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Persuasive Games: Exploitationware
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Persuasive Games: Exploitationware

May 3, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Making Things Easy, Making it Hard

I mentioned that frames like "serious games" and even my own "persuasive games" had done a terrible job making games seem viable to make and use in organizations. The problem is, they should be difficult to make and use in such contexts. In fact, games undermine many of the practices of industrialization that gamification silently endorses.

There are good reasons for this: because games are systems, they offer a fundamentally different way of characterizing ideas. They can inspire a different kind of deliberation than we find in other forms of media, one that considers the uncertainty of complex systems instead of embracing simple answers. It's this potential that has inspired me to advocate for the uses of games in areas like learning, politics, journalism, and business.

But for educators, politicians, newsmakers, marketers, and really just about anybody working in institutions that ossified during industrialization, such change is undesirable. It would require the partial or even wholesale reinvention of the way things get done.

I offer a number of examples of this problem in Persuasive Games, one of which is the advertising industry. When done well, games offer an opportunity to give customers an experience of the features and functions of a product or service.

But such a proposition runs counter to the last four decades of marketing, an era that has focused on branding and messaging as a way of creating desires through affinity rather than helping people understand how specific products and services might benefit particular wants and needs.

In the modern marketing business, the best solutions are generic ones, ideas that can be repeated without much thought from brand to brand, billed by consultants and agencies at a clear markup. Gamification offers this exactly. No thinking is required, just simple, absentminded iteration and the promise of empty metrics to prove its value. Like having a website or a social media strategy, "gamification" allows organizations to tick the games box without fuss. Just add badges! Just add leaderboards!

How to Talk about Gamification

Gamification's detractors make their cases with passion. They argue that gamification mistakes games' secondary properties for their primary ones. It insults and violates games. It confuses the magical magnetism of games for simplistic compulsion meted out toward extrinsic incentives. It fails to embrace the complex responsiveness of "real" games, games that make solutions seem interestingly hard rather than tediously so.

But none of these objections bother the gamification set. They don't want to use the hard, strange, magical features of games. Instead, they want to use their easy, certain, boring aspects. Those are the gimmicks that can be leveraged into "monetizable APIs" and one-size-fits-all consulting workshops.

To oppose gamification on these grounds is a losing battle. To use one of George Lakoff's favorite examples, it's a bit like countering anti-abortion's "pro-life" frame with the "pro-choice" alternative. For someone who holds the position that abortion is murder, the idea that people should have the choice to do it is nonsensical.

Likewise, for gamification proponents, the idea that adding points and incentives to things fails to engage the power of games as interactive systems is likewise nonsensical. Doing that would be hard. It would require changing the practices of entire industries. It would take time and effort. That's not what marketers and educators and politicians and executives want. They want easy answers and fast results.

It's not what gamification consultants want either; they want to sell off their businesses before anybody discovers that they have been erected on swampland. And they want to associate this easy-bake, fast action marketing schlock with the totally unrelated magic of games.

"Pro-life" is a powerful phrase because it is so hard to oppose. To begin an argument by implying that you are "anti-life" -- that's a bad start indeed. Lakoff points out that liberals lose elections largely because they spend most of their time embracing the terms of their opposition, repeating those phrases and giving them implicit support. Instead, Lakoff argues, liberals should invent their own concepts that reflect their core values, setting the debate accordingly.

For advocates of games who oppose the insidiousness and infantilization of gamification, the same advice applies. But just like Lakoff's liberals, we've got our work cut out for us. "Gamification" is winning the rhetoric battle; in fact, it's increasingly common to hear people use the term in reference to any non-traditional use of games, as Heather Chaplin did recently in her critique of Jane McGonigal.

Alternate terms aren't nearly as powerful. There's Ben Sawyer and Dave Rejeski's "serious games," of course, and McGonigal's notion of "gameful design," and my concept of "persuasive games," the loosely connected "games for good" movement, among others. None of these have caught on like "gamification" has done. We have to do better.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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