Why It Doesn’t Matter What “Gamification” Is Called

Why It Doesn’t Matter What “Gamification” Is Called


Lets focus the gamification name debate towards something more useful

There were many brilliant stories of successful case studies and tactful use of engagement techniques at GSummit 2013 but a common qualm about the concept of gamification was made clear in a number of presentations:

People really don’t like the word “gamification”.

Various high-profile speakers, including 2 of the top 10 speakers at GSummit 2013 (Schell and Werbach), explicitly mentioned their displeasure at the g-word and offered a number of alternative names like “motivational design” or “human-focused design”.  From what I understand of the complaints, the g-word has negative connotations to it and provides a limited scope through which it can be understood. Many of these complaints are valid but the fact is, if you’re someone who is interested in gamification and/or is working towards implementing it in your own organization, it really doesn’t matter and here’s why:

There are two camps people divide themselves into two camps when they hear the word gamification — they either hate the concept and dismiss it immediately or they become inspired and very excited about the idea of it.

I imagine that those reading Gamification.Co and other articles on this site belong in the latter camp. I feel very strongly that much of the criticisms tied to gamification are rooted in how the name was initially perceived and poorly designed gamification systems which make up the majority of the examples out there. Yet, gamification has existed for a very long time and predates the name we give it now.

Gamification as a word that has unclear origins and was conceived around 2010. Even though the term itself only emerged in 2010, the name has been popularized to form communities and discussions about the idea at large. Changing the name now won’t improve the poor designs most people are doing and it won’t save the 80% of failures that will happen by 2014If you care about the concept of gamification, which I suspect you do, then move on from the semantic debates and just figure out what naming convention works for you and your cause. 

I had a panel discussion at GSummit with a number of gamification experts from consulting firms and Bart Briers of CTG retold a story about gamifying a process for a client. Bart is very fond of gamification but is aware that it’s not a familiar term in Europe, so he simply came up with a plan with gamification elements, executed the plan, and gained results. It is only after receiving these results that he decided to explain to his client that he had used gamification. On the opposite spectrum, when Sascha Goto of McKinsey wanted to propose a gamified idea to improve internal processes, one colleague exclaimed that he did not want his job turned into World of Warcraft. How you decide to propose the concept of gamification can be a tricky prospect but the onus is you to understand who you’re appealing to and alter the name accordingly to get them excited.

Even if the g-word won’t excite everyone right away, an actionable plan with proper gamification design and goals, should. And if you so happen to execute and it fails then that’s that; a gamification failure won’t be a result of whatever it is you called it in the plan proposal, g-word or not. 

The gamification concept itself in name is not meant for being heraladed as the shining solution to every problem and rightfully so, since most people who try it will get it wrong. It is merely the name that the community has come together under and is able to talk about. Regardless of what you think of the name the ideas will still be around after the g-word is long gone. We can and should devote our time to a more intelligent discussion about how to effectively use these tactics rather than a more appealing way to describe the idea because the underlying strategies ultimately remain the same. 

Given the general reaction to the g-word at GSummit, I do suspect that the term will be slowly phased out but it still doesn’t matter — we (both opponents and proponents) are all going to continue talking about how it is affecting all industries for years to come and as long as humans still continue to play, then gamification, motivational design, chocofication — or whatever it might be called next — will continue to exist as a topic of discussion.

Flickr Image by pennstatenews


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  1. Don’t mind if I do some self-advocating, but I published a post in October about how “Stories Shape the World” and i DID NOT use the g-word. (http://weplay.co/gamification-envisioning-a-new-tomorrow/)

    The story attempts to explain how design changes “in the blink of an eye” and how life is just a series of game PLAYING.

    Doesn’t game design teach us iteration and learning from feedback? Well, feedback received. From now onward, I hope that we can discuss game design principles solely on what is it about these bad boys THAT MAKE STUFF FUN!

    So let’s begin with this question: If you play games, what is your favorite game and why? And yes, “telephone” is also a game!

  2. I beg to differ. Though not too much energy should be invested in forming an alternate name for what we now call gamification, there should still be an active push towards finding it a better name and a better place in the study of human behavior and design.

  3. I find that initially that the g-word can be a big turnoff. However, once its purpose is clearly explained and its techniques described in the context that they only work if effectively adapted to business objectives, then people ‘get it’ and seem to actually like the g-word (a lot) and don’t mind hearing/using it at all. Perhaps gamifying this educational process is the solution — where the reward is the knowledge of what lies behind the name.

  4. No different in any other industry, no matter how old or young. Trying to identify and define itself is an effort some are happy to waste hours on in an attempt to be the one to coin the phrase.
    Perhaps if there was more focus on achieving results to prove the application of game and reward mechanics in business and personal context than making up a name then it would mature at a much faster rate.

    Btw the website is one of the most annoyingly designed to access via a mobile browser. That in itself is a failure of the concept you’re trying to prove. Not everything needs “gamified” and the first step towards definition is recognizing that.

    • I so agree with you, Theo. I still hear debates over what is meant by the term “Leadership”, but no one is ever going to win that one! I saw a recent debate on the term “Change Management”. It appears many want to ditch that as well.

  5. Hey Ivan – thanks for the article. I agree – i think the key point here is that if your stakeholders or clients don’t like the word, then just pick something else that resonates.

  6. This discussion seems to be around how the label “gamification” impacts perception… which feels like a marketing/positioning POV. What will prospective clients think? How will executives “see” this? This is certainly a valid concern, but there are far more important issues around using ill-defined and/or over-generalized and (potentially) misleading terms. The biggest problem is that there is no way to have reasonable, clear discussions about a term so broad that it includes concepts, ideas, and practices that are often in complete conflict with another. It is as if we are using the term “Surgification” to include anything possibly related to medical surgery and also …. Psychic surgery. To discuss the “mechanics” associated with surgery while missing both the context and precise details, *no useful conclusions can be made.*

    Many gamification practitioners want to make sweeping statements about the “effectivess” of gamification, and this is not possible without making the fine distinctions. I think gamification co, in particular, wants to have it both ways: to claim there is “evidence” for its success and “science” behind it, but then dismiss attempts to find more precise and narrow distinctions when “science” and “evidence” are involved. That’s sort of like saying, “here is the proof and evidence and science” while simultaneously saying, “why be so picky and sciencey? That just distracts us from the important things.” You need to take a stand either way. Either you care about science or you don’t, but you can’t cherry pick and use science only when it suits your purposes then dismiss it when it gets in the way.

    You cannot make meaningful claims about such disparate ideas and practices. Pinning them down may be annoying (and make it difficult to spin) but it is the only way to earn the right to use science and stats and evidence in an intellectually honest (and useful) way. Today, we have people tweeting a report about a game and saying, “gamification works.” And you are attempting to “certify” people in this, which is even more disturbing. (I say that as one who has worked with psychometricians for many years to develop professional certifications that are both meaningful and valid.)

  7. Great Article!

    I must admit I spend most of clients meetings explaining what gamification is and frankly it is not so easy. Many corporate clients, are game-wary. However, If people get the chance to work with knowledgeable individuals then that is brilliant. http://www.morfmedia.com