Some thoughts in response to the presentation of Gamification, focused mainly on the ethics of ‘gamifying’ elements of our daily lives.

First, the keys to engagement, a core principle of gamification, as told by Marie-Jo Leroux of 42Comets in an article by Richard Atlas:

  • Make people think: people are at their most focused state when they’re trying to solve a problem (more on this later).
  • Show, don’t tell: like they say in all forms of entertainment. When you give everything away, the user will devalue it because they haven’t discovered it themselves.
  • Pique people’s curiosity: give them something to look for.
  • Get people together, get them to interact: what we talk about with someone will be better remembered than what some media tells us
  • Use rewards wisely! This is hard.
    • Rewards should be used to build skill, and can be used to build habits as well. This is basic operant conditioning, and is extremely powerful. Use timely rewards, and intersperse bigger rewards throughout smaller ones. That is, give small rewards at small intervals which lead up to bigger rewards that come less often.
  • Story drives engagement: we look for story in everything we do, and we’re used to learning through stories.

She goes on to criticise standard gamifiction methods, citing a general lack of effective engagement:

lack of motivation is at the root of the problem of slapped-on gamification that we see all over the place. This is also the cause for the apparent backlash against the movement, and there’s good reason for it. Don’t give users rewards for something they were going to do anyway, and don’t try to motivate people to do something there’s no way they’ll do. Do I care about leveling up? Why? Does it help me in some way? What does it unlock? What new things can I do, see, or explore?

Designer, critic and researcher Ian Bogost takes an even dimmer view on gamification, in the essay in which he terms the products of gamification ‘exploitationware.’ He looks specifically at the organisation-constituency relationships in a range of businesses and organisations, and how businesses can use gamified elements to corrupt this relationship and exploit their employees:

When companies and organizations provide incentives to help orient the goals of the organization against the desires of its constituency, they facilitate functional relationships, one in which both parties have come to an understanding about how they will relate to one another. Subsequent loyalty might exist between an organization and its customers, an organization and its employees, or a government and its citizens.

For example: an airline offers a view of its business model, and frequent flyers who advance those expectations get rewards. An employer offers a view of its goals, and employees who help meet those goals enjoy raises, perks, and promotions. When loyalty is real it’s reciprocal. It moves in two directions. Something real is at stake for both parties.

Gamification replaces these real, functional, two-way relationships with dysfunctional perversions of relationships. Organizations ask for loyalty, but they reciprocate that loyalty with shams, counterfeit incentives that neither provide value nor require investment.

In another article simply titled Gamification is BullshitBogost writes:

…gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.

He goes on to consider the difference between truly using the principles of games to change the business world, and the marketing shorthand that is gamification:

I am not naive and I am not a fool. I realize that gamification is the easy answer for deploying a perversion of games as a mod marketing miracle. I realize that using games earnestly would mean changing the very operation of most businesses. For those whose goal is to clock out at 5pm having matched the strategy and performance of your competitors, I understand that mediocrity’s lips are seductive because they are willing. For the rest, those of you who would consider that games can offer something different and greater than an affirmation of existing corporate practices, the business world has another name for you: they call you “leaders.”

Tae Wan Kim, Assistant Professor of Business Ethics at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University cites Bogost in his paper Gamification Ethics: Exploitation and Manipulation. Kim uses the fairness account and the meremeans account to assess Bogost’s claim that gamification program are inherently exploitative.

While he concludes that gamification is not inherently and necessarily exploitative, the trivialising nature of many forms of gamification could be perceived to be exploitative by those working with the system. He states that ‘gamification designers have a duty to pay attention to the hermeneutical aspect of game elements,’ which ‘can at least promise a realistic and reasonably acceptable framework by which all parties can understand each other’s perspectives and determine a realistic exit rather than stagnating in a dead-end interpretive debate.’


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