Phil Maher’s New Rules On Gamification Ethics

Phil Maher’s New Rules On Gamification Ethics


Recently we were asked by some readers to have a discussion about the “Ethics of Gamification,” and it wasn’t the first time we’ve been asked about this. I have avoided this question previously because I didn’t know where to start. When someone asks me “What about the ethics behind gamification?” The answer which comes to me immediately is “whose ethics are you speaking of?” What is ethical to you might be unethical to others, or if you prefer 70s sitcom language: “what might be right for you, might not be right for some.”

I’ve maintained that rather than declare who or what is allowed to use gamification, it is better to comment on how it’s being used by an organization, and whether or not they have used it effectively toward their intended goals.

However, since people have demanded some moral guidance from our blog, lest they be lead astray, I’ve decided to consult with an expert in the field of human ethics.

Dr. Phil Maher* is the twin brother of HBO comedian Bill Maher, famous for his “New Rules,” where he declares sardonically how the world should be run at the end of every episode of his series”Real Time.” Unlike his brother, Phil Maher is completely sincere and always optimistic in his outlook. He teaches ethics at the the Princeton University School of Law and was recently laid off from his column at Newsweek, so he had lots of time to talk with me, in his distinctive voice that sounds a great deal like Alan Alda.

Prof. Phil Maher’s New Rules on Gamification Ethics
  • New Rule – Stop complaining about how awkward the word “gamification” sounds without first contributing a more pleasant sounding word to the lexicon. You might think it’s easy to create a word to describe game mechanics applied to non-game contexts, but it’s really hard to get these terms to stick. If you don’t like the word “gamification,” just describe that addictive feeling you get when you’re playing an awesome game, and the hours are flying by but you haven’t noticed, and you’ve forgotten to bathe and your wife has left you but you can’t pull yourself away, even though your house is on fire. That’s the feeling our designers can get your customers to feel about your product.It’s not necessarily unethical to complain constantly about how a word sounds, but it is very irritating after awhile.
  • New Rule –  The player has to know that he or she is part of a game. No one wants to wake up one day and discover they’ve been living in the Matrix. This is highly unethical!
  • New Rule – You can’t design any game similar to those seen in the Saw series and call it “the gamification of psychopathic homicide.” You’re a serial killer, and you should be in prison. Any game that involves this level of torture is unethical.
  • New Rule – You shouldn’t steal the game architecture of a fellow designer and claim it as your own. That’s unethical. It’s fine to be inspired by a design but give credit where credit is due.
  • New Rule – If you wouldn’t want to play it, you shouldn’t make others play it. If you’d find something about a game irritating, don’t put it in your game. Remember that if a game “feels distasteful,” many people will not want to play it, regardless of how fun it is, how well it’s made, or how well it aligns with your goals. Those that do want to play it and see nothing wrong with it will hear intense criticism from those that find it distasteful.

It’s a fact of history that gamification techniques were used by various military and party regimes. In some instances status rewards were bestowed on vulnerable young people to recruit more members and get them to report on activity by their teachers and parents that was viewed as counter to their group’s goals.

It’s also true that gamification may be what cures AIDS, solves the education crisis in the United States and saves the world from being devoured by garbage.

For every person who feels annoyed when a corporation uses a game to collect customer data, there is a person who feels grateful to have accumulated so many airline miles they don’t have to wait in line for a seat on their next flight when they travel so often.

What is crucial to any conversation about ethics in gamification is transparency and continuous discussion. Which is true about the ethics of just about anything.

image by Chocolate Geek


* – Is not actually a real person. Was just trying to be funny. How many other errors can you spot in this article?


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  1. You start this piece by saying that ethics are relative to the person but then try to set rules as to what is ethical/unethical. Perhaps you should be consistent and just admit that gamification can be and is employed unethically.