Gamification Will Eat Your Family: A Response to Harmtemolder

Having had this post brought to my attention I expected one thing & instead found this post telling me something exists that he had just heard explained to him at a talk. The first thought through my head was: man, are they behind the times. I first heard about it in this talk given by Jesse Schell early last year, which ends with him describing what amounts to a nightmare scenario of Huxlian proportions. Gamification is the new buzzword term that has been on the lips of business and marketing professionals for the last few months. The idea is that video games are so engaging and have seemingly sprung out of nowhere in such a short amount of time to take our dollars, time and attention.  Of course like all buzzwords it is repeated often with little to no understanding of what it is, or why it worked in the first place.

There are two ways to implement Gamification (strictly speaking there are dozens if not hundreds of ways, but run with it for a second) an ethical way and an unethical way. Ian Bogost, famed game critic, designer and academic has taken to using a different word as a synonym for Gamification: Exploitationware. Because that is how it’s used. Marketing teams uses them as a new way to push their product, awareness and any other implementation they can think of. I read Game Frame, which is a book dedicated to explaining Gamification and how to implement it. It is a rather unintentionally scary guide on how to create propaganda. The thing is, Gamification is far more insidious than normal billboards, TV ads or other types of passive advertisement.

Games are systems. Systems are the process by which we get a response to input. We get gold stars for right answers and red Xs for wrong ones. In another context we call this learning. Games teach us how to use them, much like how complex systems of the real world teach us how to use them by interacting with it. Why do you think babies stick everything in their mouth? It is because they don’t know anything, but soon they learn. When you use it Gamification as a marketing tool it becomes very powerful and dangerous one.

However, harmtemolder’s article sidesteps that by either ignoring it or is unaware of its existence. I think it is the latter, because no one wants to think about the negative effects of such practice. Both Jesse Schell and Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken, think of it as a great new future that can be used to improve our behavior for the better. The thing is both of them are game designers so they see systems as games and not forms of indoctrination. The difference between these rather invasive tools and tricks and the things harmtemolder describes is that what he describes are much like a Rewards Zone card from Best Buy or Member’s Card from Barnes n Noble. They aren’t systems so much as mechanics set on top of things you do already; it’s organization rather than indoctrination. It doesn’t influence behavior, it supplements it.

Now here comes the great kicker. If you are going to implement Gamification you must be aware of the caveats. You don’t want to influence your customers or potential customers. This is for many reasons, but I’ll give two.

1. They wont like it. People don’t like it when they feel they are being manipulated and react negatively against what is doing the manipulation. This will hurt your brand and your product.

The second one requires a little preface. Games are on the forefront of most technological advances from the physical computers, to UI and most important for this topic business models. Games venturing forth into new territories of pricing and structure are realizing they can make more money by giving their product away for free and retaining their users for longer. I know it seems counter intuitive for business to give their product away for free, but any technology business is not dealing with products anymore, they are in the business of services. Google and Amazon, two of the most successful technology companies in the world do not make products. The latter doesn’t make anything at all. They provide a service. Their money and success comes from people using that service and coming back. Which brings me to:

2. You want to retain your users because you will have far more success with repeat and continued business at free than you will with a high price point one and done.

That’s where supplementation comes in. Gamification as a supplement to what you are already offering is the key. Gamification will keep them coming back, but there has to be something worth coming back to and that is what every “expert” spouting the buzzword Gamification never says. Points, badges and progress bars are worthless when the user isn’t doing something worth their time. In all of the examples in the article they were all about a service the person was using already or needed to function in our digital age in a digital business. Linkin, Dropbox and even Fitocracy is only used by people who would exercise in the first place (even if they need some incentive to do so). Gamification isn’t about turning your service into a game, but adding game like features to your product. Thing is that will fail. Ironically for the process to succeed your service has to ignore Gamification and be a game from square one. The fundamental service had to be good or you’ve wasted your time and money Gamifying it.

Consider this a friendly warning.

Published by

Eric Swain

A graduate of Boston University, majoring in English and Creative Writing and has spent significant time studying story structure and theory in the mediums of books, film and video games. His articles offer unique perspective on deep game development and design through his eclectic prose. you can find his critical analysis on

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