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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  • Kathy Sierra

    The leading marketing consultant in a field is the best person to present an “earnest critique” of his own work? Interesting. You’ve side-stepped the real arguments by bringing up misleading/wrong examples, but I’ll leave readers with your own quotes to evaluate whether you’ve got the ethical credibility to present an intellectually honest “critique”:

    This is you, describing the benefits of gamification to other marketers:

    “Games are the only force in the known universe that can get people to take actions against their self-interest, in a predictable way, without using force.”

    “Depending on consumers’ intrinsic motivation to take actions for you as a brand is over”.

    “Simply put game mechanics and the psychological conditions they exploit are powerful tools that marketers can use…”

    …and on your personal favorite example of exploiting psychological conditions, Frequent Flyer and other “loyalty” programs:

    “In fact, the vast majority of frequent flyers have fallen victim to the power of a well-designed [gamification] application, traveling out of the way, overspending, and jeopardizing their relationships…”

    • I really appreciate being nominated as the leading marketing consultant. :) It is true that I’ve worked with a sizeable chunk of the Fortune 50, helping them think strategically about gamification and design experiences. I’ve also been asked to speak at a good number of great events like the recent TED Kids, Web2, OSCON and others about the future of society in a gamified world. And, I get to have fun making books and videos with the lovely folks at O’Reilly (see above and consider ordering both of them today).

      So I’m cool with marketing.

      The precise point of this article was to not sidestep any substantive discussion. I’ve summarized the three big issues with gamification as I see them – from the hundreds of companies I interact and work with, thousands of hours my team and I spend looking at the state of the art, proprietary data/new ideas I get to review and comment on, and dozens of in-person discussions I regularly have.

      People deserve a good discussion, not just ad-hominem driven ranting and raving. The Internet has plenty of that. :)


  • Kathy Sierra

    On your point #1, “Over-Justification”, you either misunderstand it completely or are intentionally misleading with an example using piano recitals or other forms of competition. Over-justification is about the effect of operant conditioning reinforcements, NOT competitive events.

    The research includes:

    * Kids playing with markers and making drawings drew LESS when given ribbons for drawing

    * Children given certificates and trophies for playing math games showed decreased interest in the math games

    * Writers rewarded for writing poems wrote lower-quality poems

    * And the one that in many ways started it all… monkeys rewarded for solving puzzles made more errors and solved fewer puzzles than the unrewarded monkeys.

    Over-justification is about the Skinner box operant conditioning effect, not competitive events like recitals. The key mechanics gamification uses: points, badges, achievements, etc. sits directly in the operant conditioning “sweet spot”. And by sweet I mean potentially de-motivating in areas that *could* have been intrinsically motivating.

    As I’ve said before, education already suffers from enough problems without hammering in the final nail by misapplied extrinsic rewards.

    And for more research, please read the three decades-worth of studies on Self-Determination Theory. We’re not talking about problems that occur just for “gifted children”. We’re talking about psychological effects on *all* children (and adults).

    • In my undergrad work on the psychology of gifted children at the University of Waterloo, we looked very closely at the overjustification and replacement as a core concern when building motivational systems for gifted and talented kids.

      There is a great deal of controversy about the external rewards-outcomes loop. Multiple research reviews and empirical studies doubt the existence of an incentives-behavioral diminishment loop, including work by Deci, Koestner and Ryan. The performance reduction observed in work by Lepper and Green is less empirical, repeatable and valid in the face of real-world evidence than the concern about extinguishment (intrinsic behaviors being killed by extrinsic rewards)

      Even as we accept the existence of overjustification, we must consider the prescriptive outcome of the “external rewards fail to produce greatness” hypothesis (as I posit in the article). We live in an externally-driven world, in which things of great importance (money, status, power) are all extrinsically driven. Without successfully aligning to external reward, people fail. There is no future in which our children can succeed purely on the basis of their intrinsic motivation…unless they start life very wealthy.

      As I plainly state, wherever possible we should align intrinsic motivation and extrinsic rewards in gamified design. But demonizing extrinsic rewards sounds utopian, unrealistic and recklessly bourgeois.


  • I think that from a motivation perspective, gamification is best for identifying and supporting short-term goals based on the most successful models that currently exist. Part of the problem is with linking gamification tools to long-term intrinsic motivation, but the biggest challenge to this is that our deepest motivations aren’t necessarily reflected in the tools we use to track progress. For instance, when I was a kid, I put a star up on a board each time I practiced a cello piece and got rewards after a certain number of stars. Was that board part of my intrinsic motivation? I’d argue that the whole reward process was secondary to my core interests, but the “gamification” aspect at that point had no inputs and outputs to reflect my artistic goals or academic interests.

    Although gamification can be programmed to reflect intrinsic interests and pressures as well, I think it’s more important to create a social aspect for ongoing analysis of those key internal interests that need to be integrated into a gamification environment. This would require a level of psychological input (or at least complicated testing that simulates multi-tier psychological analysis) that programmers aren’t quite ready for yet. If someone cracks that code, though, the role of gamification in promoting long-term behavior change and loyalty starts coming into play. The reverse engineering of social behavior back to managing individual behavior is still very much a work-in-progress.

  • Kathy Sierra

    @Hyoun: gamification marketers are moving forward without pause, and providing services to educators, parents, and sustainable business initiatives. I’m not suggesting we don’t use it; I’m saying we need to proceed CAREFULLY given the potential risks *in some areas*.

    Unlike games, the loss of intrinsic motivation in key areas may not allow for a REPLAY. The damage can be forever. So while gamification may not be a Silver Bullet for education, it may still be a bullet. And when the people promoting it for profit are the ones telling us how it should/can be used, there’s a conflict of interest.

    Not that I expected anyone selling gamification services to call it Skinnerboxification. Today’s version of gamification (not to be confused with actual games, serious games, playfulness, simulations, etc.) is based on the most manipulative forms of behavioral psych, primarily operant conditioning. Yes, it’s far more subtle than that, but that’s my main point… we should be moving with far more caution until we have a better idea about the deeper, long-term implications.

    I’m not an expert in any of this, but possess just enough technical knowledge on the topic to be worried. And no, Gabe, I’m not concerned “because I like to see an epic battle between good and evil”, but excellent spin.

  • Kathy Sierra

    “. I’ve also been asked to speak at a good number of great events like the recent TED Kids”

    That’s what scares some of us.

    You’re still not addressing the decades of research related to kids and operant conditioning. If you feel this is just “ranting and raving”, you’re not taking the deeper issue seriously enough.

  • Kathy Sierra

    “There is no future in which our children can succeed purely on the basis of their intrinsic motivation”

    Totally agree.

    Those like me who emphasize caution in some areas are definitely *NOT* anti-extrinsic reward. This is not a binary extrinsic vs. intrinsic argument. We are PRO-let’s-do-this-carefully-when-it-matters.

    We have not seen gamification marketing accurately describe the key distinctions, and without the subtle understanding, there is every reason to be cautious. Example: the recent Saatchi & Saatchi study was retweeted/reblogged/headlined in major publications with the conclusion that employees want to work for employers using *gamification*. Yet the question asked of the employees was about employers using *games*. This distinction matters. If the gamification people using these studies are not making careful and crucial distinctions, then we don’t have a lot of confidence that the far more subtle distinctions are clear to them, and it is those subtle edges where the real problems live.

    Again, if the downside to misapplied extrinsic reward was simply “didn’t really work”, then it wouldn’t be a big deal. But we’re sort of playing with fire using operant conditioning, and very few people know how and where to draw those lines. I don’t know exactly where the lines are, and I’ve studied my butt off.

    I’m advocating a PAUSE button on forging ahead with the operant conditioning applied to education, especially. Games, fun, playfulness, all good. But the “key mechanics” as you’ve described them are an entirely different story.

    That you’re willing to sweep aside SO much research, by so many people, over so many decades is also hard for me to understand. Even if you somehow disagree with *all* of the science, there’s a pile of evidence that we should at the least be *cautious*, in the areas where it matters. Like education. Marketing folks are leading the conversation for educators and parents, and paying lip service to caution while still plowing forward.

    I’ll restrict my arguments to this issue, since whether it’s ethical for brands to use operant conditioning in this way is not my call.

    Disclosure: I was once a designer and builder of games (and gamification-ish programs) marketed to children. I suppose a reformed gamifier is as obnoxious as a reformed smoker. I’ll tone it down.

    • Kathy – you’re obviously passionate about the subject!

      I love your contribution to the discussion, and would like to invite you to join us as a speaker at Gamification Summit in NYC – I think your passion and insight would be great, and we could have you do an inspirational, TED-like talk on what you see as the risks for educators, parents and society.

      It would be a great opportunity for you to speak to the audience of folks most engaged with the subject and make your case to the thousands more who watch the videos and network around our content.

      I’d love to have you there, and I’m sure the audience would as well. You can get my contact info from the O’Reilly folks!


  • Kathy Sierra

    I appreciate the offer, Gabe, but as I said, I’m not an expert in this topic and you already have plenty of folks who *are*. Passion doesn’t equal expertise, and the paying attendees of your summit deserve better than my passionate rants. What I *hope* they get is practical insight into these deeper issues, and I’m sure some of your presenters will be providing that.

    I’m also sure that just *having* a debate around this is good for everyone, regardless of which view they take. My goal now is just to keep inserting a PAUSE button. Maybe a THINK AGAIN button would be awesome, too :)

  • The person sitting next to you in church, the man in line at the grocery store, or one of your co-workers; any one of these could be involved with a gambling problem. Imagine your grandmother committing a crime to support her gambling addiction. I am a recovering alcoholic, gambler, and have recovered from other addictive behaviors. I published a book, Gripped by Gambling, where the readers can follow the destructive path of the compulsive gambler, a prison sentence, and then on to the recovery road.

    I recently published a second book, Switching Addictions, describing additional issues that confront the recovering addict. If a person who has an addictive personality, doesn’t admit to at least two addictions, he’s not being honest. These are two books you might consider adding to your library. I also publish a free online newsletter, Women Helping Women, which has been on-line for more than ten years and is read by hundreds of women (and men) from around the world. ( I was interviewed and appeared on the 60 Minutes show in January 2011, which was moderated by Leslie Stahl.


    Marilyn Lancelot

  • Hi Gabe,
    let’s have a constructive debate, then :).

    *1. That word “gamification”*

    First off, I agree that the lasting value of “gamification” is that we now have one broadly-agreed-upon term — for proponents and critics alike. Our best chance of understanding each other is shared language. If I step in front of two dozen marketers and proclaim: “Spam automation platforms suck”, my audience will either simply not understand what I mean, or be hostile and defensive against anything I say afterwards. Both would be counterproductive. If I say “Most users feel like Customer Relationship Management software is actually just automated spamming, and here’s why”, there’s a chance for communication.

    I also agree that we should not mingle descriptive terms and value judgements — a bad apple is still an apple, bad game design is still game design. Also, we should not judge an apple by how good or bad an orange it is. Meaning, we shouldn’t complain that “gamified applications” do not live up to full-fledged games. Because they don’t intend to be full-fledged games in the first place.

    Still, that doesn’t speak against calling out misleading advertisement — which is what I see as the valid core of critiques against the term. If someone would sell me an apple as an “orangy fruit”, that apple is not just a “badly executed orange” or “badly executed orangy fruit”; it has nothing to do with oranges at all, and I would be justified to complain that it doesn’t look nor taste nor smell anything like an orange, and that calling it “orangy” is wilfully misleading.

    Likewise, if some untrained layman today advertised bloodletting as medicine, then that is not just *bad* medicine, its charlatanry, and any real doctor has all the right in the world to call that out. It would be bad medicine if that person actually subscribed to the existing body of medical knowledge and practices and just wasn’t very skilled in applying it.

    Along those lines, if someone today purports something to be game design, or “gamy design”, or “gamification”, and a trained, experienced game designer says: This has nothing to do with games or game design at all, I think they deserve a hearing.

    Again, “gamification” is not exactly the same as “game design”. But if that’s the only defense, then it’s just sophistry of the kind of: “Don’t accuse me! See, I don’t sell ‘oranges’ – I sell ‘orangy fruits’!” It would willfully mislead customers into believing the practice or product carried all the qualities associated with the original practice or product, although it does not. And that is the point people like Margaret Robertson make when she says: “Don’t call what you do ‘gamification’, call it ‘pointsification'”. Because she thinks to do otherwise is intentionally misleading.

    Which raises the question: Is what is today practiced as “gamification” just an (admittedly often badly executed) orangy fruit, or is it an apple? And that leads me to your point on overjustification and intrinsic/extrinsic motivation.

    *2. Intrinsic motivation and the overjustification effect*

    You see, to me, the whole “overjustification” debate just sidesteps the real issue regarding intrinsic/extrinsic motivation and “gamification”.

    The issue is not that extrinsic rewards might thwart intrinsic motivation (more on that below), or that one ‘should also include intrinsic motivation’, as you put it: “aligning internal and external benefits makes gamified apps that much better”.

    The issue is: Why – in the context of games – talk about extrinsic incentives *in the first place*? The fun in games – and therefore, the core goal and strategies of game design – is not about extrinsic incentives. Games are not fun and engaging because they “reinforce” (behaviorese) or “incent” (economese) certain activities with “virtual rewards” (points, badges, etc., or “status, access, power, stuff” in your words).

    All peer-reviewed empirical research on the motivational pull of video games that I know of says so — if you know of one peer-reviewed empirical study that says otherwise, do let me know. All game designers I spoke to say so: Their practice does not center around questions like, “How do I incentivize the player to move Mario to the end of the level? Are 1,000 gold coins and two power-ups enough?” But rather, “Is having to jump Mario over that chasm in that level an interesting challenge? Will two power-ups make that level *too easy*?” We usually don’t play Minesweeper in the office for some incentive — if anything, there’s a heavy social disincentive by your boss. When we are exhilirated to have navigated Mario to the end of a level, we do not feel good because finishing the level gave us some “status, access, power, stuff”. But because of the intrinsic enjoyment of the activity, however you want to slice that (with Ryan & Deci’s competence, autonomy, relatedness, with Nicole Lazzaro’s four fun keys, with Marc LeBlanc’s eight kinds of fun, whatever).

    That is why “gamification”, if portrayed and practised as the deployment of (virtual) reward systems – as you do consistently both in “Game-Based Marketing” and “Gamification by Design” –, is not just *bad* game design, but no game design at all, not even “gamy design”. It is an apple, not a badly done orangy fruit. If you frame a design problem as “how to incentivize users to do X?”, you are not engaging in game/y design – *and* you are missing 99% of the motivational potential of games. If you frame that design problem as “how to make X an interesting challenge?”, you engage in game design.

    That doesn’t mean that an “expert” badge and 10,000 reputation points in an online community do not appeal to a person’s need for social recognition, or that unlocking access to premium content, gaining power over other users as a moderator, or even a swag bag might motivate people to do stuff. It’s just that all of them are not at the core of what makes *games* motivating. (It is also not at the core of what motivates engagement in online communities, at least according to two decades of research into online participation).

    But if you claim that these are *the* powerful motivators at the core of games, then you do not engage with the body of knowledge and practices which comprises game design, and to call that “gamification” (“orangy fruit”) is misleading.

    Again, that doesn’t mean we should immediately stop using the term “gamification”, or that the use of game design in non-game contexts is inherently broken or morally evil: I think it’s a big, still unfulfilled promise. But if I encounter someone who frames a design problem as “how do I incent behavior X with virtual rewards”, I’m thankful to Margaret Robertson to be able to call that out as “pointsification”.

    With that out of the way, let’s turn to the overjustification effect, shall we?

    First, “winning and then losing at conservatory competitions may stop your child’s piano playing for good” is plainly not true. The “hidden costs of extrinsic rewards” are not about “behavior extinguishment” or “negative reinforcement”, and they don’t end at thwarting intrinsic motivation. They are, following Cognitive Evaluation Theory, dozens of empirical studies and several meta-reviews, about whether I perceive an extrinsic reward as an outer attempt to control my behavior, which thwarts my experience of autonomy in the situation, which is part of my intrinsic motivation to perform the behavior. Losing at a competition or “removing a given reward” are not causal for reducing intrinsic motivation – feeling controlled by others is. There is no simple either/or in intrinsic/extrinsic — there is a continuum of how much you have integrated a regulation.

    Thus, the hidden costs of extrinsic rewards does not mean that parents should not encourage their kids to take part in a competition, or praise them for winning. Nor should they urge their kids to “drop out of the system” in utter disregard of their economic wellbeing. They should just pay attention whether the encouragement and praise they give is perceived as informational – containing helpful information about how to improve myself – or controlling.

    On competition. Again, the question is: Is competition experienced as being forced upon me (then it reduces intrinsic motivation), or not? Also, no-one doubts that social life contains competition. But: Societies and groups differ in their degree of competitiveness. People differ strongly in their appetite for competition. Competitiveness can have serious negative effects on group performance. And many games are not about zero-sum competitions.

    On economies. No-one working on intrinsic motivation I know of argues to remove salaries or job role differentiation. Both are an important part of work organization. But even there, studies in organisational psychology show that managing with incentives has serious downsides, and its effectiveness is very limited. Fair salaries are “hygiene factors” – we are demotivated when we feel unfairly compensated in comparison to our peers. When we feel fairly payed, an added bonus does little to our motivation.

    Finally, on long-term effects. Research indicates that people can be stabily control- or autonomy-oriented, meaning that they tend toward either being predominantly intrinsically motivated or extrinsically motivated. People also stabily differ in what Carol Dweck has called “fixed versus growth” mindset, meaning whether they consider human capacity to be mostly fixed or plastic. This translates into tendencies to either constantly prove yourself in the outcomes you produce, or to exert effort to grow your skills. Now a strong control orientation means you tend to have a lower capacity to self-regulate. Both autonomy orientation and growth mindset have been shown to be more wholesome in terms of long-term mental wellbeing. Both autonomy orientation and growth mindset have been correlated with more effort and higher quality in work contexts. And: Although these are relatively stable tendencies, orientation and mindset can be trained and untrained. That is the true long-term danger of a world predominantly operating via controlling extrinsic rewards and social competitions which are about showing off status and achievement, not about learning and growth: They train people into mindsets and orientations which are not wholesome for themselves, nor society at large.

    I acknowledge that you frame the whole issue from a behaviorist standpoint, whereas Ryan & Deci come from a cognitivist standpoint. I also acknowledge that there’s an academic infight between them and Eisenberger and Cameron along those precise lines. To argue why I follow Ryan & Deci rather than Eisenberger and Cameron, we’d have to dissect the whole issue of behaviorism and their mutual meta-reviews and critiques here (though I’m up for it :).

    But that’s not the point. The point, as I said, is: Once you acknowledge that there is something as intrinsic motivation, and that *games* are first and foremost about intrinsic motivation, why associate the design of systems of extrinsic incentives with games by calling them “gamification”? If you want to lend something the motivational pull of games, why not deal predominantly with the ways they spur intrinsic motivation?

    *3. True cost of ownership*

    Your points here are well-taken, but again let me open them to the larger issue of *longevity*. Almost every game is exhausted, played through sooner or later (with a few exceptions of very deep games, like Poker or Go). The more shallow the game, the shorter its life span. So where is the empirical data on the long-term effectiveness and cost-benefit efficiency of gamification? Unless someone shows me the data, I would object to claiming that gamification is “delivering unprecedented results”.

    *4. Ethics, aka “addiction/compulsion”*

    Addiction is a big, contentious, consequential word. We should be wary in using it, and we should be wary in throwing different things – like gambling and games – into one bucket. When it comes to gaming and addiction, the research jury is still very much out there.

    Also, I would strongly object your “non-coercive influence” picture that the flow state – or games when they afford flow – make us docile. Not only does that ignore research on the importance of moral justification for in-game events (we wouldn’t play a “Gulag Manager” with the same ease as “SimCity”). Also, it ignores the fact that when we play a game, we voluntarily chose to do so – so when we agree to go with the goals of the game, then because we decided to.

    But again, there’s a broader issue at stake here: ethics. And I welcome that you call that issue out. At it’s heart, you seem to advocate a position of “informed consent” – a position also common in e.g. persuasive technology. Now that’s a nice principle in principle, but it usually breaks down pretty quickly once we come to actual ethical decisions in real life – just take smoking. And there are many other ways of thinking through ethics – based on effects, intentions, or virtues and values. You yourself appeal to the “good intentions” of your projects, beyond “informed consent”. What’s the long-term individual and societal impact of the ways of perception and behavior our applications afford (think orientation and mindset)? What are the values we communicate? These are things to talk about.

    *5. “A good, substantive critique of gamification”*

    Yes, we deserve that. In the past months, many people, including myself, have raised a broad scope of issues, beyond knee-jerk reactions. Overjustification, true cost of ownership, and ethics are but a fraction of them. What about unintended side effects? Constraints of applicability? Blind spots (play, story, game feel)? Overselling as an easy and cheap “turnkey” panacea? Plainly missing the point of what makes games and play fun? I concur that using game design in non-game contexts can be done badly, or well. We have to distinguish between a tool and its uses. But if 95% of these uses are executed poorly, that becomes an issue.


    • Sebastian:

      I always love your thoughtful (and artful) commentary. This one is the length of a post in itself, so it makes it extra fun to work with. :) Here are some thoughts about your thoughts:

      SEMANTICS: We’re not that different in our perspectives here, but you make two contextual errors that I think are worth pointing out.

      First off – you’re a multilingual person, so you’ll probably appreciate that your whole apple-orange analogy hinges on the English (and German) words in the example. Just as a relativist counterpoint – in Dutch, an orange is a sinaasappel – effectively a Chinese apple. :) In Hebrew, the difference between an apple and an orange is fairly small. You are (conveniently) defining games and gamification *to your liking*, then drawing a conclusion that one misrepresnts the other. :)

      To my original point – no one can define games effectively beyond their mechanistic constraints (e.g. two people agreeing on a set of rules and win conditions and suspending the real world…etc) so I fail to see how you can choose your own definition of games and then suggest that gamification misrepresents it.

      Second, your definition of the intrinsic/extrinsic behavior of games ignores a lot of the evolution in game design towards social, multiplayer experiences. Games like World of Warcraft and Farmville – among the two most popular games of all time – don’t fit your definition of intrinsic-reward-challenge design very well. I think this is the reason Zynga games have been so confounding to “establishment” designers…e.g. “why do people like this ridiculous Farmville thing…it’s barely a game.” At some point we must realize that shifting consumer tastes affect the definition of games. :)

      On the question of overjustification – I’m not arguing at all that intrinsic motivational alignment doesn’t produce excellent results…merely that the arguments again extrinsic motivation always fail when subjected to the “reality” test. Whether we like it or not, extrinsic rewards *do* generate a lot of behavior in the world, and while intrinsic motivations/achievement loops *might* be better, they are almost indistinguishable.

      Bob (in another comment here) pointed out that the intrinsic/extrinsic argument is somewhat tautological. We can’t separate them easily, and they are both constructs of social science (so the definition is flexible). But I think it’s inescapable that for many “problems” (e.g. obesity, lowered reading levels, poor civic participation, etc) our intrinsically-driven interventions have failed. We need to shift to an aligned model where we bring extrinsic rewards (that is, delivered by the system) to bear to move players through their intrinsic process of mastery.

      And lastly – you closed your thoughtful commentary with “if 95% of these [gamified] uses are executed poorly…” I think that’s a good point, except you have the proportion of success to failure exactly wrong. :) I’m writing a good summary article right now on some of the biggest successes to date, and what I hear – consistently – is that even the small, incremental and test interventions that companies have implemented thus far are having extraordinary effects.

      That is the reason that interest in gamification is so strong, attendance at GSummit is so robust, etc. Gamification techniques are actually, really working – and we’ve got the data to prove it.

      There will always be failures, and I don’t mean to suggest that the vast majority of gamification projects will always succeed. But nothing worth having is that easy. :)

  • Wow. These are wildly divergent threads. So permit me a ramble, too.

    As someone whose framework is environmental design, I find it difficult to understand the rather dry and abstract dispute about intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards. These are social constructs invented by social scientists to separate the phenomenal from the nouminal the better to measure the immeasurable: human experience. The mesh of the intrinsic and the extrinsic, at least in the world of everyday experience, is total. All game designers have done is find a way to tear the heart out of the play beast and keep it beating. Such is the extrinsic. Wanting to repossess it is intrinsic.

    The other issues dealing with gaming’s ethics and morality must be extended way beyond gaming as formalized — or formularized — in boxed or networked products. Games are everywhere and so are these issues.

    So…is gamification the process of highlighting and then reintegrating experiences that formal games have only artificially distilled from our usual,more abundant and complex life experiences?

    For many if not most people, all life is a game comprising innumerable subgames and a subgame in a larger play (History or Nature or God or the Cosmos). Fiction writers — and for that matter, historians and biographers — often see the linkages between phenomena as constituting a game. Otherwise, there are no good reasons for things to happen as they do.

    In the narrow case of marketing and “addiction,” the justification given is that we all adhere to the capitalist system of risk and reward. The reality is that many if not most Americans (since that is our audience here) do not adhere to capitalist ideology — most of us do not want to live in a human jungle — but we play the game anyway because if we don’t, the consequences externally and internally, each often exacerbating the other, compel us to return to work paid for in money.

    Staging a revolution is another game not engaged in lightly. Besides being physically risky, it is entirely open-ended. Even if successful, you often don’t get what you wished for.

    Are we addicted to capitalism, for most of us the biggest social game in which we play, because we are compelled to play? Good question. The same is true of other compulsions and addictions.

    Which brings us to the biggest issue of all: if most of the social exchanges in which we already engage are games within games — infinitely nested games — how does gamification work best?

    • A. By reintroducing to everyday environments and behaviors fragments of formal boxed and networked games, games that are infinitely simpler in concept and execution than our common experience? Does World of Warcraft, for example, contain new, actionable ways to conceive of and deal with violent situations?

    • B. Or by calling out our experiences that are already “gamified” (and that have been for centuries or even millennia) and seeking their enhancement or diminution? That’s what religious and political reform are all about, games about games.

    Until gamification advocates get that straight, gamification’s value-add will remain controversial. (PS Gabe is very good at value add in his consultations — but which is he doing, A or B?)

    Personally, because gamification highlights issues of experience design formerly taken for granted, it already has earned its place in my heart. But that’s as a framework, not a practice. The practice is still in formation; still a game.

  • Bert Bates

    Hi Gabe,

    Thanks for participating in this discussion.

    I have a question for you, and forgive me if you’ve answered this elsewhere.

    It would help me relate to your arguments if you could tell us about any well known games in which you’ve achieved a strong level of expertise. I’m thinking about games like chess, or go, or backgammon, or poker, or even Halo.

    I ask this because we humans, even when we’re working within our fields of expertise, rely partially on intangibles like intuition, gut feelings, empathy, and so on. We have mirror neurons. For instance, when I think about Foursquare or a frequent flyer program, I map it to my own personal experience. Without doing a lot of intellectual analysis, I can tell you that these implementations of “gamification” feel nothing like real games to me. In other words, if I put myself in my customers shoes, these things don’t “feel” right. They don’t feel in any way nourishing.

    A game of chess is nourishing. Foursquare is not.

    • Bert:

      I’m an expert player of Civilization (3, 4, iPad and iPhone), Flight Control, Plants vs Zombies, Diner Dash (original), Chocolatier and Peggle. I also love games like Euchre, whist, bridge and catan and once I’m in the zone am pretty good. I’m a very good player of the game 66 as played with Hungarian cards (magyar kartya). :)

      I don’t argue that gamified experiences and games are different. Nor should they necessarily evoke the same response in users at all. But sometimes they do. :) Gamification is a process of applying game thinking and game mechanics to solve problems and engage users. It manifests itself differently each time.

  • Kathy Sierra

    Yes, what Sebastian said.
    And thanks especially, Sebastian, for dragging the extrinsic-vs.-intrinsic argument back up to the higher-level question: what is extrinsic reward doing as the centerpiece of *anything* driven by game design/thinking?

    I was arguing around what Gabe’s version of gamification *is* (incentivizing behavior), but that’s in sharp contrast to how gamification today is misleadingly and inaccurately *framed*: “Applying what makes games compelling to non-game problems.”

    (p.s. And thanks also for giving my family our favorite new metaphor: “that’s not a badly-executed orangy fruit… it’s an apple.”)

  • Elizabeth Ferguson

    Maybe Kathy Sierra can suggest another expert for the summit since she excludes herself. Since it looks like she feels that there be balance to the discussion it might be a great addition.

    Kathy notes “… I’m not an expert in this topic and you already have plenty of folks who *are*.” I supose this implies that the current speakers lined up “aren’t” experts (note to speakers – I think you were just insulted). Maybe she has a list of approved experts to add to the upcoming dialog?

  • @Bob:

    Thanks for grounding this debate in human experience, and thanks for calling out the tension between play and games. I fully agree with you that we all can and do perceive reality on multiple levels, through multiple frames, and that we also partake in multiple self-reproducing systems of implicit and explicit social conventions for perceiving and acting — “games”, in your metaphor. So if the engagement with literal games – explicit, artifical sets of rules and goals –, or with gamified systems helps us realize that the implicit rules and goals of society are likewise artificial, man-made, contingent, malleable; or if “gamification” would be indeed holistic in the sense that it takes into account and attempts to improve the whole “socio-technical system” of implicit and explicit conventions and goals reproduced by people and their artifacts: Yes, that comes much closer to the potential of game design in non-game contexts I see.



    I would disagree that I (re)define “games” and “gamification” to my liking. My point that using the word “gamification” for incentive system design is “misleading” hinges only on the fact that if speakers of the English language hear or read a word with “game” in it – like “gamification” –, and if that word then is also explicitly advertised as “unlocking the true power of games”, then speakers of the English language are very likely to associate that word and expect from it whatever experiences the word “game” denotes for them.

    Do I then single-handedly define what “game” (or “game design”) denote so that it suits my argument? No. I say: Here’s what research on the experience of gameplay tells us this experience looks like. Here’s what research says about the underlying psychological mechanisms. And here’s what practicioners building games for a living tell us the experience of gameplay is about and how to craft it. Those three show broad agreement, and that’s what I base my description of games, game design, the experience of gameplay and its psychology on.


    Speaking of FarmVille, that’s the source of my “don’t judge an apple by how good an orange it is” argument, an argument I made in defense of social games, against the prejudiced reaction among game designers (see The pleasures of games are complex, they are not *only* about challenge, of course – which is why I listed Ryan and Deci, Lazzaro, LeBlanc, because all of them make that crucial point: It’s multi-faceted, not just one thing. Why *are* WoW and FarmVille fun, then? Would you argue that those two exemplify games which are predominantly about status, access, power, stuff? The research on MMORPGs and social games I know of speaks about socializing. Killing time. Relaxation through mindless effectance, or as LeBlanc calls it, “submission” – the joy of reliably controlling a little piece of the world without much mental effort.

    The definition of extrinsic/intrinsic is not just “flexible” because they are scientific “constructs”. The whole point of scientific constructs is to point to stable regularities in intersubjectively observable and reproducible data, and to define and explain them in a network of other constructs and relations to make them as robust, inflexible, noncontingent as possible.

    Also, the distinction extrinsic/intrinsic points to differences in lived experience (What sense do you make of this offered reward? Do you experience it as an attempt to coerce/control you?), counter to the point that they are hard to distinguish in experience.

    And again, it’s never “intrinsic-OR-extrinsic”, or “extrinsic always = bad”. It’s a matter of form, perception and context. It’s only expected tangible rewards that are perceived as controlling which reliably reduce existing intrinsic motivation; they also reliably lead to other downsides — especially, they interfere with the quality and process of learning, and with the development of our capacity of autonomous self-regulation. So there are instances when to use extrinsic rewards, and instances when to abstain from them. The trouble comes when people sell them as a (new?) panacea in contexts where they likely do more harm than good.

    Yes, extrinsic rewards do generate a lot of behavior in the world. Yes, obesity, civic participation, school achievement etc. are still big unsolved social issues. But don’t confuse *insight* and *intrinsic motivation*.

    A public policy intervention grounded in concepts of intrinsic motivation – not rational insight – would focus on questions like: Does that obese person feel autonomous in making the choice to lose weight, or does he or she feel coerced and unfree in his or her choice? Is the next step in his or her weight loss plan overwhelmingly hard in light of his current perceived self-efficacy? How to build that sense of self-efficacy with baby steps of success? Does he or she feel supported by peers and family in doing so? Etc.

    In contrast, the majority of traditional public policy interventions is arguably still built on the assumption that people simply lack the necessary “insight”, “awareness”, or “information”. If only we knew, we would behave better. That view fails to take into account a lot of what we have learned in the past decades about the limits of our rationality and the deeply social, emotional, and habitual nature of human perception, cognition, and action. It also fails to take into account the way our environment affords and constraints them – partially, I agree, by way of misaligned incentives. Insight alone is usually not enough for lasting change (as I can tell from my own experience). You have to change the whole system, and untraining old habits, training new ones, and restructuring the environment are important components of that whole system change. So it’s “rational insight”-driven public policy interventions that mostly failed, not “intrinsic motivation”-driven ones.

    But in discussing this, we have silently sidestepped into a whole different field: We have moved from games, their pleasures and motivational pull, to behavior change and persuasive design. Nothing to be said against those – especially if you concur that sustainable behavior change requires changing the whole system of beliefs, conceptual models, attitudes, emotional associations, habits, social relations and environmental affordances, not just beliefs (the rational insight model) or just incentives (the behaviorist/homo oeconomicus model). Only that again, to frame extrinsic rewards (or their alignment with intrinsic ones) as “the true power of games” is misleading *and squandering the huge, untapped potential of games, play, and game design*.

    And lastly, on success/failure rates: Indeed, the data will tell, and if it tells that the majority of gamified applications are *long-term* successes, not just blips of transient novelty effects, I’m the first to welcome that. So as the saying goes: show me the data (and I’m sure I’m not the only one waiting).

  • Kathy Sierra

    Gabe: please address Sebastian’s real points. You’re side-stepping them.

    Also, as to English not being his first language, see: Ian Bogost and all the other native English speaking game designers and university scholars who agree with him that you are misleading people with the word “gamification”, for precisely the reasons Sebastian gave.

  • First off thank you all for the great discussion that is going on. I am thoroughly enjoying learning from all of you.

    I’m definitely *very* new to this world of gamification or pointsification or whatever you want to call it. I think though worrying about what word is being used to define it is moot. Ajax in programming rarely matches exactly with what the acronym stands for (asynchronous javascript and xml). HTML5 is used to refer to itself and CSS3 and non-CSS3 animations on web pages. Google is the name of a company and also means “search”, as in “I don’t know where that is, let me google it.” People are going to coin words or use existing words to mean things that aren’t exactly correct. It is part of the beautiful, messy, organic nature of language. You can argue till you’re blue in the face about whether the pieces of the word gamification truly represent this new area/field, but the word is out there now and seems to be sticking as the handle of choice by the media and non-experts so I’d say it is better to worry about the other much more important points that are being discussed here so well. They are definitely important things that I am grateful you are all constructively talking about. This thread has been a great education for me!

  • Kathy Sierra

    Gabe said:
    “Whether we like it or not, extrinsic rewards *do* generate a lot of behavior in the world, and while intrinsic motivations/achievement loops *might* be better, they are almost indistinguishable.”

    I cannot imagine you’re suggesting that behavior generated through extrinsic reward is somehow almost “indistinguishable” from intrinsically motivated behavior.

    If you are, though, that would explain a lot about why you keep dismissing the science and evading the real questions. You’re claiming expertise in a domain where virtually all professionals and scholars in the domain (game design, game research) oppose your conclusions.

  • @Kathy

    >You’re claiming expertise in a domain where virtually all professionals and scholars in the domain (game design, game research) oppose your conclusions.

    You can add professionals from the domains of advertising, marketing and consulting who take great exception to “gamification” as it’s being misinterpreted, rolled up and smeared across those industries.

    But there’s no arguing it. I refer you to Gabe’s article in the Huffington Post:

    “I don’t see genuine arguments against [gamification] or its power to change the world. All I hear are the angry ramblings of some scared old, white people who suddenly woke up and found out they no longer run the country.”

    Old, white, and awake, thank you,

  • @Tom:

    Thanks for your point — as I think it helps clarifying a potential misunderstanding of the argument I tried to make. I fully agree with you that there’s no point fighting a word when it has entered common language – which is why I don’t oppose using the word “gamification” (see my first post above).

    My argument is, as simply as possible: What makes games fun and engaging is that they are purpose-built to afford intrinsically enjoyable activity – activity that is full of experiences of achievement, competence and learning, control and effectance, autonomy, suspense and relief, surprise and novelty, meaning and resonance, belonging and bonding. Playing games is not fun because playing is outwardly rewarded – with points or cash or status or else. You play games because playing is inherently enjoyable, not because you receive a reward for playing.

    Yet Gabe and the majority of gamification vendors and proponents either unintentionally misunderstand or intentionally misportray the fun in games as “reward systems”, and therefore sell gamification as the design of reward systems, claiming to bring to products and services “the true power of games” with that.

    That’s the issue. That’s why many game designers have a point in saying: What they do has nothing to do with what makes games fun, so please don’t call it “game”-anything. Because that’s misleading people into believing it would.

    I have nothing against the word, nor the idea of using game design beyond games. My issue is with this misunderstanding/misportrayal of what makes games fun.

  • Brian

    I think a real issye may be that games become so advanced that they make invisible the company or marketing behind them.

  • Gamification101

    I disagree about gamification being a bad thing. The thought of normal everyday things becoming an engaging activity can really change the way people live in a good way.