The Users and The Used: Thoughts on Serious Games and Gamification

       Gamification, the incorporation of gamelike mechanics into a service, marketing, or other campaign to increase user involvement, is a contentious idea because its appropriation of the motivations of gamers to change user behavior is difficult to use effectively, and can be used just as readily to exploit users as to promote social change.

       Jane McGonigal, a member of the Institute for the Future, argues that gamification can redirect the energies of gamers towards social change. McGonigal attributes the qualities of urgent optimism (a desire to complete a task, and the reasonable expectation of success), improved social fabric (increased trust among people who have played together), blissful productivity (the idea that people naturally enjoy working hard), and epic meaning (the meaning that a user community’s interactions and experiences add to the game) to gaming. Drawing on her experience in social game development, she promotes the Institute’s own products, such as World Without Oil and Superstruct, as examples of games which changed users’ ideas about energy and resource consumption [5].

       Ian Bogost dismisses “gamification” as little more than a “bullshit” marketing term. In his view, it provides the illusion that the mechanisms by which video games engage users are easy to fit into a traditional marketing framework and require little change from a company’s existing strategy. As a result, gamification is not applied effectively, creating “mediocrity” and a “perversion of games” while being understood only as a buzzword that generates demand for consultants. He prefers to call the projects created by gamification “exploitationware” based on their poor treatment of users [1]. Bogost argues that most gamification schemes replace real incentives for loyalty with fake ones, and that many businesses mistakenly believe that game difficulty is based on making tasks more and more tedious [2].

       Tadhg Kelly simplifies gamification to the three principles of validation, completion, and prizes. Validation comes in the form of systems that assign a value to user contributions. Completion systems (progress meters) can provide feedback to users as they become more involved in a community and learn to use application features. Prizes maintain user interest as tasks become more involved and difficult, with the caveat that users expect tangible prizes or rewards (miles, losing pounds, etc.) and expect prize systems to be supported by the company for the long term. Kelly assumes that all but a few die-hard users will detect and reject exploitative or badly constructed game systems. Gamification, he says, is as simple as associating an emotion with something that players can influence, and getting this activity to increase just one or at most two of three statistics: page views, view duration, or sales [4].

       Sebastian Deterding defines the components of a game as rules, story, goals, feedback, and autonomy. He defines gamification as the integration of game dynamics into a site, service, or community to increase communication with users. In Deterding’s ideal game, the story provides meaning, the rules provide structure, goals generate feedback that tells the user how to achieve mastery or provides excessively positive recognition of that mastery, and autonomy is given to users to interact with each other and the system. [3]

       While gamification’s strongest supporters like Jane McGonigal emphasize its potential to drive positive user behaviors, critics like Ian Bogost argue that gamified systems exploit users’ trust and replace actual rewards with worthless in-game prizes like badges and points. Tadhg Kelly states that practical gamification finds something users can be emotionally invested in and uses their existing interest to increase some desired activity. Similarly, Sebastian Deterding proposes that a well-designed and rewarding gamified system will increase user participation and loyalty anyway – the ideal “win-win” situation. Kelly and Deterding both believe, to some extent, that a poorly designed system that does not give accurate feedback or sufficient challenge and fails to reward users will not draw enough users to be useful, regardless of the organization that is deploying it. Bogost’s complaint is the opposite: that exploitative systems are not only common, but are very effective at getting users to forgo rewards or results they can actually use for themselves.

       These divergent viewpoints can all be valid to some extent because they refer to gamified systems designed by organizations with very dissimilar goals. The kind of gamification Kelly and Deterding describe, and that Bogost condemns as “exploitationware,” usually takes place when a for-profit company wants to increase perceived brand loyalty as measured by user statistics. This kind of game meets its needs if it significantly increases pageviews, website visit duration, purchases, or some other number. When a company optimizes its system to trick users into giving away personal information, accidentally buying additional products and services, or endlessly clicking to earn a Level 999 Super Platinum Diamond Badge that carries no tangible value or additional benefits, then its game or gamelike system has become “exploitationware.” There is nothing inherently wrong with selling a product, but a good company will figure out how to do so in a way that still has value for users.

       By contrast, the games McGonigal describes that are designed to produce a certain desired social change tend to be produced by nonprofits like her Institute for the Future, NGOs, or academic entities for whom profit is not directly linked to the success of the game. An alternate reality game like “World Without Oil” is considered successful if it creates a measurable increase in awareness of an issue. These games still “sell” an idea or mindset, and like corporate gamification, popularity increases the visibility of the organization that developed them. However, the game does not leverage its users to sell products. In a sense, the users who change their real-world behavior as a result of completing the game are the products.

Works Cited
[1]  Bogost, Ian (2011, August 8). Gamification is Bullshit [Online].
[2]  Bogost, Ian (2011, May 3). Persuasive Games: Exploitationware [Online].
[3] Deterding, Sebastian (2011, January 24). Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification Right [Online].
[4] Kelly, Tadhg (2012, November 17). Everything You’ll Ever Need To Know About Gamification [Online].
[5] McGonigal, Jane (2010, February). Gaming can make a better world [Online].