The cynicism of gamification

It’s time to get real on gamification. I’ve seen much written about gamification. About what it is, how it works, and how to use it. Gamification as a kind of social mechanism that can be readily imported into a new or existing service to liven it up. To enhance and augment interaction and engagement. To make things fun.

Gamification and game mechanics have also been associated with non-game social interactions. I’ve seen it argued that everything is a game, that anything can be gamified, and that all social interactions are becoming games. As if all interaction is fundamentally based on or includes competition, incremental achievement, incentives and rewards, and successful outcomes.

Games and gamification have been extended not only to social tools and to social interaction online, but to other kinds of online interaction. Brand campaigns and engagement through gamified narratives and stories. Users in roles, positions, and on leaderboards. Gamification of question/answer services like Quora. And of Google+ users.

One would think that social game designers see only the game in interaction, the competition behind relationships, the success of action, and the strategic and tactical purpose of communication. As if all social might be subordinated to ulterior and extrinsic motives and outcomes for the sake of tracking, measuring, ranking, and rewarding users.

If by now you don’t see the cynicism an short-sightedness of social perspectives enslaved to the cult of competition, have your head checked. And your heart. Better yet, just hook your heart up to a monitor and track its function; the feeling heart has probably atrophied.

The trouble with this cheap proselytizing of social games and of gamifying everything under the sun (hey, mr Sun is five on the cosmic leaderboard!) is that it sells out social media and their users for trivial achievements.

If all you track and measure is the incremental and inevitable progress a user makes towards the next level-badge-reward-deal-tweet-point-avatar-privilege — and that’s inevitable as long as or until the user sees the inevitability of his/her own incremental progress in a different light — all you get is incremental value.

Not the relationship-transforming value promised by (social) brand managers. Not the trust-creating value asserted by (social) marketing professionals. Not the transparency-inducing value claimed by (social) business pundits. Just the incremental value left behind as the residue of a trivializing reduction of potential and opportunity to the safely-secured banal.

You get what you (can) measure. Gamified brand relationships don’t deepen brand relationships, cement customer loyalties, reward consumer passion, or enhance engagement. Games don’t engage what interests the consumer in a brand. In fact they disengage the user from real and meaningful interests just to subordinate them to “mechanical” ones. Mechanical actions, we should add, whose particular value to a brand is trivialized by the fact that these actions are being sold universally — as a risk-free ticket to user engagement.

Users did not ask for games everywhere any more than users asked for their activities and relationships to be gamified. Gamification, when extended and applied to online experiences as some kind of global palliative, is the cynic’s idea for success. Not the user’s.

Gamification, as a system of simple and effective rules and structured rewards, is a superficial and bankrupt approach to social interaction and engagement online. A wholly inadequate representation of user activity and purpose, a novelty seized upon simply because it has shown success as an adoption strategy. And because it can seemingly be described as a set of universal rules of design and play — social complexity simplified to what can be codified, coded, and counted.




This entry was posted in Design, Social practices, UX and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Kathysierra

    Thank-you. I was beginning to think I had, while sleeping, slipped into an alternate universe. You’ve given me hope.

  • Zbigniew Lukasiak

    I don’t disagree with the overall critique of how games are being used (and abused) by marketing – but there is one place where games are useful and transformational – this is when they are helping users to learn about the new social possibilities a new medium offers.  This is how children use games – and this when it is useful.

  • gravity7

    Have you noticed anything resembling a whooshing fractal tunneling, the sound of a distant but growing Tardis drawing nearer, the tell tale synth pop of a mid 70s BBC sci fi, one Dr. What, or Whatnot… Ok, you’re fine. And awake. ;-)

  • gravity7

    Totally agree with you. Don’t think for a minute I’m making this shit up! I do checkin, and I do play. In fact I wrote about how Empire Avenue was good for brand managers and other social media folks interested in learning and practicing more social media. I changed many of my habits playing the game. That’s it’s power — it’s you who’s playing, and being played.

  • Kris Nordgren

    Thanks Adrian, I disagreed with you so badly, you inspired me to blog about it:
    I don’t think gamification is shallow and cynical at all. People need goals and ownership of their relationships with other people, with work, with the things they consume… Gamification is putting back the ownership where it had become alienated in the first place.
    You’re right to feel that the way a lot of brands measure their success by counting likes is shallow and cynical. Good game design doesn’t measure its success solely by how many people play once. Good gamification improves experiences, deeply and truly.

  • gravity7


    I hear you, but disagree with your counter argument on two points ;-) . (And let me say that first, I appreciate you having commented, and even better, written up your own thoughts.)

    A) I don’t think about relationships in terms of ownership. I believe that relationships are maintained through social action — acts of communication, situated in context, involving stakes and meanings and exchange by means of familiar social practices and shared cultural norms. In short, if you believe in social relations and in society, then shared ownership, not individual ownership, is the ethical and moral model.

    B) I don’t think that the depth of interaction and relation enabled by mediating social tools restores the type of proximity, presence, trust, interdependence, exchange, shared cultural background, etc etc that bound social relations prior to, say, the industrial revolution. Furthermore, I think most games *do* subordinate interactions to a calculus of instrumental activity — obtaining results (over sharing spontaneous time). So as a means of creating space, time and possibility for interesting interactions, games are to me superficially structured. That is of course their strength and entertainment value — suspension of some amount of real reality, fictionalization of narrative and story, play with roles and positions.

    Now it would be possible to argue that games, in simulating positive, constructive, collaborative interaction at a remove from the real, do in fact have benefits. But the case made here, as I understand it, is nonetheless that games provide opportunities for learning, practice, competence, mastery and so on. In other words, still at a remove from real everyday concerns. 

    I don’t see how it is possible to argue that a) games are as real as the real, as meaningful as real, and b) are games, that is, not real. 

    I like playing games and I’m not criticizing games in general. But I do believe that the outcomes — individual and social — are limited to the models of action and interaction used in the game and its game play. And I feel that instrumental, goal-oriented activity is only one form or type of social action. One that becomes cycnical when the outcomes of action overtake the action itself — when people do “for the sake of it” instead of for a deeper (say, interpersonal or social) reason. Hence my complaint that checkins reduce the meanings possible in a customer-retailer “relationship” to the incremental achievements of checkin “game-like” habits.

  • Pingback: The cynicism of gamification | Gravity7: Social Interaction Design … | BBGUniverse

  • llass

    so totally true, it comforts me, I thought I was the only one thinking it! 

  • Pingback: Semantic Foundry