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Gamification is a dirty word
by Nils Pihl on 11/17/12 11:56:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article originally appeared in Techinasia.

Every now and then a word comes along that captures the imagination of everyone it touches. Almost overnight these words spread across our collective consciousness and alter the tone and content of our conversations. Gamification is one of those words, and it has completely hijacked and derailed many meaningful discussions worth having.

The proponents of gamification rightly point out that there are opportunities to learn from games, ways that we can make our products more engaging, and that an increased awareness of what makes games so engaging could help us solve a lot motivational problems that we are struggling with. By unraveling the substance of games we can use these building blocks, popularly called game mechanics, to build a new generation of products.


The problem is that the proponents of gamification don't actually understand the substance of games. In their enthusiastic fervor they have mistaken some of the least important parts of games - things like leaderboards, points and badges - as the essence of games. Margaret Robertson rightly called the movement out in her entertaining piece on why it should be called "pointsification" instead. Others, like Ian Bogost, have said that even that would be too kind, arguing that "exploitationware" would be more descriptive. There is a huge discrepancy between the people who understand, master and use game mechanics, and those who claim to be able to gamify your product.

The entire edifice of gamification is built on investor hype, anecdotal evidence, and the opportunistic exploitation of a powerful new word without a clear meaning. Millions of dollars have been poured into companies with cheap first-to-market technologies, regardless of how shallow and superficial their understanding of the problem at hand is. Badgeville, a company whose name itself is an affront to people who make a living making engaging experiences, raised 15 million dollars in venture in their first year of operation. The leaders of the movement, people like Gabe Zichermann, are happy to toot their own horn and describe a future economy where gamification will one of the most valuable skills on the market. Bullish analysts caught up in the craze are fast to follow and give astronomical market caps for an industry that no one has really bothered defining. At no point during all of this do the enthusiasts stop to look at how vacuous Zichermann is.

"The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place."

Say it often enough and it will be indistinguishable from the truth. Zichermann wants us all to believe that the things that are the cheapest to program and implement just so happens to be "key game mechanics". Make no mistake about it, the reason these things are touted as important is not because of their proven effectiveness, but rather because of how cheap, scalable and attainable the technology is. Zichermann goes on to argue that gamification has "Armed [marketers] with a new understanding of what people tick, and how to wind them up," and they can now build experiences that are both enduring and engaging. But where is implied understanding? What deep insight of human psychology can you really glean from the anecdotal evidence you are marshaling?

The sad truth is that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, and the art of making engaging products and games remains well outside the abilities of the hundreds of opportunistic bandwagon passengers that try so hard to dominate the discussion.

Other enthusiasts, like Seth Priebatsch and Jane McGonigal, step up on the popular stages like TED and spread the word. The problem is, for all the enthusiasm that they bring to the topic, that they do the topic a disservice by oversimplifying or being straight out wrong.

I can attest to the fact that it is possible to make a living helping companies make more engaging products, and learning from games is a great way of getting there. There truly are some deep, intractable truths at the core of game design that can be applied to a variety of other designs - but "gamification" is a word that has derailed the conversation, polarized the community, and created unhealthy expectations in both designers and customers.

Quite frankly, I am tired of cleaning up the mess that people like Priebatsch have created.Gamification Venn Diagram

The metric for measuring your progress in a game is not what makes the game. Implementing a leaderboard on your website will probably not make people buy your product. A badge is no substitute for quality and substance.

What we can learn from games lies at the very core of what a "game" is:

When all the fluff and marketing hype is peeled away, a game is a system where we voluntarily engage in something to receive a perceived reward. We can learn meaningful design lessons by understanding the difference between work and play, and by realized that the reward is always a subjective thing brought to the table by the player.

What we can learn is that making a product engaging means understanding what brought our users there in the first place, and enforcing those structures by clearly communicating how they can get what they came for.

Ask yourself: Did your users come to "earn points"?

I must admit at this point that I was once very excited to see how the word gamification gained popular acceptance. I thought, for a while, that this new vocabulary addition would make it easier for me to explain some of the more arcane and mystical aspects of product design - The opposite has happened: I spend more and more time having to deconstruct the many mistakes that seem to accompany familiarity with gamification.

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Darren Tomlyn
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"Gamification" is just a term that has come be to used for something that has always existed, but has now become recognised as being advantageous commercially - (even though, again, it has always existed in one form or another):

Using competition to promote other behaviour.

And such behaviour does NOT have to be consistent with a game, which is why the term itself is problematic, and misleading - (it should really be called "competification").

Using a reward to be competed for by behaving in a specific manner is something that has probably existed for a very, very, long time. It's something parents do with children very often - (especially if they have more than one) - getting one to compete against another for a reward by doing something useful). IT can also be used as part of a competition, (rather than a game), which is why the term doesn't help.

Since competition, in itself, is not defined as and by any rewards being competed for - such a thing has nothing whatsoever to do with games or competitions themselves, except as a by-product of any subjective application of what they represent. ("Gamification" has nothing to do with gameplay.)

NOTE: Just rewarding someone for doing something, or saying "if you do this, I'll reward you with this", is not "gamification" - (every job in existence would then involve "gamification" etc.) - it requires competition as an additional element in order to enable such a reward to be given. I'm not sure this is being consistently recognised, though... (If Gamification was only about such a general type of behaviour, then it would be SO general, basic, simple, (and obvious), it shouldn't mean very much to anyone, or be very useful at all.)

Nils Pihl
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I'm not sure that I agree with you that gamification has to include competition - but maybe you're right. It doesn't seem to me like the main proponents of gamification say that competition is a necessary component.

Either way, it is word I would much rather do without.

Darren Tomlyn
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As I said, though - without competition, merely rewarding someone for ANY behaviour, regardless of circumstance - (using a reward to promote ANY behaviour) - is far too simplistic, and again, has even less to do with games than involving competition - making the label even more of a misnomer.

One of the reasons why "gamification" is causing so many problems, is because competition, itself, isn't being fully recognised and understood either - (many people either perceive competition as and by the rewards to be competed for - which is why "gamification" makes sense to them, or only when it involves direct competition between people - (recognising and understanding the presence and role of indirect competition is a very big problem for a lot of people, and has a sizeable impact upon the recognition of games themselves).

I'll give you a link to the related post on my blog, but I'm in the process of re-writing the first, main, post, which will probably some further effects on all the others when I'm finished:

Nils Pihl
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Send me an email when you're done rewriting, I'd be happy to read it. nils ř

Darren Tomlyn
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Well, with the way things are going atm, it's probably going to take months :(

(I tend to get half-way through and then realise I forgot something right at the beginning of that particular 'chapter', and have to start it over again. (I'm probably well into double-figure re-writes now.) But that's what it's like when we're dealing with the foundations of language and how they're applied in English - without any consistent current labels to describe them properly... (We're literally dancing around the issues with all the ways and labels we have to describe the language, at present, (such as word & morpheme), which adds more context I need to place everything within, and is where my current version fails).

Nils Pihl
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I'll go right ahead and read your post this week, then :)

Darren Tomlyn
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Feel free to read my blog as-is if you really want to - but bear in mind that it's not the full picture... (I've got the basic problem, sure, but not all of its effects - (the 'big-picture') - and so not all descriptions are consistent or correct).

I think I've finished the first 'new' 'chapter', (I should really stop calling every thing 'part-#') - (the definition of language and its implications for English). Now it's just a matter of figuring out how to put all the pieces together within the box I've built, whilst showing why it's not put together correctly in the first place.

EDIT: of course, I could just post everything 1 'chapter' at a time...? :p

Michael Joseph
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I'm pretty sure that "gamification" as a word is dead. Seems to me there is a noticeable lack of it's use by it's former proponents lately. Certain folks have given entire talks where the word is strangely absent and different phrases are used instead. That in itself is very telling. But I'm not surprised.

And one has to understand, gamification was being flaunted by the dopamine folks. They want to develop the science of manipulating folks through fun. I don't think that's moral whether the purpose is for educating or propoganda or commercial gain. There are open and honest ways of making learning or teaching or work, enjoyable.

Nils Pihl
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@guerric I don't think gamification is evil. I think the word is misleading.

@Michael Well, it is still alive and kicking here in Asia, and it irks me to no end.

Michael Joseph
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Oops. Gamification is still a goal by some, I just meant the use of the word I think has fallen out of favor.

Michael Rooney
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I think you are painting with very broad strokes. You are declaring that gamification is bad and only giving examples of bad gamification. It's definitely a vague term, but the general concept of adding game-like motivations for non-game products isn't that bad; it's been used since I was in primary school, and it works whether or not you disagree with it.

A couple of things you don't mention. Not all gamification has the same purpose; Microsoft's gamified MS Office isn't so much about repeated use of the program, but as a tutorial. That makes total sense as I imagine most people aren't aware of 3/4s of the capabilities of any of the MS Office products. On the other hand, Fitocracy uses gamification to motivate you for continued use.

Gamification has more to do with the psychology of games than about making good games imo.

Darren Tomlyn
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Just one point I'd like to make, because it's more of what really matters:

"Gamification has more to do with the psychology of COMPETING than about making good games"

Horst Streck
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All the discussions, getting tired of it. Good piece and I agree on most things. I believe that a gamifier ( keep using that word since I have :) ) needs to find the game-factor of any given entity and create pure fun with it. Rewards, badges and points are game-elements. From that point of view you can call it gamification, but if you're only going to use these only, it might not be that successful. BTW: game factor to me is something that you like to do without any external motivation.

Justin LeGrande
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"Gamification" is basically just the administration of diversionary tactics, using an abstract motivation model, to get people to work, without using the person's innate will to work. It is designed to manipulate the mind into enjoying difficult tasks, which would otherwise be avoided or be felt unsavory.

So yes, I think "gamification" is a dirty word which doesn't deserve any further integration into any business structures. A designed business culture which keeps it's users and proponents happy and healthy should not need any dirty tricks to validate itself. If individuals want to employ "gamification" upon themselves, that's fine, but I don't think it's appropriate to use in a group setting.