A note to the Gamification Summit: Surviving the backlash

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  • This week, scores of designers, developers, marketers, and venture capitalists are meeting up at the Gamification Summit in San Francisco. Since it appeared in the pop design lexicon a very few years ago, interest in “gamification” has exploded worldwide.

    But even as its popularity is surging, a growing cultural skepticism of gamification has started to emerge. There’s a creeping suspicion that “gamified” applications are exploitative, cynical, ill-conceived, simplistic, and ultimately unsustainable. Thought leaders who have advocated for the social benefits of games and play are careful to draw a line between their own views and gamification. These are just a few

    • Jane McGonigal declared in The New York Times that “I don’t do ‘gamification,’ and I’m not prepared to stand up and
      say I think it works. I don’t think anybody should make games to try to
      motivate somebody to do something they don’t want to do. If the game is
      not about a goal you’re intrinsically motivated by, it won’t work.”
    • Ian Bogost made his views reasonably clear in his blog post “Gamification is Bullshit“, elaborating that “[The term] ‘exploitationware’ captures gamifiers’ real intentions: a grifter’s game, pursued to capitalize on a cultural moment, through services about which they have questionable expertise, to bring about results meant to last only long enough to pad their bank accounts before the next bullshit trend comes along.”
    • Eric Zimmerman was a tad more subtle but no less critical in his keynote at GLS 7 asserting that “Stakeholders of all kinds are falling for fads like badges and gamification. Maybe we’re barking up the wrong trees — or even wandering in the wrong forest altogether.”
    • Jesse Schell (a speaker at this year’s Gamification Summit) expresses his concern that “A lot of times these efforts can have a kind of fake feeling to them, and it’s one of the real problems these efforts have” in an online video

    It must be said that all of these critiques do not come without very strong justification. We suffer a glut of implementations toting the “gamification” banner that amount to little more than points and badges tacked onto an underlying system that remains otherwise unchanged. These
    kinds of approaches will not survive because they do not value gameplay, so players will not value them.

    It’s hard to think that gamification is anything but overhyped at the moment, and that its cresting popularity isn’t headed for a crash. Gartner’s hype cycle illustrates how this happens predictably with hot new thing after hot new thing.


    I happen to believe that games can achieve great things in the real world. I’m sure that a lot of people at the Gamification Summit believe that too, but the overwhelming noise in the current market makes it difficult discern which projects have the real potential to effect meaningful change. The world needs to move toward a post-hype discussion of how games can make a difference in people’s lives. I’ll offer a few suggestions for things that I believe are important to that discussion.

    1. Conceive of these projects as games, first and foremost.
      Rather than creating things that are game-like or game-inspired, create things that are true games. You can’t bolt game elements onto something that isn’t a game and expect them to have the effect that an actual game would have. Much better to start with something that really is a game, through and through.
    2. Value the quality of the player experience. More than anything else, games need to be designed to be enjoyed. This is, after all, the reason why people play games in the first place. It’s not because they love your brand; they play because they value the experience. Designers should care about the design, and how it arouses feelings of engagement, fulfillment, pride, connectedness, and fun in players.
    3. Put the interests of players before your own. Any successful game experience must work in service of the interests of the player before it works in service of the interests of its designers. There’s an inherent selfishness to gameplay, and players will reject experiences that prioritize someone else’s agenda. To the extent that any design trades off enjoyable gameplay in service of real-world objectives, it is ultimately shooting itself in the foot.
    4. Focus on intrinsic rewards. Games must enjoyed in and of themselves, and not played only for the extrinsic rewards they offer. HopeLab’s ZamZee, for instance, pays kids real-world rewards for the number of steps they take in a day. This isn’t a game, because people would feel no motivation to play it if the bribes weren’t there. A true game stands on its own, and offers its own rewards.
    5. Do good. Much of the cynicism around gamification comes from its frequent association with the marketing of commercial products like Honey Nut Cheerios and Chicken McNuggets. Of course games can serve good too, as the impressive titles showcased at conferences like Games for Health and Games for Change demonstrate year after year. People are much more likely to have welcoming attitudes toward these kinds of games.
    6. Let’s stop talking about “using” games. I personally slip up on this a lot, but it’s important to realize that this particular turn of phrase is very off-putting. It has a sinister ring of manipulation, and alienates players who don’t want to feel like they’re being “used” for someone else’s ends.
    7. Drop the “g” word. In addition to sounding graceless and faddish, “gamification” completely emphasizes the wrong thing. It implies an experience that is by its nature something other than a game, but dressed up to resemble one. It’s also so imprecisely defined that it has been broadly applied to anything from Farmville to LinkedIn’s profile completeness bar. This is not a useful term, because it can’t make meaningful distinctions between meaningfully dissimilar things.

    Taking these suggestions would muddle contemporary thinking around gamification to the point that it’s not clear that it would continue to exist as a concept. Maybe that’s a good thing. We can’t get to the other side of the hype cycle, where the underlying idea finally finds productive mainstream adoption, without a major shift in the status quo. For games to realize their full potential to create meaningful change in the real world, maybe “gamification” has to die.

    One Response to “A note to the Gamification Summit: Surviving the backlash”

    1. Tremendously validating, humbling and delightful to find someone so well (and for so long) articulating the principles and concepts we use at Elbowfish, not only in our own games but in the design consulting we do. We use the phrase “Playful Design” as a more apt, descriptive and workable alternative to Jane McGonigal’s “Gameful Design”. It more closely matches our approach of “bringing games to life”. I have already found many nuggets of wisdom on your blog, and looking forward to reading your book.