Gamification and skepticism

One of the hot new terms in the world of web-based services is gamification. This is when a web site is designed to add game-like features to the user experience. The idea is to take something that might be fairly tedious if it were just a simple utility, and make it fun. Typical game elements from two gamified web sitesThe form this takes varies widely from site to site, but often includes user-to-user competition scoreboards, achievement badges, unlocking of extra abilities through achievements, and so on.

Probably the most famous example is a site called Foursquare. This is a site that encourages its users to log where they are during the day. Sounds tedious, right? Why should I keep a rigorous diary of everywhere I go? But by allowing you to connect with your friends, get discounts at local businesses, and earn rewards such as badges, Foursquare turns the experience into a game.

Much of what skeptics do can be tedious or repetitive at times. We have to reiterate over and over the same evidence to new believers in several different of topic areas. We repeatedly have to debunk new versions of old scams. Many skeptics quite understandably grow weary of this and drop out of skepticism eventually. This is an ongoing problem.

And so I’ve been interested for some time in the idea of applying gamification to skepticism. There’s been an interesting development in this area. Read on…

Questions and answers

There is currently an experiment in beta test that applies gamification techniques to the specific problem of answering questions relevant to skeptic topics. I would like to encourage skeptics to get involved in it. First let me give you some background.

If you’ve ever explored the options for question and answer on the internet, you know that there have been many attempts to solve this problem. Most fail in one way or the other. Simple discussion forums often are used, but the best answer often gets posted far down a long message thread, where it is hard to find. Mailing lists can be useful, since anyone who has email can participate, but the results are not easily discoverable using a search engine. Community-edited wikis might be used, but often the article format is not well suited to questions.

Various custom web sites have also been built to focus on questions and answers. Many fail significantly in some way. Some attempt to bury the answers behind a paywall, which makes them hard to find and discourages participation. Many give equal access to all users on the web to write answers, which encourages participation but also leads to bad behavior such as trolling and joke answers. The site Yahoo Answers in particular has become the butt of many jokes, as people constantly find ridiculous questions and ridiculous answers there.

Stack Overflow to the rescue

In 2008 two software developers & bloggers Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood decided to develop a solution to this problem. What they came up with was Stack Overflow, a site specifically for programmers to answer very technical questions for each other.

What Stack Overflow did was combine elements blogs, forums, wikis and other web sites in a way that is optimized specifically for answering questions. Gaming elements are included to reward repeated participation. Users vote on questions and answers to reward good work. The best content automatically percolates up to the top based on the voting.

Users are rewarded with points and badges for participating. The more points you have, the more capabilities you are permitted on the site. The whole thing almost becomes a video game, as users of the site compete to find and post the best answers to the questions that are posed.

Most importantly, the entire site is carefully designed to index well in Google and other search engines, so that these answers are easily discoverable by anyone, not just users of the site. That means the game isn’t just benefiting the players, it is benefiting the general public too.

The end result was a wild success. They’ve recruited investors for their company, released a commercial version of their software for use within businesses and expanded their own sites to include topics other than programming. Right now they have over 45 different sites covering topic areas such as math, photography and many other topics.

This is not just a set of hobby sites. The company currently employs over 30 people. Just yesterday it closed a second round of funding and changed its name to Stack Exchange to better reflect the multi-topic nature of the business.

Skeptics Join In

In 2010 a UK skeptic named Richard J. Stelling experimented with applying this technology to skepticism. He launched Skeptic Exchange, an independent web site that used a free version of the same software, but applied to skeptic topics. Some good content was generated on that site, as you can see.

For better or for worse, the Stack Exchange folks have decided to no longer offer a free version of their software for uses like this. And so if it had gone forward, Skeptic Exchange would have lagged in capability. There were also issues about how the site would be funded in the long term – web hosting space is not free.

Fortunately, there is now a process created by Stack Exchange itself to encourage the creation of new topic areas to add to the list mentioned earlier. Richard and the other skeptics who were involved in Skeptic Exchange jumped in here with both feet, and made a great effort to shepherd a new Skeptics topic into the fold. If you look at that list of 45 topic areas covered by Stack Exchange, you’ll find Skeptics there, right at the very bottom as I write this.

The new site skeptics.stackexchange.com is now 12 days into a 90 day trial period. I encourage you to log in, take a look, and participate. It is important that it achieve a certain level of participation during the 90-day trial.

I can tell you from my experience as a Stack Overflow beta tester there’s lots to like here. You don’t even need to create a password to log in, you can use your existing account on any of a number of other websites to be your Stack Exchange identity. The design of the site is very clean and simple, using many advanced techniques to make the UI as modern as possible.

Even if you’re not an experienced writer or skeptic researcher, you can help out. Cruise around the site. Vote on questions and answers you like. Add comments of your own. And of course, ask questions and answer them. This could be a very important skeptic web site, but only if people participate.

Give it a try!