BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Being Played: Why Gamification Sucks

In the past couple of days two articles came at me on different vectors, and both of them were about Gabe Zichermann.

A friend emailed me this interview with Gabe on Publishing Perspectives (‘the BBC of the book world’ no less!), and over on Twitter @tiedtiger tweeted this review by Sebastian Deterding of Gabe’s book Gamification by Design.

The interview is short, but quite long enough to tell you everything you need to know about Gabe Zichermann. And the review, though long, is absolutely worth the read, since, as a byproduct of dissecting the book (of which — spoilers! — Sebastian is not a fan), it gives an excellent overview of the entire subject, and includes lots of pointers and references to other material, all of which is hot sauce for the game designer.

And when I say that the interview is ‘quite long enough’, I mean that it contains this singular quote from Gabe:

“The question I posed myself was: Can games be more than mindless entertainment?”

Right. OK. So… you kinda lost me there, Gabe. I mean, what, exactly, is a ‘mindless’ game? Truly, what do you mean? Now look, I’m not saying games can’t be trivial or ephemeral or ‘merely’ entertainment, but mindless? Really? Seriously? That’s what you’ve got? That’s where you started? That’s the predicate for your whole design philosophy?

It’s like wandering through the Louvre and announcing, after having actually stopped long enough to consider your surroundings, “I wonder if art can ever be more than just paint on a wall?”

So I was not — how shall I put this? — predisposed to take up Gabe’s cause when I came up against Sebastian’s book review. But I wasn’t expecting such an exhaustive and well-written take-down either. There’s lots to enjoy in the review — including a shout out for BoardGameGeek! — and I urge everyone who might be reading this to read it too. For one thing, its author is far better read.

I shan’t rehearse Sebastian’s arguments, but here’s my take on them and, by extension, on the tenet of Gabe’s book and on the nature of gamification as a discipline.

Gamification, at least within the terms chosen by those who currently most vociferously define it, seems to assume the smallest, least imaginative reading of human behaviour — and of game design too — and then proposes to do as little as possible to engage with it. Sebastian highlights in his first paragraph that gamification’s been called an ‘inadvertent con’. That’s generous. And I guess it would be a con if it wasn’t so bloody obvious.

I’m no marketer, but I am a consumer, and you know what? I, like the majority of modern consumers, ain’t no fool. Gamification may call upon the cosseted semantics of words like ‘loyalty’ and ‘engagement’ (and these notions are entirely valid metrics for the marketer) but so-called loyalty schemes aren’t really loyalty are they? — not when they’re just an elaborate form of financial coercion. And it’s hardly genuine engagement if it simply relies on behavioural inertia. By all means try and sell me stuff that I don’t want, but let’s not pretend that I am anything less than wholly complicit if I actually turn round and buy it. And if I do, it’s not because I’m acting against my best interests, it’s because I’ve reconfigured my own notion of my best interests to include something previously alien.

Here’s the failure at the heart of gamification: It assumes you can take something that’s actually work — something apparently against my best interests, something I don’t want to do (but that the ‘gamifier’ does want me to do) — and render it a game simply by wrapping it in the language of play. And that then, as if by magic, my relationship with it will be, quite literally, transfigured. And that suddenly, that which I did not want to do — principally: give you money — I shall find myself doing! Not because I want to — no, I shall do these things quite in spite of myself! — but because, well, you know, now it’s a game! Look, it’s got badges and points and scoreboards and everything! And suddenly this thing that I don’t want to do is fun! (It must be, it’s a game!) Oh, look at how much fun it is! Oh happy day!

I’m not that dumb — and I’m optimistic enough to believe that the majority of other people aren’t that dumb either. So if that’s really what gamification is predicated on, if it’s really a ‘price of everything, value of nothing’ proposition, then it’s all just lowest common denominator stuff and (almost) beneath my contempt. It’s an abuse of language, an abuse of intelligence and fundamentally cheap.

And, which is just salt in the wound, it’s got nothing at all to do with game design.

Gamification: Even the word itself has the most grating and inelegant of syntaxes. But it tells you everything you need to know. It tells you that the process is not about creating something actually playful, but about deconstructing something that isn’t, and then artlessly rendering it mechanically similar to something that is. It’s not about making something fun, but about making something that looks like fun. But that’s the huckster’s best offer, I guess; indeed, that’s all they’ve got. It’s snake oil. It’s smoke and mirrors. It’s a pig in a poke.

Scratch that: This time around there’s not even a pig! Gamification is nothing, hidden in plain sight: It’s the emperor’s new clothes.

I agree with your sentiments when commercial ends are the goal. But "gamification" CAN be an effective and successful means to teach, and as a theraputic tool. Even if the gamification is completely transparent ("You're getting me to do this because...") it can still have a positive effect. A "thinly veiled attempt" to help someone is still a good thing. Too bad it's a method that is twisted to serve the greedy, or (worse yet) a political agenda.

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