The Term Gamification: Why I Hate It AND Why I Love It

The Term Gamification: Why I Hate It AND Why I Love It


The last thing you need to read about the word “gamification”

If one area of engagement can be taken for granted, it’s the one when people engage again in passionate discussions on the term “gamification.” It doesn’t matter if you are coming from inside or outside the industry. It seems to engage. Given that, alone that would already a big case for keeping that term. But let’s not hasten the things, let me go through that step by step

Recently Kris Duggan, co-founder and former CEO Badgeville and gamification-evangelist (ok perhaps more “whatever-you-call-it-but-not-gamification”-evangelist) took up the torch to lead the latest rally against the term ( Kris and others have certainly not one, but many good points when they talk about the initial reactions of corporate (and we only talk about “boring” enterprise) when they are confronted with that term. And I agree with many of them. And knowing Kris, who in the spirit of every innovator, needs to be convincing, smart, and sometimes a little bit of a prankster, is certainly one of the best minds to open that topics for an honest discussion.

But my take is the following: Get over it. The train left the station. This era and concept will be know as the gamification age. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t say that to defend the word. I haven’t coined it. When I learned about it in Summer 2010, I found only 500 search results on Google. I wasn’t sure if this is even the right word of what I was looking for, but I think I grasped that this may be important. I kept noticing it popping up more and more often in the months to follow.

Here is the thing: I hate the term gamification AND I do like it a lot.

What I hate about it is that people think it’s about playing games. It’s not. I hate about it that the gatekeepers of game-design think we “rape their baby.” Which we do not. Or that we pull together arbitrary concepts and brand it gamification. We do not.

What I like about it seeing when idea-people hear that term and their eyes start shining. They grasp the power of the concept immediately, even if they don’t yet know how to do it. And it always means “fun.”

When we introduced the concept of “gamification” the first time in an internal corporate blog of a large software company over 2 years ago, the reactions where overwhelmingly positive. The video-gamers amongst the colleagues came out and understood it right away, and even the non-gamers just embraced it. You could feel that they were starving for such a concept. One commentator summarized the mood the best: “I have hope again!”


Big Corporate

As somebody who’s spent over 20 years in big corporate, I certainly got my dose of buzzwords. Empowerment, synergistically, collaboratively, leadership skills, world-class, customize, customer satisfaction, mindshare, proactively , and all these other words were deemed good enough by corporate managers to bore the hell out of employees. Don’t even talk about, whether they ever made sense or if employees – or the managers themselves – understood them.

It doesn’t stop at mission statements, when we come to technologies and concepts, gamification shouldn’t be the only term to be questioned. Or have you ever had passionate discussions, of how stupid actually the term “cloud” is? Or “social analytics?” The list goes on, and I just mention a few of the recent ones: “big data” (what does that mean: fat? Tall? Or just much?), “internet of things”, “idea management” (as if you can control it), “mobile device” (my pants are mobile too), “e-book readers” (are this now the people reading, or is it the device reading it?). Feel free to fill in the blanks and create your own list of terms that claim to be something that they are not.

For the very same “higher-ups” it’s actually totally ok to pump empty buzzwords in their mission statements and communications to their workforce, but the word “gamification” makes them cry for something that makes them feel serious?

Which reminds me of a routine from the comedian Lewis Black, where he tells about how he got an invitation to perform in front of government officials in Washington D.C. under the condition not to use any bad language (which is a trademark of his political comedy). This was back then in the Bush administration.

“These are the people who are the first line of defense when it comes to the terroristic threat, but the word “shit”makes them cry!”

The word gamification makes the same managers cry, who fall the most for gamification themselves. They are vying for the best parking spot in front of the main office entrance, they want the largest corner-office and the biggest corporate car. They find nothing weird about doing “simulations” of scenarios to “beat” the competition, which they actually do in meeting rooms turned into “war-rooms’, when they are not enjoying the business lounge cocktails that they earned during their trips collecting miles for their frequent flyer programs. Has anyone told them that this actually is gamification?

A more interesting discussion sparks from folks who’ve done parts of their homework. “Badgification” or “Pointsification,” and a really stinging term called “Exploitationware” have risen, because most of the current work done by our industry goes this easy route. And we all know that this criticism is correct. We need to become better. But I rather discuss the model and concept behind gamification, and the justification for labeling it as “badifigcation,” than loosing time on the original discussion.


Alternative Terms

To be fair, there have been alternative term suggestions from Kris and others. Engagification, persuasive design, behavioral design, motivational design, recognition program are some of them. And they all sound fine and honest. And boring. Because one thing that excuses us from thinking about when using these alternative terms is “fun.” How can we add fun to a task for our players? If you use a different word, then you invite everyone on the project team to an easy way out. It’s surprisingly difficult to make something fun. But if you have to think of what’s fun constantly, you keep the player in mind and need to ask yourself over and over again: is this fun? And there are ways to make things fun, game-designer Jon Radoff talks about fun-motivators at length in his book Game On. The payoff in real numbers with fun in mind is certainly larger.

The surest way to understand that a company has an engagement problem and that they’d need gamification the most, is when their higher-ups tell you bluntly that they dislike the term. Or if the subordinates are afraid of such a reaction. Those people are not going to rock the boat and question existing business models. Instead of trying to grasp a concept, get interested in new topics, allow people to play with concepts and ideas, all they do is spend their time on telling you how much they dislike a term and why. And by telling those opinions to the very same people that they so desperately need to create new ideas. This is the very same behavior that kills engagement of “subordinates.” The engagement that is necessary to be creative. John Cleese of Monthy-Python-fame many years ago gave an excellent talk about the importance of fun and humor for creativity, laying out exactly the same principles that we encourage through gamification.


Concepts to Discuss

While I am not against finding a better term for describing what we are doing (and no, I don’t consider, engagement/motivational/persuasive/behavioral/… Design as better terms for all the reasons I mentioned), I’d rather prefer having us spend the time on the pressing problem of lifting gamification to the next level and away from points and badges (of which still way to many approaches rely on them only). I’d rather have us understand better the concept of competition, and why this works only for a narrow area in a corporate environment. I’d rather have us talk way more about positive psychology, the flow zone, the cheating and how to reduce it, methods of how you get an approach done that adds value for the player (employee), what fun motivators are, how willpower comes in, how we work an create habits etc.

So many topics, so many areas that we haven’t yet talked about or found best practices, but we discuss for the umpteenth time the term gamification. Sure the term is perhaps not ideal. Sure it’s easier to muse about this. Because I actually don’t need to understand the concept, but can have an opinion. But do we really want to Sarah-Palinize this industry?



The term discussion also distracts from the still less than ideal definition of the term itself. Ask three gamification designers and you get four definitions (as the joke goes). In the enterprise context as a practitioner I don’t care, if we call it gamification, serious game, simulation, engagification etc. What I care is whether this thing helps me solve a business problem.

Note: Personally, I actually make the case that enterprise gamification is an umbrella term for all of those mentioned before. The cross section of those disciplines is what makes gamification so successful.


Three Step Approach

I can talk a lot of likes and dislikes, but here is what I do in my standard talks on gamification: I take a three step approach. In the first one I shatter stereotypes about games and video-games. Looking at a couple of facts that counter the common notion of the game industry and comparing the levels of engagement and work done by gamers to employees, you can feel the gasp. In the second step, audiences realize that gamification is nothing exotic. Gamification is something that they have encountered in many situations of their life, on many websites and apps that they use. And my audiences keep sheepishly admitting that not only do they use these sites, but also fell for the gamification there. Having their attention, the third step is the last step to have their resistance wither: we talk about numbers and how well gamification – even the most simplistic approaches – work. Latest at that stage, you have the full attention of corporate people. When a concept and technology helps solve a business problem in such spectacular numbers, then a discussion of a term seems ridiculous and useless. Who cares?

Not that I am not a realist: I know that toning down your message may sometimes support your cause better. But this should not put the term itself up to discussion. And that’s what we have to teach our evangelists in the corporate world. Help them make the gamification-case by keeping them honest.

Coming back to Kris kicking off the latest round of engaged discussion on the term, I’d rather suggest to start small and much closer to home: isn’t it time to find a new name for this company called “Badgeville”? 😉

Flickr Image by otherthing


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  1. I just tell people its about creating meaningful experiences for better and more compelling user engagement. If people want to call it “gamification” or “human centric design” or “hipster babble”, fine with me. The goal remains the same and its results – when done well – are undeniable.