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How Gamification Affects Software Developers

Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2021-10-03
Keywords: Gamification

In May 2016 GitHub removed two counters from developers' profiles that tracked their current and longest streaks of uninterrupted daily contributions; Moldon2021 is a study of what happened next. Its authors found that long-running streaks became less common, as did days in which people made a single contribution to keep their streak going. and that weekend contributions declined. They also found a decline in streaks across social networks, i.e., that if a developer stopped streaking, their contacts were more likely to stop streaking as well.

To which I can only respond, "Good." Gamification is a deliberate attempt to make systems more addictive, and addictive behaviors are never healthy. As the authors of Moldon2021 note:

…some emotional responses to GitHub's announcement that the streak counters were no longer part of developer profiles suggest that some developers had developed an unhealthy relationship with these elements. It also seems to us unlikely that developers logging in to make a single contribution to maintain an ongoing streak made useful or high quality contributions. This sort of behavior reflects an optimization of individual behavior for the sake of the game, and not for the quality of the work.

But burnout and low-quality work aren't the only risks. Trang2021 found that people were more likely to share privacy-violating information in gamified systems, and while some people are incentivized by the competitive nature of leaderboards, others (often those who are less self-confident or have been marginalized in the past) find them demoralizing. They are also a great example of how perverse incentives can distort work in damaging ways: if merged code is recognized but code reviews and helpful explanations to newcomers are not, your project is not going to be a healthy place to work Sholler2019.

Moldon2021 Lukas Moldon, Markus Strohmaier, and Johannes Wachs: "How Gamification Affects Software Developers: Cautionary Evidence from a Natural Experiment on GitHub". Proc. International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE), 2021, 10.1109/icse43902.2021.00058.

We examine how the behavior of software developers changes in response to removing gamification elements from GitHub, an online platform for collaborative programming and software development. We find that the unannounced removal of daily activity streak counters from the user interface (from user profile pages) was followed by significant changes in behavior. Long-running streaks of activity were abandoned and became less common. Weekend activity decreased and days in which developers made a single contribution became less common. Synchronization of streaking behavior in the platform's social network also decreased, suggesting that gamification is a powerful channel for social influence. Focusing on a set of software developers that were publicly pursuing a goal to make contributions for 100 days in a row, we find that some of these developers abandon this quest following the removal of the public streak counter. Our findings provide evidence for the significant impact of gamification on the behavior of developers on large collaborative programming and software development platforms. They urge caution: gamification can steer the behavior of software developers in unexpected and unwanted directions.