On the Power of Gamification

Gamification is the word on the lips (or keyboarding fingers) of all those making, playing, leveraging, and studying games this year (thanks, in no small part, to a series of presentations that academic-designer Jesse Schell has given in the last 12 months).  Beyond an app here or there, the gamification trend has grown to the point where entire conferences are being devoted to it and ventures are basing their entire business model on providing games-based solutions to corporate clients.

What’s the hype all about?  Engagement yielding results.  By inserting gaming mechanics (points, badges and ranks, levels, leaderboards) into everyday actions tasks that would normally be routine, tedious, or difficult can be rendered more engaging.  Social apps and modified interfaces that add such a game layer to one’s actions may increase motivation and perhaps even effect changes in and influence user decisions and behaviors.  Such a tool set could be of immense value to businesses, educators, and parents who are regularly faced with incentivizing the choices of consumers (see here, here, and here), students, and children (or those of us with the same self-discipline as children).

Though this approach can certainly be successfully implemented through pencil-and-paper and face-to-face interactions, like many endeavors, it is greatly facilitated by emerging technologies.  It is to this end that Schell envisions the coming “gamepocalypse”, in which the growing pervasiveness of sensors, screens, and social media will allow for the attribution of points and levels to everything ranging from brushing your teeth to purchasing the soda that will rot them.  In other words, we are entering a persuasive era in which advertisers, educators, and prosocial causes can all incentivize decisions and behaviors through these mechanics.

While this is all well and good, I think practitioners of gamification can do better.

Gamification works by attaching reward structures around user actions, increasing engagement and potentially influencing choices and motivating actions through performance awards – virtual badges, increases in social rank, or other prizes. But it doesn’t make the actions themselves any more intrinsically rewarding.  Foursquare might be fun, and it may even cause me to go slightly out of my way, but it doesn’t make me enjoy visiting places any more than I normally would.  EpicWin doesn’t make my chores more fun; it just motivates me to get them done.

What we’re talking about here is a distinction between outcome-oriented and process-oriented forms of motivation and engagement.  Gamification, in its current state and in the future scenario outlined by Schell, is centered on outcomes and the extrinsic rewards that can motivate players to reach them.  However, a vast and established literature not only notes that people are much more compelled by tasks that are intrinsically motivating (that is, activities and choices that are enjoyable in and of themselves), but also that extrinsic rewards dampen this natural motivation.  Additionally, process-oriented interventions which leverage intrinsic motivation and tie it to a desired result are quite successful. And it stands to reason that these interventions may lead to more powerful, less transient results: while intrinsic reward is inherently a powerful motivator, the pull of extrinsic rewards wanes as individuals become adjusted to reinforcement schedules.  That is, over time, we develop a tolerance for external rewards and as a result they must be tweaked and heightened to maintain our interest.

I’d also note that in addition to questioning the relative motivational pull of gamification based on extrinsic rewards, we might also be concerned about the ethics of such an approach. That is, beyond the question of can, there is the question of should.  To whatever extent current modes of gamification can influence decisions and behaviors, this change is arguably founded on manipulation of the brain’s reward structure (harking back to Travis’ previous post and my extension/reply to it).  Conversely, process-oriented engagement designs lead to results through self-imposed decisions rather than the coercion of external rewards.

Gamification needs to go deeper.  If the game layer placed on user behaviors doesn’t do so, we may just be witnessing a flash in the pan to be followed by a backlash.  But how can gamification tactics be revised so as to yield lasting, ethical results?

One suggestion comes from the persuasive games camp.  Ian Bogost and others suggest that games each contain a procedural rhetoric that implicitly makes arguments about objects in the real world and their relationships.  Games, to varying extents based on the fidelity of their simulation of reality, allow players to internalize certain beliefs and perspectives on the nature the real world.  In other words, whereas the current gamification trend focuses on influencing decisions and behaviors, they might just as readily target attitudes and values.  By making arguments about the merits and worth of a given behavior, a persuasively-designed game may help players to gain an understanding of the intrinsic value of that behavior.  For example, if an enjoyable game layer models and successfully conveys an argument for recycling, it may lead to more converts (consciously and deliberatively) than extrinsic rewards could through reinforcement alone.

If interested in merely increasing engagement, then gamification as is does enough.  However, for the true potential of gamification to be unlocked, players need to enjoy the process, not just the outcome.  For this to happen, gamification implementers need to do more than merely add a game layer to the real world – they need to transform the user’s understanding of how the world works so that the value of the targeted behavior becomes intrinsically rewarding.

On the Power of Gamification by Jim Cummings, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

One Response to “On the Power of Gamification”

  1. Nathan Lands says:


    Glad to see you've put a lot of thought into the subject:) We agree that fun should be part of the process(usually) and that most current Gamification efforts are too heavily focused on only extrinsic rewards. I think you will find our Gamification Encyclopedia of interest at http://gamification.org . We'd love to have more people active on the wiki like you.


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