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October 26, 2011

Some Thoughts On Gamification

I’ve found myself wondering about “gamification” with increasing frequency these last few months as various articles appear online to denounce it. What is it, exactly? And is it really as bad as they all say? What follows is a brief exploration of the concept and a look at its applications.  At the end, I offer my opinion on whether gamification really is bad, or merely misunderstood.

What is gamification?

According to Wikipedia, the earliest known use of the term “gamification” was made by Nick Pelling back in 2004 as part of his consultancy business, Conundra Ltd. The text on Conundra’s website reads:

Conundra is a UK-based consultancy specialising in “Gamification“.

This means: we help manufacturers evolve their electronic devices into entertainment platforms. We then help them design, build and run industry partner programmes around new collaborational business models. For these emerging platforms, we can also source, adapt or co-develop games and entertainments. Moore’s Law means that, soon, every device will become a game.

Here, Pelling is just using “gamification” to refer to the act of making an electronic device a gaming platform. For better or worse, that is no longer what gamification means.

For at least a year now, gamification has been used to refer to a utilitarian way of thinking about some of the incidental features of games. Under the gamification paradigm, games become less of “here is a game that feels like this to play,” and instead become more of “here is a game that accomplishes this goal.”

Ian Bogost is probably the most outspoken opponent of gamification. Back in August, Bogost made waves with the tartly named rant “Gamification is Bullshit.” I wouldn’t bother reading it–he explained his position much more clearly back in May. In the earlier piece, he quotes Gabe Zichermann, “Dark Lord” of gamification, for a concise modern definition of the concept:

Gamification can be thought of as using some elements of game systems in the cause of a business objective. It’s easiest to identify the trend with experiences (frequent flyer programs, Nike Running/Nike+, or Foursquare) that feel immediately game-like. The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place.

So that’s a quick overview of what gamification is. What’s the big deal, you might ask?

Gamification: why some people hate it

Some of the anger over gamification is a matter of semantic purity. Games are about a heck of a lot more than incidental frivolities like “points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding.” Game design is about crafting and fine-tuning systems and modes of interaction with the player’s experience in mind. Understandably, developers take offense to the notion that something which is not a game can be “gamified” simply by slapping these sorts of gimmicks onto it.

Opponents of gamification love to use “social games” as an example of what happens when you apply the gamification philosophy while actually making a game. I won’t hide my own feelings on most “social games”: I think they’re appalling.  Companies like Zynga take a game (say, Harvest Moon), rip out all of its complexity, then stuff it full of monetization mechanisms, leaving behind a hollow, abusive, compulsive exercise in its stead.  Tim Rogers describes the process with a mix of disgust and despair. The results aren’t pretty.

I wouldn’t be the first to point out that there is nothing particularly social about “social games.” If anything, these games’ exploitative mechanics make them good candidates for the designation antisocial games, in much the same way that a remorseless manipulator is said to suffer from antisocial personality disorder. (Bogost, who created the scathing parody Cow Clicker, suggests calling them exploitationware.) Antisocial games use all of the tools of gamification in the dogged pursuit of money, and in that sense, they perfectly exemplify the sort of philosophy that Zichermann set forth above.

Still, focusing solely on antisocial games is a little unfair to gamification. For one thing, Zichermann himself decries gamified games that are “weak and shallow, trying to overcome bad products or poor design with badges and incentives.” Further, gamification isn’t just limited to antisocial games. Businessweek reports that companies have begun to invest in games to train workers. Canon has a game like this. Cisco has one. Even Cold Stone Creamery has one:

It teaches portion control and customer service in a cartoon-like simulation of a Cold Stone store. Players scoop cones against the clock and try to avoid serving too much ice cream. The company says more than 8,000 employees, or about 30% of the total, voluntarily downloaded the game in the first week. “It’s so much fun,” says Holshouser. “I e-mailed it to everyone at work.”

To my mind, there’s something just a little exploitative about a company producing a game so that its minimum-wage workers will voluntarily train themselves to scoop ice cream while off the clock. On the other hand, games-based training doesn’t have to occur without compensation, and recent research suggests that games are an effective way to teach skills. Aside from which, is it really immoral to find a way to make fun out of something that was once pure drudgery?

Gamification doesn’t have to be all bad

I don’t agree with Jane McGonigal when she says that Farmville and World of Warcraft “consistently fulfill genuine human needs.” After all, Zynga’s Beijing general manager Andy Tian once publicly admitted that they design games like Farmville so the negative emotional impact of failing to act is more intense than any feeling of having benefited from play. And it’s well-known that World of Warcraft produces something that looks, sounds and smells like addiction through a combination of player competition and a random loot-dropping mechanic that preys on weaknesses of human psychology.

But not all games that employ gamification techniques are like WoW or Farmville. Gamification is not destined solely to manipulate players into spending money on microtransactions, scooping ice cream, or click-click-clicking until a monster drops a dagger. And despite Zichermann’s focus on profits, gamification doesn’t have to be harnessed “in the cause of a business objective.” Gamification has a lot of (as yet largely unexplored) potential to do real good by teaching people socially beneficial skills and perspectives.

I think of it this way. Teaching is central to gaming. To play Pong is to be taught the movements and timing that slide the paddle up and down the screen, learning the precise movements and timing that will reflect the ball at particular angles. To play Tetris is to become fluent in another sort of two-dimensional spatial reasoning, stacking shapes with 90-degree angles in increasingly efficient configurations so as to form complete rows without gaps.

Games can also train players to work with more complicated systems with direct analogs in real life. This process is already underway in various forms. To play Atooms to Moolecule is to learn chemistry. To play FoldIt is to be trained in protein folding. To play Planet Hunters is to learn how to detect planets based on light data collected from stars. To play Metroquest is to be trained in urban planning.

There are plenty of things in life which are beneficial to ourselves and society, but which are ultimately rather dull to learn on their own. “But Craig,” you ask, “why not just design games to teach these things? Why use gamification?” There is a good reason why not: game design is about crafting systems and mechanics. These systems we want to teach people already exist–do not lend themselves to proper game design because they are already designed. To “design” them would mean to change their properties. SpaceChem, for instance, is a well-designed puzzle game that is great fun, but that means it is a game with a designed system–it cheats the rules of chemistry in order to achieve its magic. You will not learn real chemistry playing SpaceChem. Similarly, SimCity is lots of fun, but it doesn’t incorporate real-world systems; as such, it isn’t something you would play to learn the ins and outs of various approaches in urban planning.

To teach real-world systems in depth, one needs to simulate them faithfully. But simulations, by long tradition, lack basic motivational design features. Gamification benefits them by saying that it isn’t enough for the simulations to be accurate: they have to be motivational as well. The subjects tackled by FoldIt and Metroquest are ripe for gamification not just because their underlying systems need to be reproduced faithfully, but also because the subject matter which those systems represent is so dry. Research suggests that pure curiosity seldom pulls much motivational weight on its own; people need the possibility of external rewards. (See “Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation: An Approach/Avoidance Reformulation,” Covington and Mueller, Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, pg. 162, 2001.) The effectiveness of pure curiosity as a motivator diminishes with age as the subjects studied become more complicated, free time shrinks, and people face increasing responsibility for performing the dull, repetitive tasks that make up much of adult life. (“Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions,” Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, pg. 162, 2000.)

You can reality-check this conclusion with a quick thought experiment. Are you going to go to the library and teach yourself protein folding and organic chemistry during your free time out of sheer curiosity? Do you have the time to do that even if you wanted to? There are organic chemists who have taken the time to learn these things, granted, but they have outside inducements motivating them: a career, with its attendant money and respect. If you don’t have the promise of a career tempting you, what is going to make you want to fold proteins? This is why FoldIt is important: it motivates people where nothing else will. And anecdotally, at least, it seems to work. Lest anyone forget, FoldIt players made a breakthrough in AIDS research last month that had eluded researchers for decades. Many gaming news sites were happy to report on the breakthrough, but none seemed to draw the connection between FoldIt’s success and gamification.


Gamification is no substitute for proper game design, but it’s not bullshit either. It’s a tool, one that can be used for good or ill. And under limited circumstances, gamification seems to have a lot of promise: circumstances where you have (1) a socially beneficial subject (2) whose systems need to be reproduced faithfully, and (3) the subject is too dull or too complicated to expect one to pick up and learn in one’s free time without external inducements.

I don’t believe reality is broken–but if gamification can spruce it up a bit around the edges, I think it’s a little early in the game to begrudge it the opportunity.