Since the beginning of the gamification movement, we’ve had our fair share of naysayers. Some have been academics, others simply impassioned folks with strong opinions. At their most charitable, these critics have stated – as fact – that basic gamification mechanics simply won’t (can’t) work. At their worst, they’ve accused us of being manipulative, under-informed distorters of “true” game design – taking umbrage with our movement even when we’ve been working in the constructive public interest. Discussion and evaluation of our approaches have been further hampered by the insistence – even by some of our most ardent supporters – in making our basic mechanistic elements into the stuff of derision. PBL (Points, Badges, Leaderboards) have been used by well-meaning folks as shorthand for banal, insipid ideas in gamified behavior design.
All along, those of us actually building, testing and deploying things into the world (myself included) have been calmly and quietly repeating the same thing over and over: “we hear your criticism, but gamification works.” I’ve talked at length about the need to be innovative and insightful, but without over-engineering. While it’s essential that your gamified effort be unique and targeted to your specific audience, that doesn’t mean you should re-invent the wheel or start with anything that’s not focused. Agility and real-world testing are key, and starting with a simple, thoughtful MVP (Minimum Viable Product) – which is often PBL and a simple narrative – is usually the right strategy. That doesn’t mean you should stop there, but dismissing the basics as infantile masks the importance of their foundation.
Now the science is starting to catch up with us. Recent research (from Mekler et al. at the University of Basel) clearly shows what we’ve known all along: the basic methods of gamification clearly work to drive core behavior. Moreover, if they are presented properly, they are not demotivating as these so called “experts” predicted. And, in a clear victory for the SAPS model I pioneered – we’re starting to see that a core problem with most behavioral research (going all the way back to Deci/Ryan) may be that they used cash as the incentive/reward in testing. The real tension isn’t around the “strict construction” of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation/reward, but rather that cash itself is a poor motivator.
In any event, I’m grateful that our academic peers are making an effort to research and understand the phenomena we have been describing. The Mekler study – and the dozens to surely follow – will help support so many gamification designers in their continued effort to bring the approach to industry, government and academia. Clearly, more research needs to be done and new questions need to be addressed (particularly those around specific approaches, contexts and meta-mechanics), but I’m confident that these are in the works. There’s no substitute for empirical evidence, but as the momentum continues to grow in our favor be sure to share these results with your colleagues, peers…and haters.