Social Flow and Collaboration in Gameful Design

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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.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Larry Irons
Larry Irons, PhD, is the Principal of Customer Clues. Customer Clues provides consulting services to design manageable product and service experiences across your marketing, learning, and organizational performance initiatives.

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