Social Flow and Collaboration in Gameful Design

Courtesy of wetwebwork photostream

In Social Flow in Gameful Design I made the point that social flow contrasts to Csikszentmihalyi’s original concept of individual, or solitary flow, in which a person’s engagement in actions is optimal when they lose a sense of time and awareness of self in an intrisincally rewarding feeling of accomplishment. Social flow implies a qualitatively different order of the flow experience, a group-level experience. To that extent, gameful designs that take social flow into consideration incorporate a different set of design principles to those involved in what most people currently refer to as gamification.

In a similar vein, Simon Wiscombe recently observed , “Gamification is inherently flawed because it focuses on rewarding players for the end-state.” He adds that designs that gamify are best when they focus on the journey rather than the outcome, especially if the aim is to evoke the voluntary, ongoing engagement of participants. I emphasize the importance of voluntary experience because if you can’t quit playing when you want to the experience is not a gameful one. Recent social psychological research supports Simon’s point.

Walker recently offered a series of relevant social psychological studies on social flow:

Flow in a social context may be a qualitatively different phenomenon than flow experienced in isolation. Classic research in social psychology has amply demonstrated that people act, think, and feel qualitatively differently within a group than by themselves…Social contexts introduce additional variables that may inhibit, facilitate, or transform flow experiences. Social contexts can be enormously complex. They range from ‘mere presence’ situations where individuals perform in the midst of passive others…, to co-active situations where people perform side-by-side but do not interact, to highly interdependent interactive situations where people must cooperate and coordinate their performances within established groups…In highly interdependent situations, people may serve as agents of flow for each other. This form of social flow is mutual and reciprocal, a form that is likely to be qualitatively different than solitary flow (my emphasis). In mere presence and some co-active social situations, a form of solitary flow is probable because the unit of performance is the individual, however when the unit of performance is a group, especially a team that must do tasks requiring interdependence and cooperation, social flow should be more likely. Social flow should be easily seen in highly cohesive teams in which there is agreement on goals, procedures, roles, and patterns of interpersonal relations and the competency of team members is uniformly high… (see original text for references, my emphasis added).

The main thing to note from Walker’s research is that it confirms Csikszentmihalyi’s point (p. 158) that flow experiences occur most frequently in work settings, yet qualifies it by noting that “social flow is more joyful than solitary flow.” Moreover,  interactive situations compared to co-active ones scored highest in social flow in Walker’s research.

Gamifying for Collaboration

Following on Walker’s research, Ruy, Cui, and Parsons in a recent study of mobile learning at Massey University in New Zealand analyzed the degree of social flow across three learning conditions.

  1. One learning condition consisted of individual learners exposed to a set of learning situations, i.e. solitary experience.
  2. The second learning condition consisted of a number of small groups of learners exposed to only part of the learning situations and then collectively debriefing and collaborating on their learnings in time-delayed schedule, i.e. co-active experience.
  3. The third learning condition consisted of small groups of learners using mobile devices to interact with other groups as they compared their learnings across all situations in real time, i.e. interactive experience.

The research by Ruy, Cui, and Parsons points to higher curiosity and interest among learners as interaction increases during collaboration. Consider their following summary:

collaborative partners with the same learning goal orientation can have adaptive responses to new and/or challenging situations. In particular, individuals displaying this orientation would treat new and/or challenging situations as opportunities for selfimprovement through collaboration given by the mobile learning activity.

How can these insights into social flow inform efforts to design gameful interactions that aim to heighten the performance of employees and other stakeholders of a business? It is important to note that much of the existing discussion of “serious games” is about making the routine tasks in business processes more fun and engaging so employees perform them well.

Routine actions are the dominant characteristic of what Walker’s research defines as “mere presence” situations (think checkout clerk in a row of other clerks at Target)  or co-active situations (think customer service agent required to follow a scripted response) but, by definition, do not apply to interactive situations (think a casino host deciding on the “comp” level for a customer, or a sales representative deciding on the discount level for a business customer).

Indeed, a co-active situation turns interactive quickly for customer service agents when customers pose problems that are exceptions to their script. In fact, most of the learning occurring in enterprises focuses on how to deal with exceptions to business process through collaboration, fostering innovation through social flow. Efforts to gamify business process so far seem to really fall short in designing for collaboration.

Phil Schenk of Gravity Bear expressed the overall challenge as well as I think anyone so far in his response to Mark Sage’s comment on Phil’s recent post. Phil says,

I think gamification pundits overestimate the mass-market appeal of competitive game mechanics. Like I said, competitive games, especially large-scale competitive games are niche products…Competitive ranked, leaderboard-style mechanics are hardcore. It’s not an easy thing to make these fun or accessible by any stretch. If anything, it’s one of the “difficult” challenges in gaming…To apply these mechanics to real-life challenges is both simple/obvious, and perhaps the least appealing, hardest-to-make fun mechanic.

I haven’t heard any talk (so far) about co-op gamification mechanics. Probably because these are much harder to “bolt on”… they require deep understanding of the social interactions within the system, and possibly modifying the target enterprise to increase cooperative and social behavior. Co-op FFP? Sounds like a ton of fun actually, but you’d have to do a lot of work to make it happen, and probably change the airline’s business model.

Phil’s comment is on target to the extent that gameful design for collaboration needs to enable social flow. Let me add that gameful design, especially for collaboration, is most promising when it focuses on the social psychology rather than the psychology of why people play games at work. As Don’t Gamify Wild Bill asserted, gameful design for employees is different than it is for consumers or customers because in fundamental terms the latter can stop playing whereas employees cannot typically do so when the game is part of their work environment. Designing gameful interactions for employees means taking into account group-level interactions rather than individual behavior per se.

9 Responses to Social Flow and Collaboration in Gameful Design

  1. […] Personen betrachtet. In einem Social-Media-Kontext gelten aber unter Umständen andere Regeln. Das beschreibt sehr anschaulich Larry R. Irons auf Skilful Minds. Sehr lesenswert für jeden, der sich für die psychologischen Grundlagen von Gamification […]

  2. Cheryl says:

    stings of conscience yes, i want write a person of consequence like this but didnt have time, may i repost this Social Flow and Collaboration in Gameful Design « clever Minds

    • Larry Irons says:

      Hi Cheryl,

      As long as you give attribution to the original source reposting is okay.


  3. John Tropea says:

    Hi Larry…I’ve read your other couple of posts and made some of my own, and plan on more one day…when time will allow

    Gamification (rewards, points, small goals, leaderboards) suits some contexts, but not others.

    I think it may suit repeatable, routine and boring things to make them more exciting and motivating…like your workman example in your previous post. Another example would be losing weight, house chores, reaching a financial goal (all the stuff that’s not really intrinsically motivating or that you can be passionate about…it’s just stuff you kinda have to do)

    If you need to use gamification to motivate people in their jobs in general, then this sends a signal that you have other more serious cultural challenges. In this case you need to fight the right organisational monster

    Anyway, like you I don’t agree it suits knowledge work and collaboration. The whole point of work from an employees POV is that it’s intrinsically motivating (meaning, purpose, challenge). You collaborate cause there’s like interests, and a need as a driver (the knowledge sharing and awareness happens as a by-product)…you become known as an expert via your contributions, when you contribute you fill the human craving to socially connect….isn’t that what it’s about…I’ve never liked the idea of knowledge markets it’s also mentioned here

    Or perhaps what the articles I link to above are about is “social collaboration”, that kind of devoting your time helping people on tasks you are not on…but do we really want people to do this explicitly, shouldn’t we just do this as the occasion arises, rather than look for it…heck aren’t we busy already.

    Anyway we have an onboarding revamp initiative at work. Who likes onboarding in particular, no-one, it’s just something you have to do. In this respect perhaps gamification will work to help you get through it, to make it more exciting for all parties.

    So perhaps gamification is in order when intrinsic motivation really doesn’t apply.

    OK as a kid I may not like doing school work, so the gamification of gold stars is the motivator. I think this is wrong…as my statement above intrinsic motivation applies here, as learning is a serious life skill. Sure you can make a game out of learning, so it’s more fun, but mechanics like rewards go beyond the fun element, and become doing things for a reason other than the reason you are doing it.

    Anyway here’s a post I did on gamer engagement and employee engagement (not really about gamification, but in the same ball park)

  4. Larry Irons says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the comment, full of interesting thoughts as usual.

    My points about social flow are meant to convey that intrinsic motivation is not so much about individual flow experience as it is reciprocal influences from other players. Intrinsic flow, or motivation, is not as powerful as social flow.

    On the point of social collaboration I think I disagree with your point at least to a degree. We do want people who understand enough about the implications of changes they are involved in to think about what those changes mean for others who aren’t on the same project, department, or even division.

    Gamification really doesn’t work for an ongoing routine activity over significant periods of time. There is an initial competitive energy that spurs the members of a group when an activity is gamified, however as time goes by it loses that motivation especially when the goal is simply to boost production. There is a difference between Wild Bill who on his own turned a production challenge into a game and a formal supervisor turning every production challenge into one. A gameful experience that is designed to last over extended periods of time must be voluntary.

    Gamifying work related activity such as onboarding probably works simply because the process isn’t an ongoing one.

  5. John Tropea says:

    Interesting that you say gamification even for routine activity is not sustainable over the long term…leaving gamification just as an initial short-term thing to get the ball moving.

    “Social collaboration” to me is derived from engagement and relationships. I may help others on tasks I’m not on ’cause I’m engaged in the system, and I like to flare what I know (still the same if I have the know-how to help someone, why not…as long as time permits)…every contribution I make, gets my name out there (it’s great that I can express my talent that people would never have known about). If I have a history, or trust or know the person, I’m even more committed to help them out on their task…they would do the same for me. The intangible enterprise of I help you, you help me…we wouldn’t survive without these relationships.

    But what a knowledge market subtly suggests is the more you monitor the system and help people out the more you get points. That’s really not fair for people that are busy, as they have less chance to get points. Our job is not to hang out at the market, we hang out at our jobs, and visit the market. Will the attraction to points cause people to loiter the market…I’m just thinking out loud.

    The knowledge market in a way is an alternative to trust and friendship…previously I help someone because we have history and we reciprocate…now this is commoditised, it’s no longer about trust and helping a person in need, it’s about earning points.

    Perhaps you have more to say about this…

    NOTE – I think a knowledge market is OK for idea generating, as that’s an exercise. eg
    But collaborating and swarming around problems is a different kind of knowledge work that’s based on meaning and interest.

    Yes I forgot to mention about your “social flow” comment, I found that very interesting. You could probably use the metaphor of a solo game like tennis compared to a team game like soccer. At work we are more in a team than solo ie. we have to rely on each other (collaborate, cooperate, coordinate, get along) to get things done. So yes I agree, the dynamics of the social setting is of paramount importance…how do we have positive influence on each other, how do we take notice of barriers to group work and turn them around…so we get more social flow.

    And the fact is humans thrive on social connection, so it’s no surprise that social flow is more enjoyable

    I think these 3 articles in group dynamics are relevant to facilitate “social flow”

  6. John Tropea says:

    Hi Larry,

    Your post on social flow has inspired me to write a review

    Just thought I’d share this one

    Walker said: “They range from ‘mere presence’ situations where individuals perform in the midst of passive others…”

    Here’s the perfect article related to that

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