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?


    • Kevin:

      The phrase “Lies, damn lies and statistics” is the inspiration for the title. It’s most commonly attributed to Mark Twain (though he declaimed originating it) as a way of describing the ability of people to manipulate statistics and to disagree with facts that don’t match their positions.

      My inspiration for it is the complete lack of factual assertion for “Gamification as bullshit”. Though Ian makes no attempt to be insightful or factual in his talk, let’s be clear that a technique that is being used by hundreds of companies, is changing thousands of lives, has already created hundreds of millions in value and has *mostly* been successful so far … generally … by most yardsticks, isn’t qualified as bullshit. 😉

  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.

    • Kathy:

      Always great to hear from you!

      1. You’ve brought it up a few times, but I just wanted to clarify: I don’t know what your standards are for my work, but my Publishers (and my co-authors) seem pleased with the sales and growth of Game-Based Marketing despite the fact that it’s ancient by social media standards (18 months!). The book is being syndicated in multiple languages and platforms now, and continues to be robust despite being the first title in this fast-moving category. Can’t believe how quickly time has gone by.

      Gamification by Design, my OReilly book and video are apparently among the most popular items in their categories at OReilly, and appear to be doing well. We haven’t yet launched the print book officially (it will be revealed properly at Gamification Summit) – but I’m excited for it – and just got my first actual copy today.

      Even though we ended up not making Gamification by Design a Head First book, I’m sure you understand that everything is relative. I’m confident that your authors appreciate the high standards you have for their performance.

      2. FWIW, there are gamification elements in my new book, video and in my events. To whit, we also help a lot of clients – big brands, small startups and non-profits implement gamification in their businesses. Because of the amount of work in this category, and the types of transformation we’re working on, it can be difficult for me to be super public about the projects. On a pure volume, brand-scale and reach basis my team and I do more practical work in gamification than just about anyone else.

      3. I understand the complex ethical challenges of working with, say a candy manufacturer like Cadbury and a health-transformation company like Zamzee. But I think what characterizes the worldview of both gamification proponents and smart companies (in this space) is their belief that the solution comes from activating individuals’ desires and motivations. That is, we’re not trying to help get kids healthy by banning chocolate or taxing soda (neither of which actually work) but rather by convincing them that exercise is good, and helping them to understand the choices they make.

      Many tools can be both dangerous and life-affirming at the same time, like fire. It can both cook your food and burn your house down. How you wield it is up to you – and I continue to be a proponent of an ethical code of conduct for gamification design. I hope we’ll be able to add more teeth to this in the future.


      • “I understand the complex ethical challenges of working with, say a candy manufacturer like Cadbury and a health-transformation company like Zamzee.”

        Its not really that complex, though. In the marketing / advertising space, companies can work with both if they so choose or work with just one if they choose. It might impact how people see the advertising company if they are proposing a particular image for themselves, but usually won’t.

        “We’re not trying to help get kids healthy by banning chocolate or taxing soda (neither of which actually work).”

        Wrong. Both work; the science, as they say, is in. There have been studies from Chicago, North Carolina, Germany, CSIRO and FDA studies from 2009-2010 proving the effectiveness of taxation on sweetened drinks and confectionary. Your CDC supports it, as does the American Heart Association. But – of course – so does motivating people as you suggest, convincing them that not only is exercise good, but fun, social, cool. A combination of taxation and over-education on obesity is probably where the West is going.

        What might be showing up here is a kind of ideological split; if you believe that there’s such a thing as free markets where ideas, behaviours and products are popularised and proven, then its possible to see no problem working for both Cadbury and Zamzee. Absolutely. But that view isn’t universal.

        Advertisers self-regulate their codes of conduct by not wanting to damage the brands of their clients. Though if you’re working for Cadbury, probably best to not talk about codes of conduct “with teeth”. Someone might make a cheap joke.

        “Many tools can be both dangerous and life-affirming at the same time, like fire. It can both cook your food and burn your house down.”

        That was Kathy’s point.

  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? (

    • Sebastian:

      Just some minor points:

      David Edery was at Microsoft (for 5 years) when he co-wrote the book “Changing the Game”.

      Irene works at IBM and has for a long time.

      Leighton Read is a Venture Capitalist. Not to take anything away from Byron – who is awesome.

      Ian’s principal contribution continues to be sarcasm, not design patterns. 😉

      I don’t know Funology, but it sounds…fun (ish).

      Malone’s insight was definitely ahead of its time.

      Now, how about some examples of successful gamification efforts by academics….which is the subject at hand. 🙂 Just for the sake of argument, I’ll even take examples from active PhD students.

      But this is kind of pointless, isn’t it? Academia is not on trial here. I respect and love the work of academics, but think it should be put into context for emerging design concepts and consumer software: Rajeev (who was awesome) didn’t invent Google – Larry and Sergey did. Zuck’s first year math professors didn’t invent Facebook, the Winkelvosses did. 🙂 It wasn’t professors at CMU or Full Sail that designed Peggle, PopCap did. The list goes on and on.

      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.

      We, for our part, will do everything we can to facilitate that research and make sure it gets disseminated. I’m looking forward to creating more opportunities to collaborate with academics who are interested in figuring out how to scale up (and down) the right efforts. But make no mistake – the design patterns themselves will come from industry who now has a genuine market incentive to experiment, test and refine.


      • Well if industry get to decide what the design patterns are, then do consider that the academic agenda will look absolutely nothing like your constructive purpose to give commercial interests their free research and development. Most academics aren’t interested in that. Many academics are looking at gamification as something to critique, attack, delegitimise, defeat and bury – and then work with others to replace with a set of actually-working design concepts that can provide value to projects and enrich the human experience. But you know that already.

        The list of academics who have developed or are developing gamification and proto-gamification projects is immense, as you are well aware. What’s interesting is the growing (not shrinking) bifurcation in the perspectives. If references to corporations as evil leave some slack-jawed, the next few years of public and private debate on how to do business (post-GFC, etc) will also cause some intake of breath.

        • Christian:

          Can you cite a few commercially successful gamification projects led by academics or active PhD students as part of their work?

          I’d love to find them. Not to make a rhetorical point, but because I am *genuinely interested* in finding examples of successful gamification that we can model, analyze and scale. That’s my agenda.

          Other than changing our economic system (I read your blog, natch) what is yours? 🙂


          • “Other than changing our economic system (I read your blog, natch) what is yours?”

            Oh, I’m not that interested in fantasies of changing the economic system as a whole, but since you asked: In the short term, I think little battles against the indignity of some macroeconomic, corporation-specific and location-specific indignities can be fought and won. Public shaming has proven to be a highly effective method and a method I am reasonably effective at. So my agenda is help my students, my research collaborators, my partner institutions and yes, companies, to push the culture of games and interactivity forward. Sometimes that means stopping them from going backward, sometimes it means bright and sparkly projects and proving new ideas.

            “Can you cite a few commercially successful gamification projects led by academics or active PhD students as part of their work?”

            Can you cite a few academically successful gamification projects led by corporate bodies or their representatives? It is as unlikely as the inverse. Not because they are opposed or anything, but just because they aim at different outcomes. Universities are often 100% commercially driven in their dealings, but even as we enter the twilight of higher education, they represent an agenda outside of commerce. This is confused with ‘innovation’ sometimes by people both inside and outside the higher ed sector. They can seem messy, ineffective and often even pointless, but making them beholden to commerce doesn’t make them neat, effective or meaningful.

            I don’t want to seem totally opposed to your project – I’m not. The only thing I actively hate is the logo (kidding.) I believe in a playful world that makes life better for a lot of people. And I don’t particularly like it when people describe all corporations as evil either – because extreme statements obscure real discussion and real action. There’s a huge amount in common between people like yourself and people who have a range of non-commercial agendas. My reactions are very different to Ian’s and to other critics. But people can expect criticism when some who push Gamification go from spruiking advertising to 1) asserting a new orthodoxy for business and 2) asserting that commercial success elides easily with science.

  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.