Gamification of the Retrospective

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Gamification of the Retrospective

What is a retrospective?

Doing a retrospective can be really easy. You should just highlight what went right or wrong and generate corrective or preventive action in a PDCA continuous improvement cycle. Unfortunately, if you look at the same object from the same point of view, it becomes fruitless and boring.

From the simplistic right/wrong approach given above, many ways do exist to make the retrospective more fun [RetrospectiveWiki 2019] [Moustier 2019-1]:

The “work with fun” paradigm is named “gamification” since it is a transformation process to turn dumb process into attractive activities. The spread of this term began in the late 2000s, following a speech by Professor Jesse Schell at the DICE 2010 conference where he shared the idea of a future in which all daily activities would be subject to a points and rewards system [Francisco-Aparicio 2013].

From this conference, the term "gamification" has been associated with all spheres of social life that transpose game mechanisms into a so-called non-game domain.

Gamification is the application of game features to increase motivation and engagement in a learning context [Alsawaier 2017]. Gamification of tests is an excellent approach to help you develop this activity, especially with non-testers; but also, since testing is about learning more about the state of your product, this process will help maintain and even improve the interest of testing in a team. This education through entertainment has been named “edutainment” [Alsawaier 2017]. Gamification increased the percentage of task completion from 73% to 97% [Brewer 2013] because games are the only force that can get people to take actions which are against their self interests in a predictable way without the use of force [Zickermann 2010].

Gamification is actually an area of confusion and misunderstanding for many educators and game designers. There is a distinction between gamification and Game-Based Learning (GBL):

  • GBL : is intended solely for education and relies on a learning game that has a beginning and an end. (aka Serious Gaming) - GBL is “when students play games to learn content” it enhances the learning experience - players’ engagement expires when the game is over  [Alsawaier 2017]
  • Gamification is adding a design layer of game elements to enhance learning, increase engagement, and encourage positive behavior - gamification is the “application of game-based elements to non-game situations” [Issacs 2015] - gamification is meant to create ongoing and prolonged engagement [Alsawaier 2017]. 

Game thinking requires rethinking teaching practices. This process is not just adding game elements without considering how gamification works: “Gamification is not just making a game” [Alsawaier 2017]. Being able to gamify a practice requires reaching the “Ri (離)” level in the Shu-ha-ri model notably because gamification becomes more complex when specific focus on “motivational affordances'' (properties added to an object to bring motivation) and change in behavior as an outcome [Hamari, Koivisto, and Sarsa (2014)]. From a worker’s point of view, the game should not be done beside existing processes, this would add jobs to the existing job and would lead to players to disengage [Burke 2014].

Tondello proposes some heuristics to imagine such motivational affordance [Tondello 2017]:

Some heuristics to imagine motivational affordance [Tondello 2017]


Gamification should reward the effort, not only the victory. Students  involved in a gamified environment are encouraged to engage in the process and reasoning and are evaluated accordingly regardless of whether they succeeded in their endeavor or not [Alsawaier 2017]. This approach increases intrinsic motivation; however, without external challenges, goals may never be reached, hence the need to introduce external factors from the context or from the organization within some limits such as 

  • Leader or organization misalignment
  • Unethical behavior
  • Tunnel vision
  • Narrow focus

From a higher point of view, among educational theories related to constructivism presents a learning approach from observations on children and provides a way to let 

  • students be empowered on their learning thanks to an environment into which they can try actions and learn from their own experience 
  • teachers only change their environment to push progression eventually through adaptive scenarios

 Constructivism emerged in the face of behaviorism which, according to him, limited learning too much to the stimulus-response association and considered the subject as a black box. The constructivist approach is interested in the subject's activity in order to construct a representation of the reality that surrounds him/her. Such an approach can easily be retrieved from a video games perspective: the game usually proposes an environment with more complex tasks that need to keep challenging but possible to avoid players’ disengagement.

Three main fields meet to explain this theory:

  • Self Determination Theory (SDT)
  • Behaviorism 
  • New Literacies Study

Self Determination Theory (SDT) is a theory that highlights a need for autonomy and a strong sense of responsibility for one’s actions because humans need to make choices, to compete and collaborate with others. SDT positively affects intrinsic motivation [Alsawaier 2017]. When players engage the gamified environment, they willingly immerse themselves in virtual challenges for the purpose of achieving fun and play; elements deeply rooted in human beings [Francisco-Aparicio 2013]. SDT can be modeled through 3 components: 

  • Mechanics: refer to goals, rules, rewards; 
  • Dynamics: refer to how players act and apply the mechanics; 
  • Emotions: as the name suggests, refers to players’ feelings during the gamified experience.

Behaviorism is another educational theory which basically consists in providing positive (rewards) or negative (penalties or punishments) reinforcements which relies on a “operant conditioning” principle [Skinner 1937] based on the study of reversible behavior maintained by reinforcement schedules  [Staddon 2003]. There are two types of reinforcement schedules: fixed and variable [Alsawaier 2017]. It appears that fixed  reinforcement schedules have less psychological impact than variable reinforcement schedules, as the element of surprise is activated, higher engagement is produced [Eyal 2014]. This generally follows an 4 step cycle:

  1. a trigger draws the player to do something
  2. an action is accomplished
  3. a variable reward is offered to the player with some little dopamine discharge in the brain as a result
  4. acquired rewards build the player’s investment
The game reward system [Eyal 2014]

This mechanism is introduced in addictive games such as Candy Crush and social networks.

The impact of variable schedules of the operant conditioning can be so strong that it can be addictive, especially if not every positive behavior is rewarded - consider for example how casinos function where players lose many times for the hope of winning once, yet they still come back to gamble [Alsawaier 2017].

To trigger the first reward, the easier the action, the faster the reward. To achieve this, Players should learn how to engage into the game with the game itself. Players need to feel they are accomplishing something the right way [Burke 2014]. Then, later in the game, harder challenges may emerge with variable rewards to hook the Player.

“Gamification is a designed-behavior shift through playful experiences” [Alsawaier 2017].

New Literacies Study: forms of content based on technologies (aka digital literacy) within groups which have norms, the “ethos” (e.g. influencers who learn many technologies to master their contents). The concept of ethos, which is wider than digital literacy, shows people involved in groups who achieve actions simply to join the ethos [Knobel 2014]. Gamification is a form of digital literacy. Gamification allows for learning to happen individually as the learners feel extrinsically (because of the group) and intrinsically (because of the ethos) motivated through gaining points and winning awards. The social aspect of gamification through collaboration and competition, they added, is very important. [Alsawaier 2017].

Gamification results in high engagement. The motivation that comes along can be divided into five components [Hsieh 2014]:

  • Intrinsic motivation;
  • Extrinsic motivation;
  • Task value: the perception and the value of the task by the learners and whether it is beneficial for them or not;
  • Ability to be convinced of being able to accomplish a task;
  • Expectancy for success.

This engagement is then generated through [Alsawaier 2017]:

  1. interactions, cooperations, and altruism between the players 
  2. engagement between players is achieved through the utilization of game mechanics.

The required “fun” to enable this not only gains the learners’ engagement, but also positively increases their motivation. Fun can allow for better learning [Alsawaier 2017].

To introduce fun, several patterns can be found:

  • Avatars: represent an opportunity for players to venture into a risk-free world. The freedom to choose or design their own avatars creates an atmosphere where students can find their own voice. After choosing an avatar, the learners will be faced with the next challenge: to pursue a quest.
  • Quests and challenges: require players to solve mystery engaging critical thinking skills - Quests and challenges give players a sense of direction or a purpose in a gamified environment [Zickermann 2011]
  • Rewards - Rewards reinforce desirable learning behaviors and once these learning behaviors are established, they signal the players progress, but also indications of past achievements with badges. Points and levels have a significant place in a gamified environment. Some game proponents consider points as an essential part of a gamified world or an “absolute requirement for all gamified systems” [Zickermann 2011]; however, intrinsically motivated students experience gradual disengagement and loss of motivation when forced to use game features [Hanus 2015]

Roughly speaking, there are four types of gamers or players [Bartle 1996][Noder 2015]:

  • 1- Killers: those who compete and play against other gamers - rely on badges and points displayed on a leaderboard to gain public recognition in the game environment
  • 2- Achievers: those who achieve status due to a high level of performance - track their achievements through badges and points and are keen to know the status of their progress
  • 3- Explorers: those who collect virtual goods and discover things - independent and are more interested in pursuing a quest rather than impressing others
  • 4- Socializers: those who are good team players and collaborate with others in the game environment - interact with others through mutual support

Killers introduce deviation in the gameplay. While they achieve, they don’t fully experience the game and positive collaboration. This mindset can appear even when there is no money involved, people can find apertures in the system and exploit them, just because they can…[Burke 2014]. Any time you build a social interaction platform, you will have unintended user behavior and people will game the platform, hence a need for moderation to limit people to get what they want out of it. This enables turning transactions back at will so that the platform always wins [Zichermann 2010].

When the game is finite, they surely win before everyone but when it comes to gamification related to long run activities, it turns into an infinite game, which is closer to real life gamified activities. One way to avoid this “winning the game becomes the players’ goal”, the more closely the solution objectives align with the players’ objectives, the less likely they will try to look for loopholes and shortcuts to achieving the goals [Burke 2014].

Collaboration-competition is not the only dimensions a game may have [Burke 2014]:

  • the motivation types (intrinsic vs extrinsic)
  • how many players are involved
  • finite vs infinite games
  • the way scenarios are built (emergent vs scripted)
Dimensions of a game [Burke 2014] - Configuration for an agile Team

Those dimensions should help to figure out the gamification profile you need to target. Both sides of the selectors have advantages and drawbacks in the game design, but the closer it will be from the Players’ actual environment, the closer the activity is gamified since the activities are just an extension of the game - “Gamification is a non-fiction gaming” [Zichermann 2010].

Impact on the testing maturity

Agile testing leads Teams to avoid testing [Laing 2016] and retrospectives generate preventive actions from what has been learnt. When it comes to gamify retrospectives, there are tons of solutions 

But also some GBL-based retrospective tools with focuses on the learning curve such as:

Retrospective is not the only way to prevent issues and so does knowledge and experience. They both feed the ability to improve insights from the sprint and solutions to improve future retrospectives. Here are some examples that influences the introduction of practices:

All the so-called gamified examples provided above should be improved to feel the retrospective game as a part of a wider game,  the sprints.

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© Christophe Moustier - 2021