When it comes to gamification, an intense debate is going on between academics and the business world. You might say: who cares? But it is important to take a closer look at this if you are serious about applying the power of games in other arenas.
In a previous post I said it is no use fighting against the label gamification. That is my personal opinion, but not everyone agrees. On the contrary, there are quite a few people who start seeing red as soon as the word is mentioned. Those people can be found mostly in the game designer and game scholar scene. In general, these groups are extremely annoyed by what is being done under the label of gamification in the business world. I’m afraid it is an uphill battle for them when it comes to the label itself. But the discussion that is going on in the field is of great relevance to the future of gamification.
The most outspoken critic of gamification is Ian Bogost, professor at Georgia Tech and co-founder of game studio Persuasive Games. He is best known in game circles for Cow Clicker, his satire of the Facebook game FarmVille (if you’re interested in this, I highly recommend the article in the January issue of Wired). Bogost’s piece titled “Gamification is bullshit” sums up his thoughts on the subject quite nicely. Apart from the somewhat offensive title, he presents a number of valid points. His rage about gamification stems from the fear that the mysterious, magical, wonderful medium of games is yanked from his hands, trivialized and then sold back to him in a watered-down version. And that fear is not entirely unfounded if we look at the ideas of the current leader of the gamification movement, Gabe Zichermann (called “gamification’s Dark Lord” by Bogost).
Zichermann - with a background in marketing - organizes the Gamification Summit, has a well-read blog about the subject and has published two books about gamification. So his ideas reach a broad audience. He specifically affiliates himself with what I shall refer to as the “Foursquare mold”. With this I mean initiatives that attach the label gamification to implementing points, leaderboards and badges. Companies such as Bunchball and Badgeville have now shrink-wrapped these kinds of elements in ready-to-use platforms. You could consider Gabe Zichermann as their most prominent spokesperson. That also means he receives the bulk of the criticism. This became obvious a couple of months ago when his latest book was ruthlessly taken apart by another important voice in the gamification debate: Sebastian Deterding.
Deterding is a user experience designer and PhD candidate at the University of Hamburg. Alongside Bogost’s fury, he represents the voice of reason of the critics. Using razor sharp analyses and a very thorough knowledge of the scientific literature about game design and psychology, he explains in clear presentations what’s wrong with many current attempts at gamification. Deterding hasn’t completely banished the word, yet prefers to speak of 'gameful design'. In his review of Zichermann’s book he methodically rips his ideas to shreds. If you have the time, it is worthwhile to read the whole thing because it is a wonderful introduction to the field. Apart from showing Zichermann’s limited understanding of psychology, a few cases of mixing up concepts, citing poorly or even outright plagiarism, I think Deterding’s criticism is most convincing when he points out that “rewards are not achievements”. In other words: the fun of games does not lie in receiving rewards for doing nothing special (the 'Foursquare mold') but in mastering challenges. Zichermann wrote a response to the review (to which Deterding replied, etc.) and in his reaction we touch at the core of this apparently insurmountable dispute.
Zichermann (and many other gamifiers) are not interested at all in placing their work within the canon of game studies or in carefully using (scientific) concepts. What matters to them is that something makes commercial sense. And you cannot deny that a company like Badgeville is getting pretty good at making money with their interpretation of gamification. Research firm M2 expects the gamification market to reach $2.8 billion in the US by 2016. As Zichermann rightly points out: we have so many successful examples generating money by now, apparently it is working. So who is right?
If we set aside for now the philosophical and ethical questions (such as: is gamification in essence exploitationware?) and take creating value in the long term as the norm, three problems remain with the approach of the Zichermann crowd.
1. Replay value
One of the problems with a superficial application of gamification is that the fun tends to wear off fairly quickly. Foursquare is still experiencing massive growth in user numbers, but is also noticing that the number of check-ins per user per day is decreasing. Even a very sympathetic example such as the Bottle Bank Arcade that was developed as part of The Fun Theory (an initiative of Volkswagen) will be less engaging after a number of rounds. Gartner also notes that many of the current gamification efforts are not sustainable. Perhaps this superficial form of gamification has potential for engaging customers in the short term, but it is certainly not suited as a means for retaining them in the longer term.
2. You can’t choose a solution from the ‘solution shelf’
This is a quote by designer Marty Neumeier that I attach great value to. Companies are currently operating in such a complex environment that transferring ‘standard recipes’ has become almost impossible. That goes for gamification as well. So do not let yourself be tempted to implement a number of gimmicks to be able to check the gamification box. If there is one thing that has the potential to completely get out of hand if put into motion in the wrong way, it is a game. By the way, Neumeier’s answer to the problem above is: you have to design the way forward. That applies here as well.
3. Games can change the world
The biggest frustration that many critics of gamification have is that it remains fairly trivial and that a lot of the potential that games have is overlooked. The biggest optimist when it comes to that potential is probably Jane McGonigal. For the general public, she is currently the most visible game designer and game scholar, with her book, her TED talk and her TV appearances. She is also slowly starting to adopt the gamification label (or at least starting to appear at conferences carrying that theme) but she is unmistakably in the Deterding and Bogost camp. Her ambition is much bigger than that of the Zichermann crowd. McGonigal wants nothing less than to change the world with her Alternate Reality Games. And even though I don’t go along all the way in her optimism, I find her vision much more appealing than what I’ve heard from the gamification camp so far.
It would be such a shame if the business world were introduced to the potential of games by means of shortsighted gamification initiatives. Because that would mean that they are likely to discard games as a phenomenon that does not add value after the first disappointment sets in. Sebastian Deterding (and even Ian Bogost) are basically optimistic about the application of elements from games in other contexts. And – as should be obvious by now – I am on their side. I think that games and game design are eminently suited for systems thinking and for using the power of those systems in any number of areas (game designer Eric Zimmerman – not to be confused with Zichermann – has put that into words much more elegantly). And considering the fact that our systems have been letting us down as of late, we should take all the help we can get in that area. It is not easy to capture the power of games and apply it in a different context, but that does not mean we should stop trying. And it certainly does not mean that we should fall for fast, short-term quasi-solutions.