Optimal performance, gamification and government

The point of this post:By incorporating some of the characteristics of successful games into our work, we can improve our performance.

I’ve been reading a book called Flow: the psychology of optimal experience recently. Reading the book, I was reminded of “gamification”, a concept that you wouldn’t think would have much to do with the civil service but which I actually heard about last year in a talk on “Getting Big Things Done in Government” by Bill Eggers. Putting them together, I thought “There’s a blog post here.” So here it is.


In the book Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes “flow” as something experienced during the best moments of our lives, moments when “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something different and worthwhile.” Flow is a state without distractions, when the consciousness is fully focused on the task at hand. He gives an example:

Her concentration is so intense that she forgets to have lunch, and by the time she realizes that she is hungry it is dark outside. While she is immersed in her job every piece of information fits: even when she is temporarily frustrated, she knows what causes the frustration, and she believes that eventually the obstacle can be overcome.

Any of us who have experienced flow will, I think, recognize the description. Csikszentmihalyi describes it as “optimal experience” and it leads, I think, to optimal performance. But how do we attain that state?

Csikszentmihalyi describes key elements that accompany flow:

  • A challenging activity, something that requires all of our skill to cope with the challenges. Competition with a challenging opponent is one way to ensure challenge, but any task that takes us to the limit of our skills will do.
  • The merging of action and awareness and loss of self-consciousness, when our attention is completely absorbed by the activity and there is no awareness of distractions. “People become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneuous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.”
  • Concentration on the task at hand, it leaves no room in the mind for irrelevant information. There is no room for the issues of our daily lives that bother us. Cares and worries fade away. The focus is narrow, on the immediate task.
  • The transformation of time, where often hours can pass by in minutes or – occasionaly – an especially complex moment can stretch out and seem like much longer.
  • Clear goals, rules and feedback, when we know what we are striving for, what the rules are, and feedback is immediate it is much easier to achieve complete involvement in the activity. The choice of goal is not important (whether it is getting a ball into a net or concluding a peace treaty); what matters is that we have taken it as our goal. The kind of feedback is unimportant (whether it is the ball landing between the lines in a tennis court or the glimmer of understanding in a psychiatric patient’s eyes); what matters is that is shows the progress towards the goal.
  • A sense of control, the sense that one can take control of the situation and avoid the negative outcomes. This isn’t exactly the same as being in complete control, where the positive outcome is assured. Many flow experiences occur where in high risk activities. But through preparation and skill, the risk is reduced and a sense of control attained.

While we can experience flow in all aspects of our daily life: in art, science, exercise, family, work, and so on, games have been designed to make flow easier to achieve. “They have rules that require the learning of skills, they set up goals, they provide feedback, they make control possible. They facilitate concentration and involvement by making the activity as distinct as possible from the so-called ‘paramount reality’ of everyday existence.”

If we want to bring flow more frequently to work, in order to achieve optimal performance, it therefore makes sense to look at how we can apply game principles to it.


According to Wikipedia, “Gamification is the use of game design techniques, game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts.”

Typically, gamification is used to encourage people to adopt or change their behavior. By providing feedback and rewards, the desired behavior is encouraged. Techniques include “achievement badges” (as on Foursquare) or “achievement levels”, leader boards, progress bars, etc. There are lots of apps using gamification techniques to help motivate people to exercise properly, do chores and similar activities that people think they shoud do, but for which they have difficulty mustering up the required motivation.

Gamification has got a lot of press recently. The research group Gartner predicts that by 2014 more than 70 percent of Global 2000 organizations will have at least one gamified application. Brian Burke, a Gartner analyst goes so far as to say “Enterprise architects, CIOs and IT planners must be aware of, and lead, the business trend of gamification, educate their business counterparts and collaborate in the evaluation of opportunities within the organization.” Gartner identifies four key elements of gamification that drive engagement:

  1. Accelerated feedback cycles. In the real world, feedback loops are slow (e.g., annual performance appraisals) with long periods between milestones. Gamification increases the velocity of feedback loops to maintain engagement.
  2. Clear goals and rules of play. In the real world, where goals are fuzzy and rules selectively applied, gamification provides clear goals and well-defined rules of play to ensure players feel empowered to achieve goals.
  3. A compelling narrative. While real-world activities are rarely compelling, gamification builds a narrative that engages players to participate and achieve the goals of the activity.
  4. Tasks that are challenging but achievable. While there is no shortage of challenges in the real world, they tend to be large and long-term. Gamification provides many short-term, achievable goals to maintain engagement.

Notice anything about these elements? There’s a lot of overlap with the key elements that accompany flow. And it is this, I think, that makes gamification interesting for government.

Gamification and government

I must admit that when I first heard about gamification, I was a bit skeptical about its applicability to government. Was it simply the buzzword du jour, a fad that would quickly pass by into oblivion? Even when I thought about it more seriously, I was thinking about the potential to transform interactions with clients rather than to transform our work here in the public service (a Driver’s Handbook game to teach the rules of the road, for example). Gamification inside the public service seemed like a non-starter. Visions of headlines like “Public servants play games all day on the taxpayer dollar” came to mind.

After reading Flow, however, I gave it a second thought. If one looks beyond the trappings to the principles behind, gamification looks very different. Clear goals and frequent feedback on progress, tasks that are challenging but achievable, well-defined rules – these sound like good management. If we can look at the most successful games, see what makes them successful and apply those principles at work, whether or not we call it “gamification”, it seems we can improve our leadership and our performance. That’s something we can think about and we can do.

Or so it seems to me.

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