Lies, Damned Lies and Academics

Lies, Damned Lies and Academics


On Monday in Philadelphia, I attended an event at Wharton on Gamification. There were some interesting people there, some classically hilarious exercises, lots of university professors “harrumphing” and pan-asian cuisine. In rare moments of non tenure-tracked clarity, I learned a few things, got to see some cool people and meet some of our new allies. At the outset of the day, I was invited – along with some professors – to deliver the opening “debate” on gamification.

We started with a series of opening remarks and then had a discussion that was both lively and profoundly insane. I spent much of the time slack-jawed at the constant references to corporations as “evil” and the patently false statements about the lack of good examples of gamification (see some case studies here).

None of this was – per se – surprising. Innovation in design isn’t the province of academia; in fast moving, practical technologies like gamification and social media, they tend to lag substantially.

That’s why we developed the world’s first Gamification Certification Program that will be offered at Gamification Summit in September. Agencies, Startups, Global Brands, Non-Profits and Government all need gamification design skills today that are based on proven methodologies.  We’re excited to be first to offer this, derived from the extensive work we’ve done with organizations large and small.

In Philly, Ian Bogost delivered one of the opening speeches. Its essence was that Gamification is Bullshit. You can read the full text of the screed here, but fair warning: it offers no new data, meaningful insights or frameworks for dialogue.

I decided to take a decidedly different approach with my talk. Though I gave it from short notes and my heart, I’ll do my best to transcribe it for you here:


Philadelphia, August 8, 2011

I’m obviously a proponent of Gamification.

But what interests me most about the subject, and my reason for being here today, isn’t short-term.

What makes gamification interesting isn’t the hundreds of startups that have been launched in the past year with game mechanics at their core. We know most of them will not survive.

What makes gamification mobile isn’t the $30 million+ raised by gamification platforms (BunchBall, Badgeville, SCVNGR, Kiip, etc) this year; good entrepreneurs know VC funding is a promissory note.

It’s not the unprecedented column inches devoted to coverage of gamification; the hype will eventually fade, replaced by hard work.

And it’s not the thousands of event attendees seeking to learn by doing, though these numbers will continue to increase over the next few years.

It is the industry we build here that will endure, and matter.

It is the 10,000 people who will gain their livelihood from designing engagement in organizations big and small.

It’s the underemployed game designers who continue to graduate from universities without job prospects who will find a home to tackle complex problems in industry and government.

It’s the hundreds of thousands of startups, agencies, global brands and governments worldwide that will be innovate and make their products and services better.

It is the millions of people whose days will get just a bit more rewarding and delightful, from the ATM to their desk job and everywhere in between.

And it’s the meaning we’ll enrich, educations we will improve, health we will foster and lives we will lengthen through the application of gamification design that will be among our most important legacies.

This is real work, meaningful work and important work. And I’m excited to help transform the world with you.



I also reiterated my firm belief that the criticism and concern about gamification is interesting and worthwhile to discuss, but that I think it needs to come from a constructive place. As we have always done at Gamification Summit, in the blog and everywhere we speak or write, we welcome quality and honest feedback and dialogue that advances the art and science of engagement.

I don’t believe that today’s key discussions should center on the term gamification itself (the market has spoken), whether it works (the results are real), or whether it’s bad (like any tool, this depends on the hand that wields it). The most important question facing us now is how do we scale the amazing early successes of gamification for the good of people, our society and the world. Oh yeah, and the economy, too.

We have innovators like Ananth Pai in Minnesota transforming education, NextJump getting their employees healthier and Recyclebank reducing our carbon footprint with gamification – just to name a few (you can see them all share their expertise at GSummit in September). Their early successes are astonishing. What we don’t know is how to scale them to every classroom, every gym and every neighborhood across America and the planet.

You can help.

Gamification Co will be hosting it’s second Gamification Summit in New York on September 15-16. Join keynotes from Gilt Groupe CEO Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and 42 Entertainment’s founder, Susan Bondsto learn how the new science of engagement is rewriting the rules of product design. We are also offering the first ever Certificate in Gamification. For Gamification Blog readers, use discount code GCOBLOG for 25% off at We look forward to seeing you there!


Need help with behavioral science and gamification? Get in touch with our boutique consulting agency Dopamine.


  1. Well said. Another simple, but extremely good example is, a site for folks who love to collect things. They use Badgeville to educate its members about its features, rewards them for contributing, and helps create a fun, community-enriching experience.

  2. “… We welcome quality and honest feedback…”

    I only just recently discovered the HuffPo article where you described the critics of gamification as “tech industry’s Tea Party”. Perhaps you and I have a different definition of “welcome.”

  3. In Ian’s article “Gamification is Bullshit,” he qualifies what me means by bullshit.

    In your post, can you clarify what you mean by Lies, and Damned Lies, point us to what they are?


  4. Hi Gabe,

    As a teacher and PhD candidate working in this area, can I suggest that Ananth Pai’s method of ‘transforming education through gamification’ is weak. Nintendo DS consoles have been used widely across the world, particularly in Japan, and using educational games like the ones he talks about in the linked video is certainly nothing new. All he seems to have done is changed from being a teacher who conveys knowledge to a educational game facilitator. Sure he assesses the students’ results in the games, but this is not what I consider good gamification. Please know that there are people working hard to do this right. Education is a key area for this gamification debate. I would argue that relying on teaching content delivered by unknown Nintendo DS game developers is not good gamification, nor good teaching for that matter. It’s sad you have nothing better to use as an example of gamification in education. I’m hoping to change that.

    Thanks Gabe. Keep up the good fight.

    Damon Thomas

    (Twitter: DamonPThomas)

  5. In the spirit of honest, open, transparent discussion, then please answer these questions:

    1. Why do you dismiss the science around self-determination theory? Are you aware that the small group of researchers who posed a challenge/doubt to the decades of research around reward/motivation were ultimately unsuccessful in discrediting all of the different studies?

    2. It’s common in the tech industry to challenge those who offer a solution but do not “eat their own dog food”. There is no evidence of gamification used in your own work, yet you make a convincing case to others for how and why it will “increase engagement.”. Your own blog here has very low engagement (thank goodness for us critics!) Your game-based marketing book has very poor sales. Can you explain why you would not use the gamification techniques you sell/teach/evangelize on your own products? As a long-time gamer, I know you love a challenge, so… Here’s a simple one: use what you sell to do what you claim– increase engagement on this blog and improve your book sales. Come on, level up!

    It would be far more convincing if rather than giving case studies of how *other* products and services have used gamification with statistically measurable results, you simply applied it to your own stuff. In other words, if this works as you claim, prove it. Because if THE leading expert in the world cannot use these tools to get a little sustainable engagement for a blog or book, wouldn’t that pose a few troubling questions?

    3. How do you reconcile that you are simultaneously championing gamification as an awesome tool to get people to buy things they do not want or need (see: game-based marketing, loyalty programs, etc.) in other words, unchecked consumerism, with your description of gamification as a means for “doing good work”? For example, on one hand, you support, celebrate, and highlight companies using gamification to increase beer, soft drink, tv watching, yet you also claim gamification as a tool to help combat obesity. You mention that there is “good gamification” and “bad gamification” but it seems your depiction of “bad” means they didn’t do it well, and has nothing to do with the fact that they used it to get, say, more young women to “engage” and compete around Playboy opportunities.

    If you actually do *care* about the use of gamification for “doing good” then prove it by discontinuing support for those companies that promote the use of gamification for the things which are in direct conflict with sustainability and health, two things you have explicitly mentioned you care about. If you want to change the world, stop inviting them to your summit as speakers/teachers/sponsors. Otherwise, well, I call BS on your insistence that this is about helping the world.

  6. “Innovation in design isn’t the province of academia; in fast moving, practical technologies like gamification and social media, they tend to lag substantially.”

    Lagging behind as in …

    – Edery and Mollick, the latter present at the Symposium and presenting results on an excellent study of gamification at the workplace, publishing a whole book on how to transform customer engagement, work, and innovation processes with game design in late 2008? (

    – Irene Greif, likewise present at the symposium, presenting the results from IBM Research’s internal gamified social networking platform Beehive, first published in 2008? (

    – Reeves and Read (the first one present at the NYC Gamification Summit) publishing a whole book on “Total Engagement” at the workplace via game design in 2008, founding the tech startup Seriosity shipping actual product in 2006? (

    – Ian Bogost, present, designing Curel2BKind with Jane McGonigal in 2006? (

    – Mark Hassenzahl and others exploring “funology” in 2003? (

    – Thomas Malone writing on “Heuristics for Designing Enjoyable Interfaces” culled from games in 1982? (

  7. “The constructive purpose of academia in the context of gamification should be to study, rigorously, why the designs that work, work – and why those that don’t fail.”

    I’m sorry, but you cannot proscribe the role of intellectual enquiry in this domain. This talk of academics only being able to do ‘constructive’ work, which I keep hearing from many other technonologists eager to make a buck and circle the wagon of their enterprises, is a smokescreen – under a veneer of wanting everything to be positive (who doesn’t like ‘constructive’ work?) you then guarantee that your highly questionable business practices will be free of critique.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t how it works. Whether or not you officially sanction a certain group of academics who are willing to bow to your extremely narrow scope of enquiry, there will remain many more who continue to criticise this entire enterprise. In the context of intellectual enquiry, critique and even ‘destructive’ work is just as worthwhile, if not necessary, as affirmative contributions. In this particular case, I think it is completely necessary, lest the entire thing be allowed to continue on in the false guise of a progressive endeavour.