The Code of Gamification Ethics

The Code of Gamification Ethics


For the last two years, I’ve been quietly talking about a gamification code of ethics. The discussion tends to come up most often at dinner parties and during GSummit, but it’s also been a hot topic during debates about gamification’s role in the future. I firmly believe that part of the reason we get so much snark online for Gamification is not because it’s a passing fad, but rather because it’s a powerful force for change that threatens the existing order. While we could dodge the question of gamification’s potential to cause harm to society, I don’t think we should.

That’s why I want to start a dialogue with the whole community about a code of ethics for our industry — and we need your involvement.

Why Do This?
Let’s be clear: gamification is a (perhaps the most) powerful tool for voluntary behavior change that we’ve ever seen. We all know that it can be used for good (see: Foldit, Zamzee, Speed Camera Lottery, etc etc) and that — despite the banality of some implementations — there is no evidence of it being used widely for evil. We also know that the game, film, loyalty and behavioral economics industries don’t really have an omnibus code of ethics, despite their persuasive natures. We also know that some communities (e.g. games) vehemently resist the notion of codes of conduct because of their concerns about censorship. So, it would be relatively easy for us to feel unfairly singled out for criticism, and to take the same approach as theirs: bruising battles in courts both legal and public. But I think we can do better, save ourselves the cost and hassle of a future fight, and ensure we have a greater impact on the world.

How Do We Do This
The newly created Engagement Alliance has three core objectives: Education, Advocacy and Research. Under its auspices, we’re rolling out a universal training and certification program for gamification designers. Within that framework, I believe we should have a voluntary gamification ethics code that certified designers agree to uphold. Over time, the ethics elements of the curriculum can be expanded and these values will be understood as part of what organizations get when they hire a Certified Gamification Designer to help them create engagement.

What Is the Proposed Ethics Statement
Here’s a starting point for an ethics statement based on the conversations we’ve had with industry experts over the past few months. What you can do: Please provide your feedback and input in the comments below this post. If you’re interested in joining a working group to evaluate this and other industry issues, make a note of that in your comments as well. Eventually this statement will be put up for a vote among certified designers and peers, so we need to craft something that will be broadly accepted by our industry. It does us no good if only a small percentage of interested parties will agree to this, so please consider that in your feedback.

Here’s the working statement:

As an accredited Gamification Designer, I pledge my best effort to act in accordance with the following principles when creating systems of engagement:

    1. I will strive to design systems that help individuals, organizations and societies achieve their true potential, acting consistently with their values and enlightened interest.
    2. I will not obfuscate the use of game mechanics with intent to deceive users about the purpose or objectives of the system.
    3. Where practical by law and contract, I will make an effort to share what I’ve learned about motivating behavior with the community so that others may leverage this understanding to advance society and the state of the art


Now it’s your turn: add your comments, thoughts and feedback to the comments section of this post and let’s get the discussion underway.


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  1. I like the idea of this, but I wonder about its actual value. At the end of the day, most designers will be creating what the client asks for. Sure they will try to steer them, but that is not always possible. Who is going to enforce this? Will this code of ethics only be viable to those who have taken the certification (I assume at a cost?).

    That said, I think number two is the crux though. We should not be using these powerful tools to trick people. Again, how is that to be decided and enforced and by whom.

    I personally feel that number one is a little irrelevant. You will be doing what ever suits the client. There is not benefit to you not too. 2 and 3 have merit, but need clarification on how they will be applied.

  2. I quite appreciate the introduction of a discussion of ethics on gamification. These tools and structures are powerful – and it is important to lay groundwork that shifts their use toward good. Thank you.

  3. “We all know that it can be used for good (see: Foldit, Zamzee, Speed Camera Lottery, etc etc) and that — despite the banality of some implementations — there is no evidence of it being used widely for evil.”

    This is interesting given that it was your book that made some of the first claims about gamification’s power to get people to do things against their own self-interest (including taking flights they did not need, etc.). And it is not “for evil” uses of gamification that most of us are concerned about — it is precisely the “against their own self-interest” that is an ethical problem. Consider two of the case-studies from one of your sponsors, Bunchball.

    One was for Playboy, was designed with the explicit goal of increasing engagement and building a younger demographic. As you are well aware, the “Miss Social” campaign used gamification to entice young women to enter the compete for a chance to earn a pictorial in Playboy. One need not view this as “evil” to still find it ethically troubling, given the power of using operant conditioning to harness the very dopamine reward system you yourself have described as both addictive and powerful to get people to do things they would NOT otherwise have done. That this particular and widely-celebrated use of gamification for business was specifically targeted at women the age of my two daughters, yes, I personally feel queasy about it.

    Then we have things like their gamification of Wendy’s “natural cut fries”. Also designed to get people to try and buy more fries than would otherwise have happened. It seems like there’s an ethical problem when this call for ethics you have describes the good — health uses — yet thinks that encouraging UNhealthy behaviors is somehow completely benign. I don’t think you get to have it both ways. If gamification for health is to be labeled “good”, then gamification for behaviors most reasonable people would deem NOT healthy needs to be labeled “bad”. Not evil, (depending on your definition of evil), but certainly the opposite of “good”.

    Gamification today — most uses — is operant conditioning. We all have plenty of evidence that it does “work” in “driving behavior”, and that includes behavior people would not otherwise have wanted. In other words, an involuntary behavior. Otherwise, you’d not be promoting it as such a powerful marketing tool… A tool you yourself described as being second only to sex as a behavior motivator. What seems most unethical is to celebrate the addictive, coercive power of dopamine (you named an agency after it) and then somehow claim it only works for “good” things or “voluntary”. This is not at all what your book says, and what you’ve said in presentations. And too many of us understand operant conditioning enough to know that it is indeed a brain hack, working OUTSIDE the levels of conscious control. You simply cannot use the word “voluntary” when you are describing a behavioral psychology long proven to produce behaviors that may appear voluntary (“nobody forced them to pull that slot machine lever!”) but are — at the brain chemistry/behavioral level far from behaviors they’d have chosen on their own, with no dopamine-assisted “help”.

    • Kathy:

      Great to hear from you again…though why use Sierra Tolter? 🙂

      I’m confused about how your comment above relates to this discussion. Are you suggesting that I can’t catalyze the discussion about ethics in the industry, or do you think they are not possible? Either way, it would be most helpful to everyone if we could put your considerable intellect to use in service of making this discussion constructive.

      How would you structure a code of ethics for gamification that makes sense to you? You’re clearly a thinker and writer of competence, perhaps you could take a stab at a version of it that folks could comment on?


  4. A few points, from someone who spends all his waking hours working on ethics:

    – You might give some thought as to whether this statement / pledge / code is intended as a) a guide to behaviour, b) a public promise, or c) both. Content will vary according to intention.

    – Get rid of words like “obfuscate.” Plain english is best.

    – Just as important as writing a code is rolling it out — getting into people’s hands, teaching them what it means, etc.

    – Don’t worry too much about people who will inevitably point out that such a code is unenforceable, has no teeth, etc. Community-building, and setting of shared norms, has to start somewhere. Putting down in writing that there are certain things that your community won’t do for money is a good thing.

  5. “I will not obfuscate the use of game mechanics with intent to deceive users about the purpose or objectives of the system.”
    I was left thinking: should a gamificaiton expert designer be setting clear objectives (as in, handing them out to the user/client) before starting on the gamificating experience.
    It´s a great start, but I believe it requires many more definitions; for example:
    Gamification sometimes uses symbolic situations and narrative to incentivate certain behaviours on the users; will we have to define which behaviours are ethical to achieve in your audience?

    I totally agree with you on all the points; just thought it requires a little bit more of defining and wording.

    • I think that needs tone simplified not made more complicated. The essence is that you will not trick users into giving info or doing things against their will. No mechanics / elements are in themselves unethical, it is how they are applied that is the issue.
      I will not use Gamification to deceive the end user into doing anything against their will.

      • What about if you create a gamified system which is used in schools to teach mathematics. Perhaps you´d be teaching mathematics to a student against his will, but for his own good. Would this be deemed as “unethical”?

  6. Unless this code of ethics is to help prevent people from breaking the law through the use of gamification, it seems to be counter intuitive. Gamification is a marketing tool and really no more or less than that. Marketing, based on it’s base definition, is designed to convince people to act a very specific way, with or against their will.

    So at it’s core, based on the high level principles proposed above, Gamification can never be used for marketing.

    Gamification to help motivate employees… this blows this article on ethics up. Rather than give people the money they deserve for their hard work let’s give them a virtual badge. If that’s not deceiving than I have no idea what is. And without this tactic, at least in the current market, the term gamification has no teeth.

    • Virtual rewards are just the most thin layer of Gamification. Whenever you look at motivation of any sort, money has to be off the table. If you are not paying a fair wage that makes people comfortable in their role, Gamification will never be a total solution.
      I am not the biggest fan of the code of ethics idea, for a number of reasons, but I feel Gamification conversations are extremely relevant right now – concentrating on the concept of virtual rewards vs real compensation is not really what we should be looking at. That is the worst kind of pointless Gamification.

      • I agree, I think engagement and loyalty are important topics to discuss. As a tactic or term Gamification has really been overstated and creates a lot of confusion. If you use the technical definition, it really is a superficial layer that has no intrinsic value. And the second you go outside of placing game mechanics onto a non-gaming system, it is no longer Gamification. So I think the discussion needs to move away from Gamification and focus on engagement and loyalty.

  7. When I think of ethics, I immediately need to think of the following examples that I thought are atrocious:

    – Jihadist using gamification to engage their supporters in online-forums (Alix Levine)
    – The IDF blog usage of gamification to promote their cause (bubbled up just a few weeks ago durin the Israeli-Hamas conflict)
    – the military’s use of gamification for several thousand years

    So I guess that’s not necessarily what we speak about, as the military will tell you, they were first.

    Anyways, I love the approach and think that this is a good way.

  8. Code of Conduct is a good idea and in my opinion, it is required. I see a lot of very good responses. While the code is being developed, I foresee some of the next steps which I am sure others can also foresee.

    1. The code, once finalized, needs to be enforced. There needs to be an enforcement agency that will lay out procedures of how to enforce it. I am including a link from ASHA where it describes how they enforce their code of conduct.

    2. Once, the code and the enforcing agency take shape, insurance companies will jump in to provide insurance against malpractice just like it is done in any other professional field. This will raise the cost of gamification. Certified Gamification Designers will become an official profession.

    Some of my two cents on the feedback is as follows.

    1. Yes, Gamification Designers will create what the clients ask for but what is ethical/legal will eventually develop and will be different in different countries. As Gamification Designing develops as a profession, Designers will eventually have to adopt to the latest rules and regulations in their country of operation. For example, it is legal and common in US to find out the sex of the child before birth. It is illegal to do so in India due to the high ratio of abortions in case of girl child. This stems from long archaic cultural beliefs and is going away slowly but it is still prevalent enough to dictate a strongly enforced law. So, yes, we will make mistakes initially but I think it will correct itself as time goes along. The very fact that we have started to think about this topic, in my opinion, is a good step in the positive direction.

    2. No one can prevent gamification from being used for wrong reasons. It is as much a tool as a gun or a scalpel. What is required is an enforcement agency that will take action whenever such cases are reported. Action could include legal consequences as well as official “debarring” from the designing community.

    3. Just like ads, gamification will also be used by companies selling cigarettes, guns, alcohol, sex, and any other product/service that falls in the “grey” area of a society. I do not think we should get into using code of ethics to ban or limit these. I too have two daughters and I too am concerned about their exposure. But I will never recommend adopting a “Puritanist” stance against them. As a parent, it is our responsibility to create an environment where the child trusts you more than anyone else in their circle. It is our responsibility to teach our kids about the good, the bad and more importantly how to create/choose a balance. I know it is easier said than done but I am a very firm believer of this. No matter how much you regulate, people who want to do something will do it regardless. Prohibition was an example of this. Kids learn from people they trust. We, as parents, need to be in the center of their circle of trust.

    Regulating gamification in this aspect, will open avenues for regulating ads and literature. That will just foray easily into freedom of speech. I don’t think I want any of that.

  9. just a quick comment – the first 2 statements seem to be ethical matters. the 3rd one does not. it’s a good thing to do, but there are lots of good things we should be doing (e.g. be thoughtful about your design). I would suggest l
    leaving that one out.

  10. I totally agree that an accredited set of rules should be developed, the issue will be, as a few people have stated, how do you enforce or at least influence people to implement gamification with ethics?
    Personally I feel that gamification is potentially so effective, although still probably as devicive as behavioural economics, that practitioners should be monitored and that means having to be accredited, to be allowed to design with gamification.

    • Again, that may be going a little far. That’s like saying you have to be accredited to do web design or develop software. I think of you want to be part of a trade body them fine, you agree to a set of standards. I will work within the local laws and not use Gamification to be evil – that sort of thing. But you will never be able to enforce it for non members. This should be about creating a standard for potential employers / clients to be able to feel confident in.

  11. The Regulators
    We are here to fight for you. Has social gaming become a series of email marketing bombarding you with links of their daily rewards that have expired within a few hours but states a 24 hr period? Or consistently offering great rewards if you can convince the people with whom you have created solid relations to join their game. Have you been told, that you recieve even bigger rewards if you collect a series of items, with a seemingly impossible method of acquiring such a task by requesting these collectables from your friends and family? How about you good old buddy hits you up on FB Chat and asks;”Hey did you get that item you asked for”? I’ve sent it 5 or 6 times and you keep requesting the same item”? Which is the one item your missing in your collection that promises huge rewards, and one of the few gifts that will never be in your possession, they are giving their loyal paying customers the old run around. These actions are not an ethical way of doing business in any arena. Unfortunately they do exisist, and need to be weeded out of the herd. You see business comes in all shapes and sizes. You have few bad apples in big bucket of apples and it can change the whole social gaming environment for the worst. This can be very frustrating, especially before we decided to take action. I was also a huge Facebook gaming fan, and have been taken advantage of, becoming a victim of their complex, and systematic hidden agenda. An agenda which they easily disguise as generous or free. However when closely scrutinized the very rewards and promotional offers made are all part of the grand scheme of their real agendas; manipulation, and greed rears it’s ugly head. Your then engulfed with anger and feelings of embarrassment and you want vengance. Relax. They are not in control you the “loyal Customer” who gives them their hard earned money with the only expectation any paying customer deserves for their money; getting what was offered to you. HELLO??? ALL GAME DEVELOPERS OUT THERE IN CYBER SPACE, IT’S TIME TO PAY UP OR SHIP OUT!!!

  12. HI there,
    some thoughts from someone currently thinking a lot about gamification in the area of research. Love the open and constructive discussion here. However, when developing such a code, we should be aware that we are talking about different industries and truly global right now. So different needs may exist while talking about marketing, research, or organisationsl behaviour / HR applications and about settings in different countries. Thus, I believe such a global code needs to be quite top level which might not be detailed enough for some of us, however can work as a first statement which soon can become a standard for the whole branch.

    Some ideas I would find important to cover in such a code:
    a) Transparency: I know not all of us are sure whether it is useful to tell users that a they will enter a gamified process, I believe it would be great to implement a standard on being transparent (or at least giving a user the option to read about the used processes and their purpose). To use a picture – let’s take the usage of Cookies: Probably none of us reads statements on cookie policies when surfing, however, the possibility exist on most pages and thus gives the interested user the chance to understand what is going on, which cookies are used and for which purpose. It creates trust but does it really change usage behavior?

    b) Dealing with gamification directed towards minors: Really important topic, and here already the common sense of what is perceived as being evil differs from applications directed towards adults. Therefore I believe a clear statement in a code of what is allowed and what is not when working with minors (e.g. in terms of changing behavior), can really create trust into the industry.

    c) Data security: Of course rules and regulations differ by industry and country, however in such a (general) global code, adding a statement that all these national and industry codes will be followed is important in my opinion.

    So far for now on my ideas for (more or less) concrete points. Following the discussion on execution and controlling of such a code: I am not quite sure whether this should be part of such a discussion right now. First goal should be to bring together some thought-leaders from the different industries which take part in the development process and by that will become committed to the code and its execution. This will lead to quality products and services, and soon become industry standard and not leaving room for too many black sheeps. But of course black sheeps always will exist. But the more the industry grows, the more industry or country specific organisations (or chapters of an association) will develop which can adapt a global code to local needs and by that make it more concrete and thus also make it possible to certify and control.


  13. This is a fantastic concept, proven by the fact that it has more comments and “reactions” on here than any other article I’ve read. But all the comments at this point are 3 months old/stale. Will there be any focus on this at the GSummit?

  14. I support this. Similar to the Agile Manifesto ( ) , we’re going for a vision which lays the foundation of meaningful Gamification. One slight tweak to what is above: change “..state of the art..” to “..state of our art..” This is to help enforce the sense of community, our community. 🙂

  15. I like the idea of a code of conduct or ethics statement and I do support it. However, the working statement needs a little tweaking I think.

    For instance, I do not know (all) the values of the individuals, organizations and societies that will eventually use my gamified system. So it is hard for me to promise to act consistently with THEIR values. A more general, but no less powerful description might be better. Or just skip the last part of the sentence.

    Perhaps something like this:

    1) I will do my best to design systems that really help individuals, organizations and societies achieve their true potential and goals.
    2) I will be honest and straight forward in the way I use game mechanics and will never use them to deceive users.
    3) I will generously share my knowledge and insights with the community, law and contracts permitting.

    I know it is easy to tweak something that is already there. It’s much harder to see what is not (yet) there. What is missing. Does anyone have additions to these three points?