In Defence of Gameification

There’s been lots of joking going on about gameification and pointification and badgeification lately. Everything is being gameified, and game designers don’t like it. It’s a bit odd – shouldn’t game designers like game mechanics (and points and badges) being applied to the world? Aren’t game mechanics great ways of engaging people and producing fun, and shouldn’t we want to bring that to businesses and products and services? Apparently not.

So, what’s the problem?

1. Gameification Doesn’t Work

Clearly untrue, at least for things like loyalty cards and Airmiles. For my part, the gameification of my health insurance definitely encouraged me to go to the gym more often, in order to get vastly reduced premiums. It seemed like a good trade to me.

2. Gameification Shouldn’t Be Used For [Insert Sacred Thing]

Most people aren’t too pleased with game mechanics being applied to CCTV surveillance, but then again, most cases aren’t that clear cut. Should we ‘gameify’ school, for example? Or hospitals? Or safe driving? What if a ‘gamefied’ school saw its grades rise by 10% – would it be worth it then?

When we’re assessing the value of these cases, we need to take a good, hard look at the effects of gameification – not merely in those areas that it’s trying to improve (in the case of schools, students’ grades) but in wider areas as well (such as the motivation of students). Personally, I hate the idea of people having their lives governed by points and achievements, and it’s clear that these things can’t reflect the richness of the world – but that doesn’t mean they can’t be gainfully employed for more limited purposes.

3. Gameification Rewards Worthless Things

Should we really get points and achievements for such trivial things as turning off the lights at work, recycling a can, or brushing our teeth? Do these ‘micro rewards’ infantilise us, or do they help build up good habits? It really depends on the design on the game, not the concept of rewards themselves.

It’s Not Really That Bad

I’ve gone back and forth on gameification a few times, but my current feeling is that gameification isn’t all that bad. It’s merely a tool that may or may not work for some people; in my case, it helped me go to the gym more often. It’s not a magic wand though; points and badges are unlikely to transform a mundane business into a stellar one, but they can help reinforce and encourage certain behaviours.

I think the reason why there’s a backlash amongst game designers against gameification is because we don’t like other people using our toys. We feel that points and levels and achievements should be the domain of trained professionals, not amateurs – or even worse, businessmen. When we point and sneer at every new website that awards achievements for reading articles or sharing cars or schoolwork, we’re making fun of the stupid people who think that gameifying something will make them money.

But you know what? Businesses don’t care about fun, or games, or anything other than making money – they’d sell coke to small children if they could. If you want to critique capitalism, get in line, but don’t become surprised or annoyed when businesses try to make money through mechanics that we’ve long said promote engagement (like the ‘percentage complete’ bar in LinkedIn).

The truth is, points and awards and badges were never our toys to begin with. They’re so much older than us; they’ve existed for hundreds if not thousands of years, through military medals and music certificates and guilds and the Scouts, for good and for ill, and it is just laughable that game designers would now complain about their apparent misuse, as if our invention were being abused. With ubiquitous computing and connectivity, we can track human activity on a finer scale than ever before, so it’s no surprise we clothe that data in points and we direct our behaviour through achievements. It’s pretty obvious.

Gameification is just the latest buzzword that generates more heat than light; it’s the new social media. Like social media, it’s not ‘bad’, it’s not ‘good’, it’s just a new way of doing something we’ve always done.

Update: Naomi Alderman made a great point  – imagine if military medals were just invented: “You’re giving a badge for killing people? That’s sick!”

More on the Death of Publishers

If book publishers want to see the next decade in any reasonable health, then it’s absolutely imperative that they rethink their pricing strategies and business models right now. Hopefully this example will illustrate why:

I’m a big fan of Iain Banks’ novels; I always buy them in hardback as soon as they come out. It doesn’t matter what reviewers say, I need to have his books immediately. His latest novel, Surface Detail, came out a few days ago and promptly arrived at my office – all 627 pages of it. I lugged the thing home and began reading it this morning.


Being a Culture novel, it’s a real page-turner and I found it difficult to pull myself away from it. I didn’t want to lug it back to the office again, not least because I didn’t have any space left in my bag, so I did the unthinkable – I googled surface detail ePub so I could download and read it on my iPad (and iPhone).

I try doing this every six months or so, and I usually end up mired in a swamp of fake torrent links and horrible PDF versions; for what it’s worth, this was mostly out of curiosity, since six months ago I didn’t own an iPad.

This time, it took me 60 seconds to download a pristine ePub file, and another five minutes to move it to my iPad and iPhone. While this was going on, I took the opportunity to poke around the torrent sites and forums that my search had yielded, and discovered a wonderful selection of books, including:

  • Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
  • Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre
  • Jump! by Jilly Cooper
  • The Fry Chronicles, by Stephen Fry
  • Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Solar, by Ian McEwan
  • Zero History, by William Gibson
  • Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward

Now, that’s not all of the current bestsellers, but it’s not a bad start. “Oh, but we’ve still got the backlist!” I hear some publisher cry. No such luck, because some helpful pirate has bundled entire collections of popular backlist novels into single torrents, including:

  • Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels
  • Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Narnia
  • Harry Potter
  • Artemis Fowl
  • Twilight
  • The Hunger Games
  • Every Ken Follett book
  • Every Stieg Larsson book
  • Every Stephen King book
  • Every Douglas Adams book
  • etc.

Pretty much all of these books are available in ePub, mobi, PDF and every other popular format (the non-fiction and literary selection is much worse though, which probably reflects the tastes of the people uploading the torrents – that’ll change soon enough).

I am not a torrent-finding genius – I just know how to add ‘ePub’ to the name of a book or author. I don’t need a fast internet connection, because most books are below 1MB in size, even in a bundle of multiple formats. I don’t need to learn how to use Bittorrent, because I already use that for TV shows. And Apple has made it very easy for me to add ePub files to my iPad and iPhone. So really, there is nothing stopping me from downloading several hundred books other than the fact that I already have too much to read and I think authors should be paid.

But why would the average person not pirate eBooks? Like Cory Doctorow says, it’s not going to become any harder to type in ‘Toy Story 3 bittorrent’ in the future – and ‘Twilight ePub’ is even easier to type, and much faster to download to boot.

After Christmas, tens of millions of people will have the motive, the means, and the opportunity to perform book piracy on a massive scale. It won’t happen immediately, but it will happen. It’ll begin with people downloading electronic copies of books they already own, just for convenience’s sake (and hey, the New York Times says it’s ethical!). This will of course handily introduce them to the world of ebook torrents.

Next, you’ll have people downloading classics – they’ll say to themselves, “Tolkein and C. S. Lewis are both dead, so why should I feel bad about pirating their books?” Then you’ll have people downloading ebooks not available in their country yet. Then it’ll be people downloading entire collections, just because it’s quicker. Then they’ll start wondering why they should buy any ebooks at all, when they cost so much. And then you go bust.

(In case you think this is just a scary story, think again – a conservative estimate this month suggests there are 1.5-3 million people looking for pirated eBooks every day (PDF). A suggestion: If you gave away a free eBook copy with physical books, that might help things. A bit.)

But of course I’m exaggerating. Most publishers won’t go bust. eBook prices will be forced down, margins will be cut, consolidation will occur. New publishers will spring up, with lower overheads and offering authors a bigger cut. A few publishers will thrive; most publishers will suffer. Some new entrants will make a ton of cash; maybe there’ll be a Spotify or Netflix for books. Life will go on. Authors will continue writing – it’s not as if they ever did it for the money – and books will continue being published.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post called The Death of Publishers. Back then, most commenters didn’t believe that eBook readers would ever rival physical books for convenience and comfort. They didn’t think that it would ever be that easy to pirate books. The post caused a splash at the time, but it didn’t change anything.

Here’s an excerpt:

Book publishers have had a longer grace period than the other entertainment industries. Computers and iPods had an easy time besting DVDs and CDs, but it’s been difficult to make something that can compete with a book. It may be strange to hear, but a book is a fantastic piece of technology. It’s portable, it doesn’t need batteries, it’s cheap to print and easy to read. This has led many publishers to complacency, thinking there’s something special about books that will spare them from the digital revolution. They’ve seen so many poor or substandard eBook readers that they think it’ll never be done properly.

They’re wrong. eBook readers are about to get very good, very quickly. A full colour wireless eBook reader with a battery life of over a week, a storage capacity of a thousand books, and a flexible display will be yours for $150 in ten years time. If this sounds unbelievable, consider this – the first iPod was released only six years ago and cost $400. Imagine what an iPod will look like in four years time.

How wrong I was! It’s only taken us three years to get the Kindle 3 at a mere $189, with a battery life of a month and a storage capacity of 3500 books. Sure, it doesn’t have colour or a flexible display, but it does have global wifi and 3G, and it’s a lot lighter than I thought it might be. Give it another year or two and we’ll have that colour as well.

(I was also wrong about scanning and OCRing being the main way of pirating books – turns out it was people cracking the DRM of eBooks that publishers had helpfully formatted and distributed themselves!)

But I was right about the complacency of publishers. They’ve spent three years bickering about eBook prices and Amazon and Apple and Andrew Wylie, and they’ve ignored that massive growling wolf at the door, the wolf that has transformed the music and TV so much that they’re forced to give their content away for practically nothing.

Time’s up. The wolf is here.