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Is now the time for gamification in software development?

Andrej Kovačević
gamification
© Shutterstock / Bloomicon

As games become increasingly popular, so too does the concept of gamification. The software industry is no exception, with big tech companies using gamified websites for hiring programmers. Is it time to bring gamification to the software development process? How would it potentially affect software development and its future?

Over the course of the last several years, the concept of gamification has been working its way into industries of all kinds. Big tech companies use it to lure top programmers to join their ranks. Carmakers like Nissan are using it to encourage environmentally-friendly driving habits in their connected EV apps. And marketing firms like Convincely now provide gamified website marketing funnels to increase conversions on websites.

It’s no secret why it’s happening, either. Games are immensely popular. Each year, the average time individuals spend playing games is going up. In the past year alone, every major demographic group increased their average amount of time spent playing games, with some posting a 26% increase. All of that adds up to gamification becoming the new key to user engagement in a variety of applications.

The statistics are so striking, in fact, that it’s reaching the point that programmers and software developers of all stripes now need to ask themselves: is it time to bring gamification to the software development process?

As it turns out, finding a concrete answer to that question isn’t as easy as you might imagine. To shed some light on the topic, here’s a look at the research on development gamification that does exist, and a real-world development gamification tool that you can try out on your own collaborative development projects.

A dearth of research

As popular as gamification has become, there’s precious little research data regarding the specific benefits of gamification in software development. Part of the reason for that is the fact that the majority of study focuses more on the end products that include gamification elements, and not the development process itself. There is, however, at least one research project that examined how one might apply gamification to software engineering.

In the paper, the authors proposed a novel application of gamification to enhance developer attention to bug reports, which remains a significant bottleneck in the typical development process. They laid out two individual frameworks for a bug reporting system that granted rewards to developers for responding to and correcting software errors. They also developed five separate assessment metrics that developers may use to evaluate how effective the systems are when in use.

Although there’s been no specific follow-up to the research, the results of the work have been integrated into the ShoreLine error system that pairs with the Pharo programming environment. Unfortunately, there’s been no public accounting of the efficacy of the tool, but the good news is that there’s a similar example that anyone can take for a test drive.

Real-world development gamification

In 2017, the web developers at Weld.io were knee-deep in building a code-free online content creation tool, when they noticed a growing problem. It was the fact that their team wasn’t effectively dealing with the mountains of bug reports building upon their project’s GitHub repository. It was then that they built a similar tool to the one proposed in the research referenced above.

The web-hosted game, aptly named Bug Hunter, kept a running tally of points earned by the project team for clearing out bug reports of varying severity. It also connected to the team’s Slack channel to provide scoring updates and daily reminders of the tasks yet to be completed. While not identical to the tool proposed in the earlier research, it put into practice many of the recommended best practices nonetheless, including an escalating point structure and weighted reward values based on bug severity. Best of all, the tool remains free for use via a GitHub repository of its own.

The future of software development gamification

Judging by how few developers have so far embraced gamification in their development processes, it seems that the answer to our main question is still no – for now. That’s because the only thing that is clear is the fact that gamification is continuing to gain traction everywhere else, but not within developer circles.

Still, the concept represents an interesting avenue for software developers to explore. It’s obvious from the above examples that it might be a beneficial addition to the developers’ toolkit if deployed in an appropriate way. So the bottom line is this: there’s a good chance that gamification may one day be a critical part of the future of software development, but until someone dreams up a can’t-miss use for the technique, it’s going to remain a niche idea for some time to come.

Author
Andrej Kovačević
Andrej is a digital marketing expert, editor at TechLoot, and a contributing writer for a variety of other technology-focused online publications. He has covered the intersection of marketing and technology for several years and is pursuing an ongoing mission to share his expertise with business leaders and marketing professionals everywhere.

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