Gamification: Is it really just a bunch of bull?

Summary:It's always surprising just how polarizing the idea of gamification is. Some people love the concept of adding game-like elements to all different types of social and commercial interactions, while others hate it with a seething vehemence, either because they're "gamers" who hate seeing their favorite art form debased, or because they're anti-gamers, who don't see the need to make everything in life so damned amusing.

It's always surprising just how polarizing the idea of gamification is. Some people love the concept of adding game-like elements to all different types of social and commercial interactions, while others hate it with a seething vehemence, either because they're "gamers" who hate seeing their favorite art form debased, or because they're anti-gamers, who don't see the need to make everything in life so damned amusing.

Georgia Tech professor and part-time game maker Ian Bogost is one of the more vocal opponents of gamification in its many forms. If he’s not debating about how social games are evil, while creating and maintaining his own social game parody (the actually quite clever Cow Clicker), then you will often find him talking and tweeting about how gamification is some cheapened form of game creation that has been co-opted by commercial interests.

In his most recent rant, which was posted on his blog and picked up by The Atlantic and a handful of video game-centric sites, Bogost talks about how gamification is “easy” and “reassuring” -- that companies (or corporate “bullshitters”) rely on just adding points and badges to their products and then expect that to engage its customers in a product/service that they might not otherwise give much attention to. From his blog post:

“I've suggested the term "exploitationware" as a more accurate name for gamification's true purpose, for those of us still interested in truth. Exploitationware captures gamifiers' real intentions: a grifter's game, pursued to capitalize on a cultural moment, through services about which they have questionable expertise, to bring about results meant to last only long enough to pad their bank accounts before the next bullshit trend comes along.”

In one regard, Bogost is right. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to gamification is not the best way to create a meaningful, engaging experience. And, yes, more than a few corporations are guilty of taking the “just toss in some points and badges to make an extra buck” approach. One of the things this blog tries to do is give credit for creative thinking and call out bandwagon jumpers when needed.

But using a blanket statement like “gamification is bullshit” is short-sighted. Gamification can be used for more than padding some fat cat’s bank account. We’ve seen people use gamification to get and stay healthy, as a way to understand what it’s like for poor families to survive month-to-month and, in the case of social games, as a way to interact with friends and family who may not be available to casually meet up and grab a cup of coffee. Some examples are as simple (and transactional) as the old loyalty punch cards at a sandwich shop, while others build game-like elements onto social networks, which has slowly grown into its own huge genre of social games.

If Gamification is bullshit, then why do hundreds of millions of people log in to play FarmVille and CityVille on a daily basis? How does a service like Foursquare have 10 million users? How has Nike managed to get millions of runners to use its Nike+ network? It’s not because these things are ‘evil’ and cast spells on audiences that force them to them tune in. These games/services are popular because people actually find something edifying about the entire experience.

I often wonder if Bogost’s and other game makers' real beef with gamification is that it’s taking their art form and using it for something other than making video games, specifically those designed for adolescent males. Video games are  a fascinating medium and fantastic form of entertainment, but hopefully there's room in the tent for everyone.

Topics: Mobility

About

Texas native Libe Goad resides in New York City and has spent the past decade covering technology and video games for publications including Blender, PC Magazine, Bust, Seventeen and Sync. Libe is currently the Editor-in-Chief of AOL's award-winning Games.com group, covering the growing social and casual games industry. Previously, she... Full Bio

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