Q&A  | 

The gamification of life, with Raian Ali

“Most technology design methods are industry-driven, where the aim is to increase productivity and achieve business goals more efficiently.”

Tags: 'child welfare' 'Derechos humanos digitales' 'Digital Addiction' 'Digitalización' 'ethics' 'gamification' 'Hamad Bin Khalifa University' 'Persuasion Technology' 'persuasive technology' 'Raian Ali' 'Transformación digital'


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Raian Ali is a Professor at the College of Science and Technology, Hamad Bin Khalifa University (Qatar), and a researcher within the Technology and Behaviour Research Group (i-Solouk).

Raian studies the design process of digital motivation solutions such as gamification and persuasive technology and its impact on human behaviour and wellbeing.

He aims to aid people change or maintain their attitude and behaviour in areas like health and enterprise productivity.

Is technology neutral?

Technology is not neutral, and it represents an intervention in our life that is necessarily associated with a change that is hard to fully predict. Most technology design methods are industry-driven, where the aim is to increase productivity and achieve business goals more efficiently. The wellbeing of users is not necessarily tied, nor should it be tied to those goals.

For example, while a design element like showing people how they progress and achieve compared to others is a way to enhance competitiveness within a business environment, it may also lead to adverse effects on the wellbeing of employees, such as increasing the feeling of stress and jealousy.

Hence, we need methods to predict and test what design elements are likely to trigger wellbeing concerns and methods to design countermeasures and mitigation strategies for them.

We note here that wellbeing requirements are not necessarily in contrast with business requirements. Indeed, the harm to users’ wellbeing will eventually impact their work performance and ethics.

At the same time, we also look at using persuasive and motivational design elements to promote healthy behaviours and options in people’s life without coercion.

What is gamification, influencing systems and persuasive technology?

In essence, technology can be compelling in catching people’s attention and driving them to particular choices. Such persuasive power exploits their behaviour data concerning their previous and current interactions and transactions and data of others similar in profile and history.

We are all subject to such persuasion, and some are more susceptible to some forms of it than others. For example, competitive personalities might be motivated by achieving a virtual badge or a senior status that they can attach to their online profile. 

While gamification employs an explicit form of game elements, such as the badges and points, persuasion utilises more implicit and nuanced forms and methods of influence. Some of these methods use simple and automatic forms of thinking, e.g. by showing the number of steps needed to burn calories in a bar of chocolate when clicking to add it to the shopping cart. 

However, persuasion can also rely on reflective thinking and dialogues. An example of that is an interactive shopping system allowing the person to navigate previous feedback on a product of interest and filter it to those who are similar in age and location. Such a sense of control and freedom of choice make an e-shop more credible and persuade more interaction.

How present are they in our everyday lives? Could you give us concrete examples?

To a varying extent, persuasion appears in almost everyday interaction, whether with people or technology. A progress bar or indicator showing how long a person has to wait before a file is to download, a taxi is to arrive, a transaction to be approved is a mechanism to keep the person engaged and avoid cancellation of the order.

This exploits human tendency to have a sense of control over what they engage in and their innate fear of uncertainty. It also exploits human desire to complete what they started. Investing in choosing the file to download, through spending a few clicks and making a few options, makes us less likely to accept wasting, even if this means some unexpected loss in terms of waiting time.

Should there be a clearer way for everyone to see and recognise how their PT engagements interplay with their own wellbeing, even more so in the case of minors?

This is a concern with technology in general, a concern that gets amplified when technology intensively embeds persuasive elements.

There is a risk that such persuasive techniques can facilitate addictive usage styles, i.e. making technology usage obsessive, excessive and hasty. For example, making the option of Post so visible and tempting to press may lead people who have low impulse control and high susceptibility to peer pressure to share less thoughtful content in response to those who mentioned them in an online forum.

Similarly, the lack of transparency about how algorithms filter out,  prioritise and show content makes social media in some way similar to a lottery that also appeals to some types of users. The Pull to Refresh feature, typically found in social media apps, can be arguably compared to casino roulette.

Can gamification with its richness of applying points, badges, leaderboards and often includes progress bars, quests, avatars, and performance graphs, affect our autonomy and free choice? And other influencing systems?

It is not supposed to do so, but we also shall remember that people at times like technology to do that and ease the process of making decisions. 

It is similar to going to a shop and liking to see temporarily available sales, but not wanting to know that essentially the sales are due to the item being less popular or having a slight defect. We would still prefer a visually attractive shop even if we know the quality of goods is not better than others. Hence, persuasive techniques, scarcity in the first example and likeability in the second example do not necessarily mean deception. 

However, with technology, persuasion can become much more powerful, benefiting from real-time behaviour data and intelligent user profiling. For example, using gamification in a work environment like a call centre can collect performance data such as sentiment and tone of the call, length of it and client feedback and utilise that in a way that helps to increase productivity. 

While doing that, staff might feel heavily and continually monitored to the point where we can question that practice even from a legal perspective and compliance with employment law. For example, it can hurt the principle of Equality and Diversity if applied to all employees regardless of their personality and mood, e.g. having a stressful day and being highly susceptible to pressure when elements like timers and countdown appear on the screen.

Is an ethical framework necessary in the development of PT?

Ethics have always been an important subject for discussion in PT.  Principles like transparency and informed consent and benevolence in research design and domains like healthcare and marketing are applicable to PT. However, PT has additional peculiarities and requires a nuanced approach to meeting these principles. 

For example, informed consent when persuading someone towards a certain option may lead to information overload. Such transparency can be against the spirit of persuasive design elements that rely on automatic thinking and requiring a fast reaction. 

In addition, ethics shall also include a consideration of whether PT may lead to adverse impact and that measures are offered to reduce that possibility. 

For example, imagine an app designed for regulating online gambling that sends its users motivational messages and a data-driven visualisation of how they do concerning limiting their gambling activity. While this can appear as a necessarily helpful intervention, it may indeed raise risks of lowering the self-esteem of users when they repetitively fail in meeting the reduction target. 

Also, sending a message praising how well a player did so far in regulating their gambling time and amount, might itself incite gambling or raise their “flight-into-health”, i.e. a feeling of recovery that is sudden and only temporary.

On May 25 2019, the World Health Organization officially voted to adopt the latest edition of its International Classification of Diseases, or ICD, to include an entry on "gaming disorder" as a behavioral addiction. Is technology purposely encouraging bad internet habits and why? Can you give us a concrete example?

I can not comment whether technology is purposefully designed to trigger Digital Addiction but I can certainly say that tech developers can do much better in combating it or allowing other parties to do so. 

We advocate a model where users allow trusted third party applications to access their technology usage data, e.g. sessions on apps and their timestamps and possibly more detailed data such as sentiments in their posts and content. These trusted applications and possibly behavioural healthcare services are to aid people to self-regulate their usage and their relationship with technology and actions they take while using it. 

Operating systems and giant application providers in these areas are not currently allowing this model to happen smoothly.