The Explosion of Gamification and the Inevitable Backlash

In the last 2 years, the word Gamification has gained a lot of traction – gracing the tongue of many a marketer/business strategist.

Originally coined in 2004, Gamification describes the inclusion of video game-like reward systems in non-gaming environments, with the goals of altering or manipulating one’s behavior. The idea is, if you want someone to behave in a certain way concerning your product or task, you should offer them pavlovian-style rewards and level-based progression (ie. leveling-up). This will keep users engaged, motivated and focused on the goal that you have set for them.

But while the word may be relatively new, the actual concept is most definitely not. For years prior to the advent and introduction of the word “Gamification”, one could find tons of literature about game principles in business and some people calling for a “Game Revolution”. Plus teachers have been giving out gold stars for good behavior for some time! And what about behavioral science, behaviorism, & pavlov’s dogs? If gamification is just the repackaging of these theories from the first half of the last century (1900-1950), what makes it so attractive? Why are managers and executives jumping over themselves to try and incorporate this into their organizations?

Well the “gamification” craze actually stems mainly from the video-game industry, an industry that has been growing steadily since the 80s. Video game developers have been working for years to find new ways to motivate gamers and keep them in the game. So with the video-game market booming, some of their in-game strategies have caught the attention of other industries and organizations. Companies, especially those in other fast-paced media-related industries, are constantly watching for the latest trend or strategy. Gamification is quite simply trending.

We have also recently seen the introduction of gamification by a number of tech companies in the fast-growing app market. These companies are in essence testing out these video game strategies in new contexts, and so far some seem to be achieving great success with them. The most widely cited example is Foursquare, a very successful mobile application where highly active users are rewarded with badges, titles and discount deals.

The benefits of gamification

In some cases the introduction of videogame-principles within a new domain has produced incredible results.  The experiment with (as mentioned in Peter Diamandis‘ talk) offers an example of how gamification coupled with crowdsourcing can in some cases be used to solve complex scientific problems. Foldit is an online puzzle video game about protein folding and is a part of an experimental research project developed by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science & Department of Biochemistry. Anyone can learn how to “play”, but the puzzles that “gamer” are solving are not irrelevant. These solutions are analyzed as part of the  bio-chemical research being performed by scientists at UW. The results of some of the higher level protein folding puzzles can be used to solve “real-world” problems, such as targeting and eradicating diseases and/or creating biological innovations. shows that if you can break a complex problem down into many parts, then “gamify” these parts, creating small rewards for each part solved, you can motivate ordinary people to participate in solving really big problems. Without the set of rewards and the game-like feel of the program, many people never would have played and would not have provided their time and brainpower to solving these problem.

The burst of energy and excitement around gamification is most visible in Industry. Many companies are incorporating gamification into their marketing strategies in order to influence consumer habits and increase brand loyalty. On another side, there has been a boom in new start-ups offering mobile apps to help you quit smoking, exercise, eat better or generally live better using short term rewards and progress reports. Some companies are even embracing gamification internally in an attempt to get more productivity out of their employees.

But like all new trends, Gamification has been introduced, promoted, over-hyped and then torn down… all within a couple news cycles. The criticism of gamification seems to have emerged last summer, with a number of experts, bloggers and journalists changing their tones and calling it a BS trend.

So what are some of the criticisms?

Gamefication can demotivate genuinely interested individuals. As described in this article by Gabe Zichermann, children who have shown an affinity for a certain activity will sometimes loose interest in that activity once rewards or trophies are introduced. For example, if they were to have won a competition and then lost the next, their initial interest could easily die. As Zichemann puts it, they “can have that intrinsic desire extinguished by the introduction and subsequent removal of extrinsic rewards, such as trophies or cash”. Gamification in this case completely undermines their motivation to perform in the activity. So could gamification in essence promote the performance of an activity by those who don’t  truly genuinely enjoy the activity, at the expense of those that do?

What about delayed gratification? According to this New Yorker article, the Marshmallow Experiment with kids in the 60s showed that those students who delayed a reward as child, had an easier time with self-control and motivation later on. As a result they were likely to be successful on their SATs, had an easier time maintaining friendships and had fewer behavioral problems as teens. So I wonder, does the instant gratification of a reward-based strategy actually promote “good” behavior on the long term? If this is supposed to raise brand loyalty, will this loyalty actually last? New studies show that while location-based apps have a huge number of registered users, 99% of these aren’t using the service very much, only once a week or less. According to Sebastian Deterding’s great slide show (see below), this would suggest that this was “brief novelty effect burning through a large user base rather than a sustained, long-term engagement”.

Behavioral control is kinda evil, no? Well obviously it has a bad ring to it. I don’t think anyone particularly likes the idea that they are being manipulated to do what the company wants them to. I wonder if eventually this wouldn’t just make people kinda resentful. Ian Boggost explores this perspective in his blog entry about the topic, writing:

“The very point of gamification is to make the sale as easy as possible.

I’ve suggested the term “exploitationware” as a more accurate name for gamification’s true purpose, for those of us still interested in truth. Exploitationware captures gamifiers’ real intentions: a grifter’s game, pursued to capitalize on a cultural moment, through services about which they have questionable expertise, to bring about results meant to last only long enough to pad their bank accounts before the next bullshit trend comes along.”

Here is Sebastian Deterding’s presentation about the trouble with gamification:

So should we go with gamification, or not?

Look, we will likely never find a one-size fits all solution to all the worlds problems (although I know the fanatics out there wish that such a solution existed). For certain things gamification can be a huge productivity booster, for others it is completely inappropriate! Imagine a doctor working in a gamified environment! Yay, the patient lives, level up + reputation points. Boo, the patient dies, lose 5 career points and skip a turn.

So like all tools and trends, Gamification won’t necessarily work for all people or all tasks all of the time. Gamification can help with menial tasks and changing personal behavior (on the short-term). But we shouldn’t assume that this one strategy can have a sustainable impact alone. There are many other ways to motivate people to action, such as through team work, collaboration, genuine interest, belief in a project, general curiosity(as discussed in my article about the Future of Education), positive attitude about work, strong leadership, etc.

We should not reject gamification, but let’s think about it as one piece of a larger puzzle.

If we want to improve efficiency within organizations, increase customer loyalty, or change our behavior for the good, then let’s exert some of that delayed gratification – and not backflip blindly into new trends the minute they come along.