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Persuasive Games: Exploitationware
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Persuasive Games: Exploitationware

May 3, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4
 

Exploitationware

In the meantime, there's another lesson to learn from Frank Luntz: don't let the opposition set the terms of the debate. Instead, concoct better concepts with which to oppose them.

In addition to his many verbal offensives, Luntz is also the architect of defensive phrases like "death tax," which invokes considerably more dissatisfaction than "estate tax." The latter phrase sounds like it applies to the wealthy (which, as a matter of fact, it does), but Luntz managed to help win much more mainstream support for its possible repeal by removing resentment about its association with wealth and replacing that resentment with disgust at the idea of being taxed just for dying.

And more recently, Luntz has advocated that Republicans opposing Obama's health care reform by calling it a "Washington takeover" that will force citizens to "stand in line" for care.

For gamification detractors, the best move is to distance games from the concept entirely, by showing its connection to the more insidious activities that really comprise it.

In particular, gamification proposes to replace real incentives with fictional ones. Real incentives come at a cost but provide value for both parties based on a relationship of trust. By contrast, pretend incentives reduce or eliminate costs, but in so doing they strip away both value and trust.

When companies and organizations provide incentives to help orient the goals of the organization against the desires of its constituency, they facilitate functional relationships, one in which both parties have come to an understanding about how they will relate to one another. Subsequent loyalty might exist between an organization and its customers, an organization and its employees, or a government and its citizens.

For example: an airline offers a view of its business model, and frequent flyers who advance those expectations get rewards. An employer offers a view of its goals, and employees who help meet those goals enjoy raises, perks, and promotions. When loyalty is real it's reciprocal. It moves in two directions. Something real is at stake for both parties.

Gamification replaces these real, functional, two-way relationships with dysfunctional perversions of relationships. Organizations ask for loyalty, but they reciprocate that loyalty with shams, counterfeit incentives that neither provide value nor require investment.

When seen in this light, "gamification" is a misnomer. A better name for this practice is exploitationware. And as a concept, exploitationware has numerous rhetorical benefits:

It disassociates the practice from games. This is the most important position of all, because it makes room for games to move into the same areas of application while giving them a natural response to the gamification option. "What about gamification? That seems cheaper and easier." "Oh, you mean exploitationware? It's great if you don't mind swindling your customers."

It connects gamification to other, better known practices of software fraud. These include malware, spyware, and adware. While some uses of -ware still have positive or neutral associations (shareware, freeware), people are more familiar with the more nefarious variants, thanks to negative press coverage of software exploits.

It kicks the fulcrum out from under gamification's lever. Gamification is appealing to consultants and organizations because it's easy, cheap, and replicable. It's high leverage. Some companies will follow any trend, but most are smart enough to understand the medium- to long-term cost of bad decisions. Just the threat of negative customer perception of gamification techniques offers a good method to argue against them.

It allows us to situate gamification within a larger set of pernicious practices in the high-tech marketplace. These include the general practice of extracting personal information from customers by pretending that one's product is actually one's customer. Google and Facebook's seemingly free services also could be called exploitationware of a different kind, since they use the carrot of free services (their purported product) to extract information that forms the real basis for their revenues (their real product). For more on this subject, read Siva Vaidhyanathan's book The Googlization of Everything.

It opens the door for more earnest, beneficial uses of games. Characterizing gamification as exploitationware gives games-as-systems advocates an opportunity to present alternatives. Doing real, meaningful things with games is hard and risky, but it offers considerable reward, reward that responds to the underlying shift away from the logic of industrialization that gamification takes for granted.

For those who lament the rise of gamification, the most important thing you can do is to stop saying "gamification" entirely. Reinvest that energy partly into arguments against the scourge of exploitationware, but mostly into your own approaches to the use of games in different contexts.

And to the crass marketers and spineless consultants who embrace it, I leave it to you to defend your villainous reign of abuse against customers, employees, and the general public. Thankfully, for those of us concerned about the growing threat of exploitationware, games offer a positive alternative.


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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