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.
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.
“Sorry, I didn’t think you’d finish so quickly.
More awkward silence.
“I can’t let you go home this early.”
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.