Austin Z. Henley

I work on software.

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Gamification, life, and the pursuit of a gold badge


Update 6/21: See discussion of this post on Hacker News.
Update 6/23: See more discussion of this post on Hacker News.

It shocks me how well gamification and metric-tracking work on me. Add a score, progress bar, or a list of badges and suddenly I'm doing whatever it takes. Gamification controls my career, leisure time, social connections, finances... everything.

Despite having read Nudge (Amazon) and Hooked (Amazon) to better understand the psychological warfare that companies arm their products with, I'm still falling for it.

The worst part is that I don't think gamification and metrics are even achieving their goal. Goodhart's Law has been phrased as, "when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." The book The Tyranny of Metrics (Amazon) really hits the nail on the head.

Anyway, I wanted to make a list of some of the ways that gamification and metrics have controlled me over the course of my life. This will be fun... 💯🥇🏆⭐📈

It probably started with video games for me. Beating the game is not enough. Finish this more difficult mode. Unlock everything. Max every stat. View every cut scene. Collect all 120 stars. Capture 150 pocket monsters. Complete every side quest. Get 100%.

Then I joined scouts and always had to get another badge. Who cares what it is, which badges are the easiest so that I can get more this month?

Schools do a terrible job with their gamification of grades so my GPA and attendance were terrible.

My second job is a great example of Goodhart's Law. I was a cashier, and my performance was measured by the number of items I scanned per minute on average. But the clock started after I rang up a customer's first item and stopped when I pressed the "Total" button. Can you guess what I did? I'd make the items pile up on the conveyor belt within arms reach then I'd go into a massive flurry of throwing items across the barcode scanner while franctically pressing the "Total" button to stop the clock between every item. Customers would get really mad that they couldn't see the price each item rang up, oops.

As I got older, video games became more sophisticated in their mind control. World of Warcraft had me walking and grinding for hours at a time just to get yet another achievement. My horse is green, not purple, so I had better repeat this task for 2 hours a day for an entire month. Success. Isn't that better?

Books don't even have a progress bar on them (at least physical ones don't yet), but I have to finish it. Doesn't matter if I like it or not. I have to say that I completed it. Maybe I'll rearrange my booksheves to emulate a progress bar between my read and unread books.

Stack Overflow had me doing all sorts of wonky behaviors. I remember being in a tent on a climbing trip in Georgia trying to get cell service so that I could login to Stack Overflow to continue my streak of "consecutive days visited". Visit 30 days in a row and you get a silver badge. 100 days gets you a gold badge. I also spent dozens of hours answering new questions as quickly as I could for reputation, even though I knew virtually nothing about the topics. Later I even got into a long debate about the design of their community review features (it got me so many points!).

Reddit and Hacker News have me submitting links to interesting articles hoping that others will upvote them. I probably should have submitted that at 2pm on Tuesday instead, ugh. Wonder if I can buy anything with these points.

Twitter makes me want to come up with witty tweets just to get a few more likes or followers. That blue check will be mine.

GitHub incentivizes me to commit something each and every day so that I get a green square. It also has me publishing code that I would normally throw away.

Publishing research is a big part of my career, and Google Scholar is happy to report my publication list, my citation count, and my H-index. I need to get that graph up! Best paper awards mean I can put a little icon on my CV. Should I publish a bunch of easy-to-finish papers that cite myself? That tenure clock is winding down fast.

What about teaching? Should I try to make sure students learn, or should I give less homework and more candy so that my course evaluation scores go up? Each semester I'm given a pretty chart that compares my scores to the college and university scores.

Financial websites turn my credit score into a literal game with daily updates. Open another credit card and pay off this loan so that you can hit a personal best credit score! Congratulations on 100 on-time payments in a row!

And then there is my blog. Release another post to see how tall the traffic spike will be. It flopped? Try again.

Thankfully Netflix doesn't have achievements with a public profile or else I might turn into a couch potato. Well, I'd probably just leave the TV on without watching it. 🛋️ 📺

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