Games are amazing vehicles for learning. Watching my almost three-year-old do puzzles is awe inspiring, not the least of which because she currently thinks of the alphabet as one giant puzzle that unlocks books, another thing she loves. That drive means that she has known her alphabet for a while and can now spell her first and last name with scrabble letters. She has learned this largely on her own, using iPhone apps which while I've downloaded for her to use, I do not encourage or discourage her use of any particular app. While she certainly gets exposed to her letters at daycare and at home, most of her learning has been motivated intrinsically.
Most adults can hardly even understand that kind of motivation, let alone access it. Why? Most of us have been pretty screwed up by extrinsic motivators for so many years that we don't even know what makes us happy any more.
First our parents set all sorts of expectations for us and while I am nowhere near a free spirited parent, the historical and more traditional method of parenting that my generation and previous generations grew up with was mostly a do-as-i-say-when-I-say-it-and-don't-ask-too-many-questions approach. In my case, my father (who I loved dearly) had expectations of me that were pretty misaligned with the child I was. He wanted a demure daughter who liked to follow the rules. I was impulsive and passionate. It created an internal conflict that still rages on and is not all negative but it clouded my ability to understand myself because I was so eager to please him. In many ways, his relatively early death has helped release me from that extrinsic motivator that kept me from accessing my own natural motivations - and my potential.
We then move on to school and work environments that are not set up to understand us, they are set up to make us conform to standards. The more standards we push onto kids - and adults - as they learn, the more our natural motivators are subverted and forgotten. And the more our potential is squandored.
As companies get excited about the ability to "gamify" work, I worry that they are just replacing or adding one system of extrinsic motivators (traditional performance management models) with another, cheaper model delivered through software. But that will not unlock the potential of human resources - to do that, they must re-discovered their intrinsic motivators and to do that, extrinsic motivators need to be removed to the bare minimum necessary to operate. For most organizations, it is impossible to remove all of the extrinsic motivators (salary, legal constraints, raises, promotions) but those core pressures exerted on human performance should be the first thing we evaluate before we add even more game mechanics.
Gamifying the wrong motivators is worse than doing nothing at all and in a world where we want to unleash human potential, we desperately need people that have the drive my daugter has in understanding the alphabet because she really, really wants to.