything else in the world.


    You should have vomited that cookie all over her when she wouldn't let you leave early.


    I know that feel bro.

    The problem with this type of 'gamification' in workplaces, is that it can create more hostile environments, and more reasons for depression by having 'impossible' goals.

    For example, at a call center that receives calls, you work during a time where there are less calls, and you don't get to choose who you speak to, and what their issue is. If you have to resolve it, maybe you get someone with an issue that takes longer.
    Because of these things, it may become impossible for you to complete as many calls
    So you see people getting benefits by being slack, or having an 'unfair' advantage, and any complaint about the call system is met with "maybe you're just not working hard enough".

    Throw it into any other customer service area (waiting staff, storefront...) your section doesn't get as many people, or you need to spend longer with a single customer...

    Dangerous idea. Workers start cutting corners and service quality goes down. People who do the job properly get fed up with watching the stat junkies soak up all the rewards and end up leaving. Next thing you know all you have left are people making transfers and half assed/poor noted jobs and the customers suffer.

      this is very true you also see people find ways to cheat which breaks the motivation of other staff

    Markus Decimus Peridius, you are a gladiator of the written word, slaying all those that stand in your way and shouting at the masses of the internet horde and the common man alike:

    "Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?" to which we shout back, "Yes Mark, yes we are entertained, and we thank you for that"

    I hope you never let the Commodus-like hand of internet trolls, ignorant fools and poorly-thought out criticism stab you in the stomach.

    Wow that's an absolutely dickmove. In a case where someone crams 8 hours work in 2.5, they surely deserve to go home, regardless of the rules.

      It's funny too, because they lost a really good employee because they lied.

      Nice try, Luke Plunkett.

      Actually, temporally speaking, a more correct interpretation is that they normally only do 2.5 hours of work in a normal day.

        And technically speaking the possible rate of work of human beings is dynamic, not everyone is capable of the exact same things even with the exact same training.

    Nice read. I am surprised the take-off for gamification in the workplace as been so slow. I imagine big corporations would want to jump on the idea of cheap (and shallow) rewards to boost productivity.

    Perhaps, like the pitfalls mentioned above, it takes someone that is essentially a games designer to make work fun. I can see a new market for all of us previously useless graduates.

    I like the idea behind gamification but as the narrative that ran alongside the article indicates, it's a pretty double edged sword. The fact is you're really only worthwhile gamifying things people hate doing to make them more appealing. People grind pointlessly for hours in RPGs to get those extra much-needed levels and for a long time this was the reason why RPGs were so popular even in the stories were only so-so, it's why many otherwise directionless MMORPGs are so popular today.

    Working in a call centre or some other tedious and possibly dead-end job is awful. People typically burn out after 8-12 months. If you're still going strong after that you're either being rewarded accordingly or there's something wrong with you. There has to be some kind of payoff.

    In my current role, I'm interested in the work I do and I'm kept busy enough that I don't dwell on the annoying/frustrating parts. Gamification wouldn't work here, it would probably just distract people from their work.

    But a few years ago? Oh boy. I could really have used something to make me not occasionally contemplate maiming myself on the way to work just to avoid going into the office. We had a rewards system of sorts, but you had to be visibly achieving to be nominated for points, which you could then redeem for prizes in an online shopping environment. In 18 months I accumulated about 300 points, enough for me to redeem 3 PS3 controllers (two of which remain in their original packaging) and I was a pretty high achiever.

    The day to day payoff was basically being told that if you hit your KPIs you get rewarded with keeping your job, and if it were for the fact that this (barely) paid the bills, it wouldn't have been enough.

    We also had Flexi-time - you come in early or stay late, or take a short lunch, you got equivalent time off to leave early/take RDOs. Of course in a call centre your work never starts early. The phone lines go dead at 5. The only way you can earn time is taking short lunches. Which we did. All of us. Constantly. You could accumulate an extra day off every 3-4 weeks or so if you were sufficiently determined. We pretty much gamed the system of our own volition.

    Of course then management decided people were no longer allowed to do this - or more correctly, they expected you to work through lunch at your desk during busy periods, but you couldn't claim time for it anymore, so only non-call centre people could reap the benefits of Flexi-time.

    When it was slow? Well you'd think that'd balance out with the 90% of the time that we were super-busy. Nope. They found us busy work, stuff other departments couldn't be bothered with. When it got busy again? We got our asses chewed off for not doing the busy work.

    Were we recognised for call volume? We were inbound customer service, so you were rated on call volume because it probably meant you were handling calls efficiently. But there was no real difference between taking 60 calls a day and taking 120 calls a day. Your boss might say well done, but don't expect to be nominated for those reward points, no, those are probably going to some guy who landed a big account by working on the train via his company-issued blackberry, or taking clients out to lunch at expensive restaurants.

    Maybe this has just turned into a bitter rant, but at it's core it's a story about how some companies don't bother to supply a game for you, so you make your own. Then they change the rules of your game so it's no longer worth playing.

    God I can relate to this article... I hate working in a call centre, HATE IT. It kills my soul and has turned me into a bitter, cynical husk of my former happy, motivated self. Everyday I get the urge to quit but I literally can’t, there is no other job that pays a live-able salary in my small town. I’m trapped; I can’t even afford to go to uni. It’s so depressing.

      Take a month to minimise your expenses, and take on extra hours at work. You'll get there, hang in there!

      Yeah i know what you mean, i found it became a part of my life and it slowly ate away at me without me knowing. I didnt get to see my friends outside of work because you had to hang out with them(co-workers) otherwise you'd be shunned at work and/or get forced out. I used to be quite friendly but like you it turned my cynical., first i hated the co-workers, then the managers and finally the customers. After that i threw it in because i knew if i kept going it wouldn end well.

      Next week i'm actually going back to a call centre, but this time i'm working with my friend and i get to dictate how many days a week i work and how many hours. I think thats the way a call centre should run. So wish me luck.

        I know exactly how you feel. The only people I see regularly are my co-workers. By the time you haul your ass home, the last thing you wanna do is go out again. Friends get mad at you because the only thing you find to talk about outside of work is how much you hate work. I used to feel compassion for things, but now I hate everyone and everything. I work for a government insurance company and seeing person after person fake injuries and rip off the tax payer I have lost all empathy for anyone in an accident. If I see an accident on the news all I can think is, “ugh, I will have to deal with that tomorrow.”

          Oh and did I mention how horrible customers and clients are? They’re awful, AWFUL. Horrible, rude, nagging, selfish and needy assholes who think they are entitled to everything and don’t appreciate anything you do for them.

            They sound like video game players...

              They sound like humans...
              Generalisations are fun!

      Move to Armidale and go to uni there. You can afford to live on campus (just!) on Austudy, and a bit of weekend/nightfill work gives you enough to buy extra things.
      You can do it, it just means giving a lot of other stuff up. I did it, and you eat a lot of frozen peas and stale bread at times, but it is doable, and although it is a hard spartan existence at times, it is better than degrading your soul in a call centre.
      You just have to want it enough to move and give up your current lifestyle.

        But I’m scared I will fail. :(

        I haven’t studied since I was 18 (now 21) because I had to work, and have been stuck working ever since.

          And because you're scared, you'll never change, and you'll be stuck in that job you hate. Sure, you may fail, but you may also succeed. Maybe you should give yourself a chance and see what comes of it. You may surprise yourself.

            Try to understand what 'may fail' could mean for someone in that position before brushing it off so lightly. Life on the street is not as fun as the movies make it seem.

    I'm sure it was a fantastic article but all I read about was that damn cookie and man do I want a subway m&m cookie now, thats right they don't make them anymore.......oh well macadamia and white chocolate it is

      Dude, they still do. Depends on the franchise.

    Whilst not the same, A company I worked for had an IT Person of the month, I won the first time, and then with each following month I got disheartened that I wasnt being picked, which added to my unhappiness having previously been bullied at the same workplace, it just added to me wanting to quit.

      Pretty similar to me. I've won an award for high achievers across our national company. That was 2 years ago and though I've worked a lot harder since then, having not received similar recognition just leaves me depressed.

    I used to work part-time on a national 'distributed' help desk where the main performance metric was cases closed.
    This of course meant the easy tasks like password resets, setting up accounts, request local action and close the case - these were all fought over and never there for very long. Or even better - there's a known problem / outage, create a closed case for every person that rings up.
    Meanwhile, difficult, important cases (or even basic follow ups to make sure everything's ok) were left to rot until someone who didn't care about metrics would actually devote their time to the problem.
    Combine that with the lack of face to face accountability from not working in the same office as most of the other people, made it a pretty toxic place to work.
    I guess this loosely ties in with the dangers of creating this kind of competition amongst workers. No extended rant from me here while I'm on a smartphone touchscreen for typing this.

    I've had past employers (call centre work) try to gamify things - It worked for some but didn't work for me. Ultimately I saw it for what it was, a shallow attempt to eke more performance out of staff who were already tired.

      Personally, I see that as the reward doesn't outweigh the effort. Obviously some people need more reward than others.

    I have major issues with gamification. Its a pure buzzword. There's nothing new about it. The things that work about it have been practised for a long time - offering rewards, scoreboards, competitions. Its called work psychology. The rest is untested twaddle. I could write a longer post, but what the point. The whole term is a nonsense.

      Agreed, didn't we all have at least one class in primary school where you got gold stars* for things.

      Gamification is not new, but the word is.

      * Gold Stars, Happy Stickers, Smiley Stamps. What ever token was used to indicate a success.

      ^This. I agree with it.

    “Suhas says he can find a way to make people who work in Call Centres not want to kill themselves,”
    Why would you want to do that for anyone other than support centres?

    This reminds me of the movie Office Space.
    The problem isn't the employees, it's the managers, and that there's no motivation being layed down for the employees to strive for. A cookie might work one day, but a false promise of leaving early is just wrong.

    That cookie looks delicious.

      I suddenly have a hankering for a box of Decadents from the local Kmart. Best choc chip cookie ever!

    Market Research Surveys over the phone was my first ever job. In some ways, I'm greatful I was hired as a job in retail always seemed to elude me back when I first started looking for work.

    But still, gamification in call centres? Some of the people that were hired in the same batch as me only lasted a day due to the nature of the work. Others were gone within a month, simply failing to register for any shifts in advance and then just disappearing. There's little point in turning the work involved in to a video game.

    The main problem for me was that this sort of work never truly ends. There's no sense of accomplishment once you've finished a survey, it's simply on to the next one by calling an inordinate amount of numbers hoping for the next bite. There's no time where you can just breathe for a few minutes, walk around and relax before throwing yourself back on the phone. I was paid every 15 minutes so literally, every minute was a potential survey.

    The surveys themselves were mundane. Really, the speed at which you could finish them obviously depended on the survey's length and how quickly the applicant could understand and answer the questions. Gamification wouldn't really help here either as some surveys may eliminate applicants based on a pre-conceived factor (worked in industry, too old, etc). Also, some nights were just better than others when it came to getting surveys.

    Gamification in that industry is pointless. The people who work in these places aren't permanent and tend not to last longer than a year (therefore, working as casual as opposed to part/full time). I just did the work, took my casual rate and worked whenever I needed to. I ended up eventually leaving due to reduced shifts (surveys are apprently seasonal work) and not my particular dislike for calling random people.

    To this day, I hate calling people. Anyone. Working in a call centre is usually a strong incentive not to go and work for another. If you're gonna work in one, go in with extremely low expectations, do the job adequately without your manager down your back, earn your wages and then leave when something better comes along.

    I worked for Telstra in Brisbane, they ran a once off thing where if you got either the most promises to pay tat were kept (it was Credit Management) and I think the most promises to pay in general, you won a $50 gift card for each category. I usually never was at the top of the stats there, but I must have got lucky that week as I won both categories.
    They often did contests and stuff, it was not done all the time though. I thought the idea was great and gave more motivation to turn up to work. It all depends on how the company does it, and if they live up to their promises.

      My friend did something like that. I think he was in a call centre doing phone/contract sales bascally, and would earn a commission in the form of Telstra BUX (my term). He'd sell a bunch of things and used the telstra credit to purchace iPhones at the discounted rate. He would then on sell them on eBay. He made a freaking fortune on top of his actual salary. Ridonculous.

    I'd eat your bosses cookie if ya know what i mean, also TL;DR only read 1st bit

    Serrels, whatever they pay you, it isn't as much as you deserve. Not just one of my favourite gaming writers ever but one of the best blog writers period.

    This whole gamification thing is stupid. For a start, work itself is a game already by gamification's definition. You do work, you get money. You work harder, you level up by getting a promotion. You complete extra challenges, you get a bonus. You earn enough money, you get to live another day.

    If you have to add further mini-games into this mix, then you're obviously doing it wrong. Why are people hating the job and needing to be incentivised further? Are you trying to build a team, or are you just trying to get more money through cheap and manipulative tricks? Reducing your workers to a monkey competing for his banana.

    Yeah. People seem to like the idea of gamification. It never sat well with me.

    When I was a young kid in school and it happened I felt like the adults were basically equating me with a mouse running a pointless maze for some stale cheese. Now when it happens at work I feel like my intelligence is being insulted and sometimes even feel like I'm being treated like a child.

    My cynical attitude isn't helped by the fact that when I've encountered its use as an adult it's usually as a direct result of prolonged mismanagement that needs to be 'fixed' and quickly.

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