Gamification has issues, but they aren't the ones everyone focuses on

Gamification expert Gabe Zichermann on three areas that deserve meaningful attention.

Critics of the gamification movement — mostly composed of
academics and traditional game developers — have written a range
of impassioned blog posts and gone on rants at legacy game industry

I think you deserve to hear a good, substantive critique of
gamification. That’s why I ensured that opposing viewpoints were heard
— unobstructed — at GSummit in San Francisco, and why they will once
again be front and center at Gamification
Summit NYC
in September. That’s also why I’ve decided to write an
earnest critique of gamification here. I’ll present the arguments that
I think are meaningful and important, and you can decide if you agree.
Constructive dialogue welcome.

Let’s get a few common arguments out of the way up front.

First, that the word “gamification” itself is inappropriate
or bad. The term has entered the popular lexicon, rising from
nearly zero hits on Google 18 months ago, to around 900,000 today (and
climbing). As with most powerful tech neologisms, it’s probably not
going anywhere, and no small part of its success is that it genuinely
is the first viable term to encapsulate the concept of using game
concepts outside of games. It has also hit the zeitgeist at the
appropriate time.

gamification interest chart
This chart shows interest in gamification from January 2010 to June 2011. (Click for additional information from Google Insights for Search.)

Semantically, many game developers also argue that gamification
demeans “games,” quickly forgetting the fluidity of market
categorization. At one time or another in the past decade, casinos,
amusement parks, virtual worlds, casual, mobile and social games have
all been questioned as belonging to the games industry. The simplest
and best argument I’ve heard for this was made by Nick
Fortugno, co-founder of Playmatics and designer of hit casual game
Diner Dash: “Gamification is to games as jingles are to music.” In
summary: they are different but related disciplines that leverage
similar techniques and technologies.

The argument made most often, and least compellingly by detractors
is in essence that bad gamification is
bad. Sometimes this takes on a solipsistic angle (“I don’t
like Farmville, so it’s bad”), and is almost always condescending to
the hundreds of millions of people who engage actively with these
gamified experiences. These critics seem to be arguing that if marketers,
enterprise architects, HR professionals or product designers get hold
of game mechanics, they are certain to demean the art form (worst-case)
or build something pointless (best-case).

Obviously, these arguments are circular. Any bad design is
inherently bad — and terrible games suck just as much as bad
film (though with generally far less camp value). Every game designer
has some successes, and some failures — the same is true of most
marketers, product designers, book publishers and entrepreneurs.
Businesses seeking gamification almost always want to hire skilled,
experienced game design talent — and I believe the market will demand more
than 10,000 trained designers in the coming decade for industry,
government and non-profit gamified design. Game designers can readily
be part of the solution if they choose.

Now let’s talk about the important stuff. In my opinion, there are
three credible concerns about gamification that require further
scientific inquiry and should be explored.

Replacement and over-justification

In my undergraduate work, I studied the psychology of gifted
children. Prominently featured in the literature was a concept called
over-justification. In over-justification, children who are intrinsically motivated toward a specific activity — playing piano, say — can have that intrinsic desire extinguished by the
introduction and subsequent removal of extrinsic
rewards, such as trophies or cash. So even if your child always loved
to play the piano, winning and then losing at conservatory
competitions may stop your child’s piano playing for good. In a sense,
their intrinsic desire to play was extinguished by a failure to
maintain continuous rewards from the outside reward system.

Though the behavior extinguishment loop is well documented, what to
do about it is another issue entirely. Taken to its logical extreme,
this phenomenon argues for the complete elimination of external reward
and competition. It would seem that in order to preserve intrinsic
motivation, parents should never encourage their children to compete
at something they naturally care about, lest that spark be eliminated.

Obviously, that’s facile. Competition is part of our society and
always has been. Moreover, extrinsic rewards are essential in
capitalism (our salaries, bonuses, dividends, titles, etc. are all
forms of extrinsic rewards). We can’t remove them without dismantling
our economy — and why would we? If you are successful at
pursuing your intrinsic dreams, over-justification isn’t a problem;
successful piano players generally don’t suffer a lack of motivation.
The best thing parents (and designers) can do with the knowledge of
over-justification is to teach children how to combat negative
reinforcement so they have the emotional strength to overcome

But if intrinsic motivations are ignored in gamified design, the
resulting product is likely to be shallow, with engagement loops to
match. This means that aligning internal and external benefits makes
gamified apps that much better. It also means that gamified apps that
are designed from scratch have an inherent advantage over those where
gamification is added later.

True cost of ownership

As a relatively new field, total cost of ownership is a misunderstood concept in gamification. In most kinds of marketing programs — even those with long lifespans — there are
finite ends to promotions based on either time or budget. By contrast,
gamified systems are more like multiplayer online games and loyalty
programs. Once users become accustomed to the interactions we design,
they expect the rewards to continue and evolve with both their mastery
and tastes.

Even a few years ago, gamifying something meant building the whole
tech infrastructure from scratch — a costly exercise that is no
longer necessary due to the work of companies like Badgeville and BunchBall. Today, the biggest up-front cost of gamifying something is in the design and testing —
which is a boon to the market. However, there are critical ongoing
costs that are not always obvious, including compliance/legal costs
and economic balancing (if you’re running a virtual economy),
community management and policing, and continuous creative (avatars,
challenges, etc). If you use agile techniques to roll out
gamification, you can optimize the chances of success and phase
investment accordingly. Regardless, if you do your job right,
gamification is a multi-year project, and you must budget and prepare


Although we have many successful implementations, the long-term
effect of gamification on users is only starting to be understood. As
with over-justification, we can make certain assumptions based on the
psychological literature and comparable experiences, but we lack
direct data on harmful effects.

One thing that we can and must take responsibility for up-front is
the potential for people to become addicted to — and
substantially influenced by — gamified experiences. Unlike our
peers in the casino industry who advocate a Randian view of free will,
and game designers who repeatedly claim that users can easily
distinguish fact from fiction, gamification shows us a more nuanced

Games are the most powerful source of non-coercive influence in the
world, and are frequently designed with mild addiction and extreme flow in
mind. The latter effect in particular puts users into a state where
they are markedly more likely to accept what the system tells them,
and to respond to its stimuli (if only just to beat the level). We
cannot continue to argue the power of games to teach and engage on one
hand while ignoring the other side of the coin.

That’s why I advocate a voluntary code of conduct for gamification
design that vastly exceeds an ethics dialogue — let alone
standards of conduct — in games and gambling. At its heart, the
core concept is to allow users to make informed choices about their
engagement. It also means not using these techniques for anything that
would cause direct harm to users.

Without exception, every gamification project I’ve been involved
with has had good intentions, and I’ve seen little reason to worry
about nefarious actors. Game designers often like to see an epic
battle between good and evil — even where there isn’t one
— but that’s part of the charm. Even if there is no current
threat of harm from gamification designers, we should nonetheless have
the dialogue.

Fundamentally, gamification is a new industry and discipline that
is delivering unprecedented results across many different verticals.
The concept’s meteoric ascendance has given rise to a number of
debates, most of which have yet to capture meaningful issues in the
discussion. In outlining three viable concerns —
over-justification, total cost of ownership and addiction/compulsion
— I’ve endeavored to share some of the more substantive issues
that should be front and center in the dialogue.

Headed to OSCON in July? Be sure to catch Gabe’s session on using fun and engagement to build great software.


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