As neologism go, I have a thing for “gamification”. Not only is term totally misleading, it also acts as a vague umbrella for all kinds of ethically questionable practices. The buzzword bingo is strong with this article from MIT’s Technology Review, which goes and overextends the term to pretty much everything, including the Internet. Because, after all, what doesn’t benefit from making things fun and rewarding?

Also the otherwise excellent video series Extra Credits misses its mark with an episode on Gamification going as far as claiming how education could be improved by a liberal application of gamification dust. I’ll probably take Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas on improving education any day over that.

When Sir Ken Robertson talks about improving education by play, he does not mean “gamification” and it’s a shame to even use his name and that term in the same sentence. In my view, games are a subset of human (and animal) behaviour of play. Play is an essential part of our social behaviour and we use it to experiment and, importantly, to learn. That we use play to learn isn’t gamification either. Unlike play, games are rarely free-form. Games, by definition add rules around play, they codify it. They add purpose and so on.

I’d go as far as to say that we gamified warfare and now call it sports. When you pick up a baseball and go to a court to throw hoops, congratulations, you’re now playing basketball. However, the game basketball is totally different beast. Not only are score-taking introduced, but so are many new elements, like rules, objectives and an opponent.

In game theory terms and often in practice, a game always has an opponent, even if it’s just nature (who doesn’t care how you play). In a game of chess, you play against an intelligent adversary, and when you play roulette you play against randomness, chaos, nature, probabilities. Play often is collaborative, but games are very rarely purely cooperative. However, not once do the Extra Credits guys mention (behavioral) economics or game theory. It’s a bit of reinventing a wheel in a really disingenuous way.

What Extra Credits mostly talk in the video is mostly just about incentivizing and interaction. Or making things fun. But is it really “gamification”? Or is it just yet another empty neologism? You can give the benefit of doubt to Extra Credits and argue that what they mean by “gamification” is what it should be and what we see around is not real “gamification”.1

In addition to what I mentioned previously, games have usually a fixed ruleset and are in part because of that repeatable. They allow for experimentation and call for optimization2. Usually you have quite quick feedback loop which allows you to improve and experiment. Games are also usually fun or are played for recreation. Or even professionally. Life, for example, offers few of these qualities, yet many argue that life is the greatest of games. The rulesets aren’t fixed and feedback loops are often long. Life isn’t a MMORPG. That’s just delusional thinking and overextending a metaphor.

Neither is the Internet a game, or social media a game where you try to achieve social standing. Achievements, leaderboards, experimentation and decision-making do not originate from games. They are features of games. Coming back to the Technology Review article, which also pointed out that

What is the point of a game, after all, if not to hang out with your friends?

There are many games that do not require social interaction. Unless, of course, in today’s social gaming landscape the high score board in Minesweeper counts as hanging out with friends. This further proves that this discussion is difficult because people have wildly different ideas of what the core terms mean.

In the Wikipedia article on gamification, in the critique part, or the part that doesn’t advertise up-and-coming Silicon Valley startups, a Wikipedia editor says that

Others have noted that gamification sometimes misses elements such as storytelling and experiences which are central to what make games effective.

Yet, this critique is quite shallow as storytelling and experiences are not inherent to games. Unless, of course, we’re talking about a subset of modern computer games - which seems to be a very common mistake. There is very little of either in Minesweeper, or even chess. There is also very little storytelling in, say, a basketball match3.

Like social games, gamification is about forgetting or being oblivious to the history and the body of knowledge we already have. Just because there’s such thing as ludology (or the study of games), doesn’t mean that computer games are somewhat novel things we can learn new things from.

I would argue insetad that games like World of Warcraft and Farmville are just better at exploiting the human psychology and how it works in the real world. It’s not that Foursquare or Groupon are games; they exploit similar behavioral quirks but they are not games. But do not pretend this idea arose from ludology, human responding to incentives has been pretty well established social sciences stuff. As Mark J. Nelson points out in his post on “Soviet gamification”, we only need to go back about 100 years to find out what happened when gamification was applied on a national level.

[…] a problem a certain Vladimir Lenin was facing in 1917: How do we motivate workers, without resorting to paying them based on their work? […] Borrowing a symbolic-motivation strategy long used by armies, particularly productive factories or workers might be awarded a medal like the “Order of the Red Banner of Labor”.

If it were just an issue of historical credit and the name, that’s fine; people rebrand old things all the time. But the claim that we’ve never explored using game-like mechanics for non-entertainment purposes keeps us from using knowledge we actually have: gamification’s rhetoric claims that this is a new, unexplored space in which we’re just learning things for the first time. But in fact we already know a lot of things about how gamification works and doesn’t work, and have done a lot of thinking about the relationships between things like extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation, and gameplay, and pretending that we don’t know any of that isn’t a good way to make progress.

My only point to add to this would be that the author believes that the proponents of “gamification” want to make progress, I think they just want to make a quick buck.

Yet, the unethical part of “gamification” is rarely discussed, but it’s one of the main reasons business people are so interested in it. There is a dark side to “gamification”, because essentially it’s about altering people’s behavior, or as Wikipedia says, it “encourag[es] desired behaviors, taking advantage of humans’ psychological predisposition to engage in gaming”. Incentivizing people to behave in a certain way does not a game make. “Gamification” makes it sound neutral and fun, but a better word for this is either decision engineering, or a nudge4. Saying that you’re adding “game dynamics” to a “mundane tasks” raises the question what are these “game dynamics”?

I can understand how all this started as a well-intentioned attempt to make games serious. (not to be confused with serious games like MS Flight Simulator) and the links between gamification and serious games are easy to see. There are studies that show that surgeons who play games perform better. People are trying to gamify personal health, but didn’t Wii Fit already qualify as a serious game?

Ian Bogost argues that it’s all just about rhetoric and we should use the term exploitationware instead to ward off the snake oil salesmen. He goes even further and calls gamification bullshit.

I’m not being flip or glib or provocative. I’m speaking philosophically.

Another term for gamification is offered by Margaret Robertson:

Gamification is the wrong word for the right idea. The word for what’s happening at the moment is pointsification.

But I think she has it a bit wrong in that there’s not really anything new happening and while there might be a right idea, it’s hidden very deep. It’s all just old stuff repackaged in a shinier term and rhetoric. But she’s right in that the gamification exploitationware crowd is drawing from a very limited subset of a game designer’s toolbox. Skinner’s Box isn’t ludology. In a reply to Bogost’s piece, Jon Radoff adds:

There’s a great deal to be learned by businesses, designers and marketers by games. This concept has come to be known by the unfortunate term gamification. The problem is that gamificiation is generally caught-up in one of the game industry’s overarching myths—the idea that games are nothing more than Skinner boxes (“push-button, get cookie”), a part of behaviorist psychology which has largely been passed by advances in cognitive and evolutionary psychology over the past 50 years.

It’s interesting how the gaming side vilifies the term “gamification” and its practice because it demeans games. It would be interesting to see scientists from psychology and economics side step up and also call bullshit on “gamification’s” attempt at repackaging simple human behavior models for marketing purposes.

As an example, there is a bunch of code that allows you to bolt “gamification” on your app or website. There are many other tech startups who have similar stuff going on. I think this is a great example in that from the description it is clear that the intent of “gamififying” your website isn’t about your users, it’s about “increasing user interaction”, “tracking user participation” and increasing a user’s “time on site”.

To me the thing that really gets under my skin is that proponents of “gamification” act like decision engineering is a new thing emerging from games. From the website of the For the Win: The Serious Gamification Symposium5:

Gamification has emerged in the past three years as a means to apply learnings from the games industry to challenges such as customer engagement, productivity enhancement, and innovation.

Is “gamification” even appropriate in all circumstances? Obviously not, but very little is talked about the unintended consequences of just adding incentives for actions. If people really behaved in social situations like they do in games, they would in many cases be considered to be sociopaths. You know those people who use the most optimal combination of discount coupons? Are they considered as “winners” or “exploiters”? Repeated studies into the Ultimatum Game have shown that real people do not “play to win” it, but very little is needed to get people to cooperate and play fair.

A bit different viewpoint is offered on Slate in an article titled I don’t want to be a superhero. It talks about gamification’s promise on making reality more fun and how selling a fantasy world isn’t all fun and games, and how there’s a difference between “a game” and “play”.

But gamification advocates do not preach the beauty and power of play. Perhaps without knowing it, they’re selling a pernicious worldview that doesn’t give weight to literal truth. Instead, they are trafficking in fantasies that ignore the realities of day-to-day life. This isn’t fun and games—it’s a tactic most commonly employed by repressive, authoritarian regimes.

I find it strange how the critics of gamification are much more aware of the history of games than its advocates. Maybe it’s hard to be enthusiastic about something that isn’t actually that a novel idea and that you got totally backwards. How much of the practiced applications of “gamification” actually originate from games? I’d argue not much.

Indeed, gamification is an allegedly populist idea that actually benefits corporate interests over those of ordinary people. It’s strange that its advocates don’t seem to understand there’s a difference. In his talk at South by Southwest, Seth Priebatsch of the gamification startup SCVNGR said there were five problems we could solve if we built a game layer over the world. These nettlesome issues, he explained, included both “customer acquisition” and “global warming.”

How can anyone who claims that gamification is the solution to global warming taken seriously? The only game that solves global warming are international negotiations, the hardest game there is. They’re pretty far from fun and play and badges. The only reason the USA and Soviet Union did not blow everything into tiny radioactive pieces during the Cold War was because a bunch of smart guys came up with game theory and explained that there would not be winners in that nuclear game.

The greatest thing, though, is the title of the seminal game theory book: Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Sure, this book is mostly about how people make decisions under uncertainty and not now how to engineer their decisions or behavior6. Yet, the title of the book alone sums up what “gamification” tries to be but completely fails.

And, really, is World of Warcraft even fun? One of the key tenets of “gamification” is to make mundane tasks fun, but what fun exactly is there in grinding? Who enjoys the actual act which gets you frequent flyer miles, ie. sitting in a aluminium tube for hours? How does Nike+’s “gamification” improve my actual act of running?

Or as Daniel_Joseph puts it, gamification sucks:

For me it is that the process of gamification isn’t really turning anything into “games” perse [sic], but instead using “game-like” mechanics (points! Leaderboards!) to give the veneer of a game, while actually engaging the user in a mindless activity that provides nothing particularly special other than the aforemented points and brand loyalty.

As an example of, in my opinion, a failed7 “gamification”, which tried to exploit people wasting time on the web, The Finnish National Archives started a project called Digitalkoot where the point is to digitize some of their archives, a noble goal. There are limits how well OCR can translate documents, so they have made small games8 where the users are asked to transcribe the scanned images of words.

However, the games have borrowed a lot from normal typing games and encourage speed over accuracy and consistency. Sure, typos are penalized but the the games end if you’re too slow. This is ok for typing games, where point is to improve one’s speed. Yes, the process has been “gamified”, but, in my opinion, utilizes entirely wrong game dynamics. It’s not even fun. It was frustrating, as the games don’t stand on their own and the main motive of the player, helping to digitize national archives, isn’t properly utilized. No one would play the games as a substitute to Minesweeper or Bejeweled Blitz.

Compare this to ReCaptcha, which essentially tries to do the same, but isn’t a game but a challenge to stop spam bots9. It’s point isn’t to be fun, and it promotes accuracy over speed. You don’t pass the puzzle until you recognize the words correctly.

Or compare Digitalkoot even to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which also does microtasks, but rarely are these dumbed down as simple games but the participants are allowed to do the actual work and are incentivized in other ways like money. In other words, they are treated as adults.

Gamification, in my opinion, is used by good people who are short-sighted and haven’t done their homework and by bad people to do something quite unethical. Like social games, it’s a new paint job on a group of old, well-known stuff. “Gamification” is an empty buzzword and a disguise for bullshit management. It’s also a new term for marketing to use for their loyalty schemes because the old terms are so last season.

I truly hope this is a short fad and we could talk about decision engineering instead. It’s much more neutral term and it’s what most of real world “gamification” anyway is. The leadeboards and points and badges are just window-dressing for influencing consumer’s decision behavior.

Also, you just lost The Game.

  1. However, I doubt Extra Credits guys are scottish.

  2. Or, what some call playing to win

  3. As it happens. After the game is played, the games has been turned to a long narrative told on the sports sections of newspapers.

  4. Both coined by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, whose term “choice architecture” would also be a better alternative to “gamification”.

  5. How can one title be so full of fail?

  6. Behavioral decision making, or behavioral economics, wouldn’t arise until many decades later when it was finally widely realized that the simplistic, but so mathematically pure, models didn’t really work.

  7. Failed as in, it’s not a game and the incentives for players are all wrong.

  8. The games are available in English. I’ve no idea why the expect that a non-Finnish speaking player is able to parse old Finnish text typeset in old German typefaces quickly.

  9. So the bots started to use cheap labor in the Far East to bypass these things. Of course, it is in the cheap labor’s interest to type as fast as possible, so they’ll earn more.