Gamification is Not a Four-Letter Word

Gamification is Not a Four-Letter Word


At the Casual Connect conference in Seattle last week, a one-day track was dedicated to content about gamification. As a 15-year marketing professional who spent six years in the games industry, I was looking forward to so much focus being given to ideas about which I’m personally passionate: the power of games to engage, and the opportunities for businesses of all kinds to leverage that engagement to create deeper relationships with and better experiences for their customers. Unfortunately, much of the coverage of gamification was extremely critical. I was left asking myself, ‘Why is creating engagement, making rote experiences pleasurable and rewarding, and motivating personal and societal change seen as a bad thing?’ I’m still waiting on an answer.

The most vocal critic of gamification was Robert Tercek, who moderated panels and conducted a lecture called, “Beyond Play: Gaming in the Connected Age.” In this lecture, Tercek divided those who employ gamification techniques into two categories: Realists and Idealists, with Realists essentially defined as capitalists who use gamification to exploit users and manipulate them into desired behaviors, and Idealists summarized as out-of-touch do-gooders who are under the illusion that games can change the world. Expanding on the hyperbole, Tercek also referred to these categories as Cynics vs. Zealots, or Stripminers vs. Evangelists.

As I was listening to Mr. Tercek—who is without a doubt an experienced and gifted media visionary—deride the community in which I work, I couldn’t help thinking about an experience I had recently at a Rock Health event in San Francisco. At this event, I met a woman whose son has Type I Diabetes, and has spent most of his life feeling the isolation and shame that often comes with having a serious disease—especially one that frequently necessitates administering blood testing and insulin injections in public. But instead of letting it get him down, this young man decided to apply his technical skills to developing a positive and rewarding experience around his testing and tracking via an online application. He gamifiied his blood glucose levels. He turned the management of a difficult reality of his life into a positive experience, and was on the road to sharing what he built with the world.

If we are to apply the Stripminers vs. Evangelists monikers, in which category would this scenario fall? Is there, perhaps, a middle ground of individuals, organizations, and businesses who just think that taking something tedious, ordinary, or just plain necessary and making it more fun is not only okay, but highly beneficial? I believe there is. Every day, I have the privilege of seeing gamification in action, creating positive change in the lives of individuals, and in the relationships of companies with their consumers and employees. And I think it’s a very, very good thing.

This is not to say there isn’t always room for healthy debate. Any powerful idea—and the science behind what makes games and gamification work is indeed powerful—has the risk of being misapplied or misinterpreted. I was pleased that the conversation at Casual Connect was balanced by presentations from companies such as Big Door and Bunchball, both of whom will readily discuss how and when to responsibly and effectively apply gamification. Also encouraging was the amount of audience interest in applying gamification to education, health, and the enterprise. And above all, I’m glad that gamification was given so much attention—critical and positive. Gamification is here, and here to stay, so let the conversations continue!

Jessie Rogers is in charge of operations and marketing at Gamification Co.

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 Bonds, to learn how the new science of engagement is rewriting the rules of product design. For Gamification Blog readers, use discount code GCOBLOG for 25% off at We look forward to seeing you there!


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  1. Gamification is simply an approach – a tool in our tool belt. I’m wondering how Robert would classify companies that use gamification for their internal business processes? If the employees are more engaged and feel more rewarded for their hard work, it is a win for everyone. Gamification isn’t a zero-sum game, both parties can win and in fact those are the successful implementations of gamification.

    For a real-world example of gamification watch how RedCritter Tracker incorporates badges, rewards, leaderboards and ribbons into project management.

  2. The critique of gamification is fashionable for two reasons. Firstly we still need to work on the depth of the subject by utilizing psychology and behavioural economics in the discussions more than badges and leader boards. Secondly, we live in times of web bubble when money is being spent on businesses without any potential of monetization. Taking both together, gamification is easy target. However, let’s be thankful for the critique as we can continue to progress while standing on both feet and not just dreaming.

  3. “, ‘Why is creating engagement, making rote experiences pleasurable and rewarding, and motivating personal and societal change seen as a bad thing?’ I’m still waiting on an answer.”

    I don’t think critics of your version of gamification have ever said these were “bad things”. The arguments against the current operant conditioning based gamification are complex and subtle and that’s probably why you are still “waiting on an answer”. In other words, there IS no simple answer. It took Sebastian Deterding over 300 slides to even start to make a dent in the discussion.

    I can say that for many of us it is precisely because we share most of your ultimate goals that we have such a problem with some of the current gamification efforts. It’s too complex to simply say there is “bad gamification” and “good” because much of what appears “good” (like gamification in education) is applying the science in ways that might make things worse in the long term.

    Most people have no problem with ramification applied to rote tasks or most forms of diet and exercise. Where things meet two criteria:

    1. The person actively *wants* to make the behavior change
    AND (crucial)
    2. The behavior will *not* be intrinsically rewarding (inherently pleasurable as an activity)

    Then it IS perhaps a good candidate for extrinsic reward systems. The rewards carry little to no potential for damage to any future potential for intrinsic motivation, and they provide motivation to do what the person *really wants to do*.

    That said, most of the benefits of gamification in these areas may be just as likely to come from the feedback systems rather than the actual “rewards”. But that’s a different issue…

    The big problem for many gamification critics is that virtually anything that can be made “fun” is somehow lumped together, success stories are applied way way way out of context, and no distinctions are made between areas where intrinsic motivation *might* be a factor and where it might not.

    As long as there is plenty of science (120 different studies, decades of research, different researchers, taught in major universities, etc.) that says we should be VERY cautious where intrinsic motivation is a factor, and as long as that science is dismissed or ignored by gamification proponents, there is a problem.

    When gamification people say things like, “see how well it worked for Playboy and Miller beer, so just think what it can do for reading!” people who actually know the science, intimately, are going to be extremely nervous. Because there might not be a way to back out of these extrinsic reward structures once applied to the areas that really matter.

    Gamification critics also become a bit twitchy when terminology and definitions and concepts are used in a sloppy or just plain *wrong* manner, because it’s misleading and indicates a lack of understanding. For example, when Gabe says that the “key elements” that “make games compelling” are the points, badges, leader boards, etc. then the people who actually design and/or research this for a living recognize how utterly inaccurate this is. When gamification proponents misuse the term “flow” and the concepts behind it, then those of us who, like me, spent a year teaching it at UCLA Extension’s Entertainment Studies dept., we cannot help but be concerned that you have missed crucial pieces of the overall system.

    And I am only just touching on what matters. I can understand your frustration that critics don’t seem to be able to give a simple answer. But please do not mistake that for not having an answer. You are asking people who’ve spent years and possibly decades studying a domain and applying research, to sum it all up in a neat package to… Marketers. That would be absurd if the term were, say, “surgification”.

    However, I believe another part of your frustration is that you DO have real (and seemingly real) examples where the simplest, most superficial aspects of game mechanics DO work. Nobody is arguing that… Skinner made that very clear, and anyone familiar with the other industry named “gaming” — gambling — understands that operant conditioning WORKS for motivating behavior. It’s just that it’s far from simple or ethical to say that “because extrinsic rewards *work* we should use them” until the discussion is willing to consider long-term consequences, side-effects (and I am not talking about “addiction” — that is just a straw man argument), and MOST importantly: a deeper understanding of what, precisely, is being reinforced.

    A lot of activity and behavior that *appears* to be “engagement” turns out to be engagement around a reward system and NOT the actual behavior we hope to get. That it can take some time before this distinction becomes obvious is yet another reason some of us are concerned.

    Most of us are not saying NO to all gamification; we are pleading with marketers and especially educators or anyone else looking for a quick spike in engagement to just PAUSE and think some more. There are alternatives to the current versions of gamification, or perhaps gamification will eventually evolve as a profession into something that recognizes there is more to this than the gamification marketers understand.

    If operant conditioning was not powerful, nobody would be complaining about all this. It is indeed very powerful and, used inappropriately out of either greed or ignorance, it can do damage in ways that some of you do not appear to understand

  4. I attended much of this one-day track on “gamification” at Casual Connect Seattle. Based on my observations as an attendee, this article is pretty non-representative of what took place that day.

    On balance, the majority of talks were pro gamification or, more importantly, seemed to take the topic seriously. Margaret Wallace, the person who I have since learned from the Bunchball blog, put the track together and she is a well-known champion of gamification. So how is it this article seems to present the day as completely otherwise until the last two or three throw-away sentences at the end?

    Sure there were critics of gamification by some of the speakers but they were the vocal minority if anything and I’m not sure why the editorial slant of this article is presenting that day as anything otherwise.