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!”

4 Replies to “In Defence of Gameification”

  1. Great article and I agree with you that mundane businesses cannot expect to be transformed into stellar ones. Gamification is being oversimplified by some of the other companies in our space.

    At BigDoor ( we want publishers to look at the key actions that make them successful and look at gamification as a way to promote those actions more. Don’t add a game layer just to add a game layer. It should feel natural and flow seamlessly into your users experience.

  2. Agreed. Did this project where I added basic gamey stuff to an e-learning thing, and it really actually worked rather well. And that’s fine, “revise GCSE maths” has some extrinsic motivators already, is easy to break down into sub-challenges leading to an ultimate goal of completion, etc.

    I think all these mechanics basically help you get through the less-fun bits of any game… where it’s a grind but at least you can assess your progress, keep track of your goals and so on. So applying it to the less-fun bits of life makes sense too.

    But obviously without some kind of core commitment to the overall experience, badges and points and all that are of little use, and can become a bit jarring. When you’re in a “curious” or “exploratory” mode of engaging with something, constant demands to “complete the set” or “earn the achievement” feel out of place.

    It’s a bit like the old ARG trope of slogans in the imperative tense – “STOP THE SECRET SOCIETY” – before you’ve even orientated yourself in the world of the story and started to give a damn.

    Also, I think that often merely providing a user with metrics of progress and representation of experience is enough – people are smart enough to set their own goals and use the metrics to set them. For example, Today’s Guardian is smart because you can get a sense of how much of the paper you’ve read, and i you decide you want to read it all, you can see your progress. But adding a “Read all of The Guardian!” badge would still only attract the people who were interested in reading it all anyway, but actually alienate people who weren’t interested, as if they were failing to complete a task they hadn’t previously thought they even ought to. I think that’s when “Gamification” breaks, when it feels like orders barked at you that you want to rebel against:

    “no i do not want to and now in fact to demonstrate that I am going to read NONE of it”

    Finally, are O.B.E’s the monarchy-endorsed set of unlockable badges?

    [PS: I like your point about the school and I am writing something quite long about that at the moment!]

  3. Nice post! Also very true that rewards as incentives are nothing new and don’t make something a game necessarily. Ancient Egypt had military medals in the form of the golden fly ( and political rewards in the form of ‘gold of praise’, bestowed in award ceremonies (

    You could also collect honorific titles, which weren’t linked to actual positions but were just used to indicate rank. The more important you got, the more of these cool titles you got, some of which may have been linked to actual ‘achievements’, like ‘acquaintance of the king’. Almost like levelling up! So yes, as you say, rewards can definitely be good and some of the ways they’re being implemented these days are interesting, even if they weren’t actually invented by game designers and social media gurus 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s