Thursday, May 22, 2014

Gamification Pros and Cons

Note: This post assumes that you already know what gamification is, how it is usually implemented, and basic theories of motivation.

The arguments for and against gamification are aimed at all three gamification philosophies; and it's often hard to distinguish for or against which philosophy the argument is directed. The proponents of one philosophy may join outsider deriders of gamification to argue that the other two philosophies are irrelevant, counterproductive, or bad.

Let’s take a look at the arguments for and against gamification.


Leader boards, badges, points, and missions are proven motivators, in and of themselves. You don’t need – in fact, you don’t want – a game designer. "If anyone tries to sell you a game designer to design your Loyalty 3.0 program [gamification + data crunching], you should run away screaming." – Rajat Paharia, Founder and CPO of Bunchball Inc.

If there is a task that you have to do anyway, wouldn't you rather do it and have fun at the same time? If there is a product or message with which you might be tempted to engage, wouldn't engaging with a game system be an additional motivation to do so? Furthermore, once you have engaged with a game system and the other players who use it, you have invested in earning non-transferable rewards and formed a social group, which induces loyalty and encourages repeat visits and engagement.

Case after case demonstrates that game reward systems work: Warner Bros, Chiquita, SAP, Foursquare, Nike, Starbucks, Bluewolf, LiveOps, Ford, Microsoft, Verizon Wireless, and so on.

People love fast, immediate feedback from systems that have historically been silent. People love conquerable challenges and goals, and they love displaying badges. These kinds of indicators provide intrinsic motivation, such as feelings of accomplishment and success, competition, and interaction with a community.

Yes, there is a problem with a leader board in that only the people who are near the top are really motivated to keep competing. To address this, you can have your leader board display only the area around the current player, so that players are only in competition with others who are doing about the same as them: a localized leader board effect.

Points are a way of feeling proud about the task you have accomplished. Badges are a way of sharing your accomplishment with others to receive social status and support. Games help you do what you want to do anyway, but are having trouble doing because the task is too big, or you’re too isolated, or you can’t see the results immediately. Well-designed games focus you in the right direction and give you the immediate feedback you need to motivate you to succeed.

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer was on the right track: Work is what you’re obliged to do. Play is what you want to do (actually, "what you're not obliged to do"). Making everyday tasks more fun turns work into play. By fun, I mean the type of fun that motivates people to play games for hours at a time: progress, challenge, competition, problem solving, instant feedback, and so on.

Adding play to things that are not already play, like filling out tax forms or waiting in line at the DMV can and should make life more enjoyable. Furthermore, for play tasks, people spend more time and talent and are far less likely to give up when faced with obstacles. Thousands of people freely solve complex tasks in a playful environment, while paid tasks that feel like work lead to less output and worse results.


At best, gamification that serves a corporate interest doesn't serve your interest. At best, it treats you like a mouse in a Skinner box. There is only so long that people are willing to push a lever to get a pellet. In gamification's case, it’s not even a pellet, it’s a virtual pellet. If companies replace good service, lower prices, real value, and attention to quality with virtual rewards, customers will eventually figure out that they are getting less for their money.

Gamification cons customers with illusions, essentially tapping into people’s gambling mentality. Gamification is tempting and engaging to players in the same way that lotteries are; for players, it’s a pyramid scheme. The best people get to the top the leader board, and earn real prizes, but 99% have no hope of getting anything out of the system. Examples given by classic gamification proponents always focus on the people who are winning or topping the leader boards. Sure, pyramid schemes work for a while, but eventually everyone not at the top gets frustrated.

For the companies that want to implement gamification, it’s also an empty hyped up gold rush fad with promises of big rewards based on the few companies that succeeded with it. The first companies succeeded because of the element of surprise; people were excited to find games in unexpected places. As more and more companies offer similar programs, players will tire of it. Who needs 50 points on 50 leader boards at 50 different stores? Social networks were a big rush too, and now only a handful remain.

Points and rewards handed out in a gamification framework are not integrated into the task. In games, you get points for actually doing something, not just for clicking or signing in. Points in video games are tied to in-game bonuses that help you play more and accomplish more (xp => levels and skills, bucks => equipment). This is a positive feedback loop. Points that are earned externally to this loop simply motivate people to game the system to get points, not to do the tasks.

Tasks should be fun and motivating all by themselves. Points are not motivators. External rewards such as points are actually de-motivators. People want to do fun activities; when you add points or other rewards to these tasks, people become de-motivated to do the activities unless they get the points.

Gamification proponents claim that their systems have universal appeal, and give lip-service to the idea that one can’t simply slap points onto activities, but that’s just so they can sell themselves as experts. If you look at their implementations, all they offer, in the end, is points slapped onto activities. They instruct implementers to tailor the system to be fun, but they never explain how to do that. They can’t insist that points are fun, in and of themselves, and then tell you to implement points in a fun way (and then wave their hands when you ask how to you do this). Fun is designed into a system by a game designer.

If you look at the supposed case studies brought as proof of gamification success, they all a) offer real rewards, like cash prizes, which is old school, or b) gained customers quickly only to lose them just as quickly, or c) use playification as their prime motivation, not gamification.

Adding games or play to a non play system is distracting. You're either focused on the task or you’re focused on play, not both. In theory you can do both, but in practice people end up wasting time. Many systems are simply not appropriate for play, and in other systems you just want to get in and out as soon as possible, and not be bothered with added distractions that clutter up the work flow. Not everyone wants to play games; many gamification systems assume you are a video gamer and don’t explain what their systems do or why you would want to use them.


The proponents of the three gamification philosophies don't spend much time answering these criticisms; when they do, they answer them in different ways. Straight gamification proponents argue that the system simply works, and they point again to the case studies. Gameful design proponents argue that their systems are built around activities with their own intrinsic motivation; the points they add are therefore meaningful. Playification proponents argue that play can be tightly bound to an activity, and therefore not distracting.

I design games, and I know that games motivate. For me the questions are: How can you best utilize them in ways that motivate long term? What is the ROI of using games and/or play versus traditional methods of motivation? Which approach, if any, is right for which activities?


Lisa S. said...

Have you thought about abstracting the conditions of when the con arguments are relevant and when the pro arguments are stronger?
That might be useful for the industry.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Thanks for your comment. What you suggest is difficult. I hope to demonstrate effective techniques using future posts.