Gamification: Is it really just a bunch of bull?

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.

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TOPICS: Mobility
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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.

Topic: Mobility

Libe Goad

About Libe Goad

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.

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  • RE: Gamification: Is it really just a bunch of bull?

    "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."

    This is a sloppy and insulting mischaracterization. I've spent years advocating for and making games for so many purposes, among them politics and journalism. My last book, Newsgames, was about how to use games in newsmaking. My new book, How to Do Things with Videogames (out any day), is about the varied and multitudinous uses of videogames.

    There is nothing that could be farther from the truth. And there's no hypocrisy in holding the positions I do simultaneously. Just because games can be used for many purposes doesn't mean any one individual, myself included, has to *embrace* all of those purposes. In fact, it would be rather strange if it turned out that way.
    ibogost
  • RE: Gamification: Is it really just a bunch of bull?

    @ZDNet Interesting article on gamification. Check out our take on the topic u.b1.com/lxWAA5
    wrigsy
  • RE: Gamification: Is it really just a bunch of bull?

    Eh, Ian, I've seen you speak on a few occasions, and you do come off like a "Defender of the Faith" sometimes (which doesn't mean I don't like your work, because I do). That said, I thought this was a pretty even-handed take on what was a clearly a deliberately inflammatory original blog post from you, so you shouldn't take offense when you take a few dings in people's responses.
    DKendred
  • My opinions

    My opinions:

    1) I'm not anti-gamification. But IMO we're still struggling to do it in a way that makes sense. The idea is very young, and we're extremely unsure of how to get it right. In fact, there's a lot of room for improvement, but there are already some "sacred cows" showing up that "social" games (and other types of gamification) have accepted blindly without question - but probably should be questioned more, for the sake of improving the genre.

    2) Social games developers have very sheeple-like attitudes right now. If the top game uses buyable virtual currency, they all do. They don't even question it. They just do it. They don't care to make their games do some things a bit differently, they just copy the top games blindly.

    3) I simply don't like forcing "social" by gating content based on the number of friends you have. Sorry, but it's my opinion that "social" is not to be forced or coerced, merely encouraged. It rubs people the wrong way psychologically when you're forced to "be social" merely to advance. Especially people who may already be introverted - they'll just quit rather than invite more friends.

    [b]I have far more friends in World of Warcraft than any Facebook game I've ever played.[/b] So yes, we still have a ways to go. The fact that these "gamification" things have lots of numbers doesn't tell us if those numbers are being more or less social with each other.

    IMO you have to grow a community organically, not force it to your bidding.

    I think there's a lot of room for improvement. Social games have to be nicer, less forceful on the players. Same goes with gamification of real life stuff - it has to be fun and forgiving, not tedious and forceful. I think that "social" has a much better chance of flourishing if it's fun and forgiving.
    CobraA1
  • RE: Gamification: Is it really just a bunch of bull?

    It's pure vanity. Ian's Tweet from August 10th in response to apparently another participant "I was more honest than anybody there. And I've produced more discussion than the rest of you. You just don't like my position."
    So it's all about attention. Being the one, who finds himself quoted often. What a goal. And getting that attention is not with good concepts and constructive solutions, but with a couple of good catches and rude language.
    shnorz
  • RE: Gamification: Is it really just a bunch of bull?

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