Why Cambridge Analytica’s techniques could kill gamification

Could gamification turn out to be an over-hyped, excessively complicated flash in the pan?

The recent scandal surrounding Facebook and data collection by Cambridge Analytica has brought attention to the scale of data that is automatically collected and used online to build psychological profiles. Much of this is done automatically and without the users’ explicit knowledge.

HR departments must always balance the interests of people with business and budgetary limitations. Psychometric testing is a valuable resource for any HR department’s core activities, but the gamification of psychometrics has three major barriers that greatly limit its practicality and utility.

Barriers to starting

The reality of using psychometrics to test people in the workplace means the most cost- and time-efficient option will likely be prioritised. Psychometrics always take some time to explain. Participants need to understand what they are doing and why. Everyone needs to know how their data will be used, who will have access to it, and in many cases participants need to be debriefed.

Adding additional layers of complexity with a mobile game is likely to make psychometric testing more difficult, not more efficient.

The automatic and unobtrusive alternatives to gamification, brought to recent public attention by Cambridge Analytica, show how there are far more effective and practical ways to adapt psychometrics. These automatic methods make gamification look like a clunky option that may quickly become a relic.

Barriers to completion

Another significant barrier to using psychometrics is that adding unnecessary complexity reduces participant completion rates. The less effort on behalf of the participant, the more participants are likely to finish.

It can be challenging enough to convince people to participate in a math test. Is gamification really going to encourage busy, working adults to test their math skills by installing an app on their phone that puts mathematical problems on a pirate ship or in an Aztec temple?

If the same task can be done simply by clicking ‘I agree to share my data’ and have an algorithm do all the work, the simplest option is typically the most effective.

Barriers to long-term viability

Gamfiying psychometrics ultimately risks being an amusing distraction that fails to imbue mobile psychometric applications with the intrinsic or extrinsic motivators in other applications which are commercially successful. Social media companies like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have already found the magic dust to sprinkle over their apps that keep people coming back and seeking online social rewards. Video game companies have developed games which keep people paying and returning for hundreds or thousands of hours.

Gamification in psychometrics seems to be attempting to straddle the science and the technology, while missing the boat on both counts. Gamification seems to be an interesting idea that is likely an artefact of the time, but not necessarily the best use of either the science or the technology.

The verdict

When people complete psychometrics, they tend to opt for the fastest option. And when people want to play games, they opt for the most fun option. Gamification does not seem to hit the mark as either an efficient psychometric or an enjoyable game.

Social media companies seem to have hit the nail on the head when it comes to gamification; they have made virtual social interaction an addictive online platform. The recent revelations from the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal shows how quickly and efficiently psychometric profiles can be compiled, while the same is not true for gamification.

Of course, issues of consent must be addressed openly, stated clearly and meet ethical standards for an HR department. And when they are, most people will choose the automatic option and click, ‘I agree to share my data.’

Ian MacRae is co-author of High Potential: How to spot, manage and develop talented people at work