The trend over the past few years has been to “gamify” real life activities in order to incentivize people to behave in desirable manners or work towards things that are perceived as valuable but difficult to commit to.  Entire companies have sprung up around the concept -  for example, MeYou Health, as discussed on a recent Gamers With Jobs conference call.

Usually gamification takes the form of rewarding fake “points” for performing a task (or abstaining from a bad behaviour), which then bestow fake “achievements” upon the player after an arbitrary number of points have been collected.  This entire trend is inspired by the Pavlovian inanities that dominate modern mainstream video game design, and it is equally bad.

On his MMO blog, Nils has highlighted a number of reasons why gamification is not the positive force that many pundits seem to believe that it is.  In particular:

If you incentivise a human to do something, he will do exactly that and nothing else. Humans are really good at gaming systems and I guarantee you that any generation raised by such a dishonest and corrupting idea will revolt against it – after they gamed it to their assumed advantage.  Means: They will find a way to do the 25 math exercises without remembering them. Just like I don’t remember a single thing from my diploma tests: Because at that time I couldn’t care less about the real issues. I was busy trying to beat a system. Which taught me completely different things than intended.

More important than doing something is doing it for the right reasons. Once you are doing things for points and not for what they are really about, who stops you from doing *placeholder*?

There are plenty of good reasons to make solid life decisions about your health, behaviour, habits, and personal well being.  Getting hooked on collecting imaginary points as a means to temporarily fool yourself into doing good things is a temporary bandaid, and will rarely translate to the sort of permanent lifestyle change that is required to maintain something as difficult as weight loss or breaking a bad habit like chewing your fingernails.  Real change comes from within, not a fancy app that gives you a false sense of accomplishment by playing to your inner desire to receive a reward.

The sooner that gamification – and the achievement obsession that it exploits – dies off, the better.

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8 Responses to “The downside of gamification”

  1. Longasc says:

    The MMO audience still seems to crave shinies, achievements, item and char level progression. Apparently the point where everyone is sick of it has not yet been reached.

    • Andrew says:

      It’s not just MMOs…. all video games release with achievements now, because the entire gaming community is addicted to the things. It’s almost like the thrill of playing the actual game is no longer enough – people need to be rewarded for every little inanity.

      I detest the trend in gaming, and despise how it’s leaking into real life.

  2. Stabs says:

    I think different things work for different people.

    I gave up smoking just like that (after a few false starts). But other people like to wean themselves off with nicotine patches.

    If the end result is a smoker turning into a non-smoker who cares how it happened?

    People are wired different. If a system that irritates you works for someone else in controlling a lifestyle issue it seems fine to me. Or do you think people who lose weight with schemes like Weightwatchers are becoming brainwashed?

    Ultimately, as atypically highly intelligent people with strong senses of individuality, we have to realise that what works for us simply doesn’t work for most people. The alternative to gamification is philosophy, and that’s not easy for many people.

    • Andrew says:

      re: smoking – In both cases you have someone stopping smoking for the right reasons; not because their latest strange iApp is messing with their brain chemistry and trying to feed them dings to replace. Granted, it IS possible to both want to stop smoking AND use gamification as the means to do so…. however the patch seems a lesser evil than false rewards.

      re: WeightWatchers – Actually, I used this to help lose weight… WW is all about learning the relative nutrition of foods, and applying that to the recommended daily intake that a person is supposed to have. The system is about education, not playing a game for fake points.

      The alternative to gamification is philosophy, and that’s not easy for many people.

      Which is another problem all together, and is tied into the lack of personal responsibility that pervades modern society.

      Thanks for the differing viewpoint!

  3. I just wanted to jump in quick with a comment on this. My personal opinion is that the definition of gamification is often too narrow. I prefer the following (derived from work Amy Jo Kim is doing):

    The application of game like dynamics, mechanics, and aesthetics to increase engagement in a non-game product.

    Reward mechanics are often the first whipping boy in a gamification argument. And when they are applied in thoughtless ways, that is very valid. Any mechanic you apply should never jeopardize the organic patterns of a product. Example:

    At MeYou Health we use points/levels to create a sense of progress in the system. It is clear what actions are valuable in the system by what rewards points. One of the things you can do is encourage people to keep doing their daily health challenge. We specifically DO NOT grant points for this, because we don’t want people to spam people just to get points. If you encourage someone, it needs to be from a true desire for support. So points are not awarded for that action. However the person who accepts encouragement and comes back to do their challenge that day, gets a little bonus.

    Badges/stamps also catch a lot of grief. However these really aren’t game mechanics so much as a game dynamic. A stamp lets you know the proper time to celebrate something. Sure, people will chase stamps and badges, but the majority of people do not. Instead, a stamp or badge marking a milestone creates a social moment. It lets people know that it is ok to share… that what just happened is kind of a big deal, so celebrate! Without these moments, people wouldn’t have a clear sense of what is valuable in the experience.

    Specifically on the Pavlovian angle, I don’t believe that simply putting in game mechanics gets you this. No matter what your product is, you still have to have a compelling value proposition to drive conversion… then you have to convince the member to participate in the journey that is your product… and only then will they begin to buy into the system of achievement that defines progress and status amongst the other participants.

    In short, gamification catches a lot of flak largely because the definition of it has become simplified to points-badges-levels. Amy Jo Kim is doing great work in this area surfacing a much more complicated definition. It is worth clicking through the slides.

    • Tesh says:

      “Without these moments, people wouldn’t have a clear sense of what is valuable in the experience.”

      Without these moments, people might have to derive their own meaning and understanding of value. Can’t have that in this Brave New World.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for taking the time to chime in with a more studied take on gamification, Trapper.

      Perhaps it’s just my social circle and the podcasts that I listen to, but I really do see the Pavlovian angle as the primary component that most people seem to really key in to, and get hooked on. People go out of their way to chase the ding, be it in a dumb Facebook game like Farmville, or an achievement-granting gamified health product.

      One product I use – the Livestrong site – has recently tried to add in elements of gamification, granting “badges” for repeated actions. It has been really annoying, to say the least. Most of the rewards are for tracking certain things or meeting certain objectives for a large number of consecutive days. For example, you can earn a badge for exercising for 20 (or 50, or 100) consecutive days… which, to be honest, is a terrible way to approach a workout regime. (Because there’s nothing to control how you vary your routine, and there is nothing to account for essential recovery days to let your body recoup.) People could actually hurt themselves by getting hooked on these gamification elements.

      Anyways, thanks again for the comment.

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