shadow of gamification

Image by Dirk Wohlrabe from Pixabay 

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 10 minutes

The shadow of gamification

Why do people think gamifying something is a bad idea

There have been articles on the dark side of gamification, or why it’s a bad idea and then listing the various well-known examples that highlight that it is in fact true. I have an issue with these articles as they are often the definition of bias confirmation. Stating something is bad and then only giving bad examples is bad practice. These types of articles have in essence become the shadow that hangs over gamification and all the good that it can and/or could do.

Though don’t make the mistake in thinking that the examples of bad gamification are not unwarranted. Many do show the issues with terrible implementation. But they should be taken as cautionary tales where we can learn from. Failure is an opportunity for learning not for judgement and exclusion.

To give you an idea of when gamification goes bad, we’ll go with the ever-popular example of Disney and their hospitality department at Disneyland. We even use this example in our book as a pitfall of gamification. In this usage of gamification, Disney chose to use leader boards, points and visual stimulation to promote and increase productivity of cleaning the linen from the rooms at Disneyland.

Employees at Disneyland were suddenly given new targets of productivity that they needed to achieve to keep their jobs essentially. They were scored against their colleagues to see who was the most efficient, and the machines themselves would tell them through a traffic light system whether they were efficient enough or not. Green good, red bad.

As you can imagine the productivity increased, to the point where on-site safety and good practice went out the window. Accidents increased and quality of work delivered decreased. The ‘electronic whip’ as it were, was just that. It failed and has subsequently become one of the most famous examples of bad and simplistic gamification usage.

A somewhat less extreme example of bad gamification, to highlight that some are just badly thought through, rather than horrible experiences, is Lyft’s usage of a badge system. Again a simplistic usage of gamification in just adding a meaningless and random badge and achievement system. Users of Lyft could earn special badges if they travelled on certain days and did certain activities. On paper, this sounds great, incentivise customers to use your service so that they can get an achievement. But as a taxi service, why would you spend money to travel on a random Tuesday, with nowhere to go and no goal, simply to get the Travel Tuesday badge? Suffice it to say, this wasn’t well-received or well used.

What these two examples do is create the impression that gamification’s main purpose is manipulation, in a very negative manner. It’s there to act as a whip to increase productivity or as a trick to squeeze more money out of customers.

What they should be used for is to highlight that gamification isn’t just a quick-fix tool that can be used for any problem. Its implementation needs to be carefully considered and that sometimes you need to have the courage to say it isn’t right for that situation. And not to permeate a belief of the dark side, simply for short term monetary gains.

The illusion of an insidious permeation

When discussing the shadow of gamification, we need to make sure that everyone understands what gamification is. I’m going to assume since you are here, you have some idea, but if you need a further explanation, and perhaps even with a context that is generally considered devious, then do have a look at our article on Gamification in Marketing. This should be a good primer on what gamification is and what it can achieve.

When organisations decide to explore gamification, the discussion usually starts with that it will allow them to make their audiences obsessed with their product or service. This argument is strengthened by the idea that gamification is everywhere nowadays and this ubiquity is very enticing for many businesses, as they want to jump on this ‘money-making-wagon’.

This is a terrible argument and idea. Simply because it assumes that with the naming and advent of gamification, that all the manipulative mechanics that are used to grab customers attention were suddenly created and implemented, and had not existed before the development of gamification. You need to ask yourself the question then of just because you notice it now, have a name for it and some businesses now do it intentionally, does that mean that it didn’t exist beforehand and that people did(-not) do it intentionally or unintentionally because it was effective?

To give some context for that complex thought, let’s use the example of casinos and gambling. ‘Surprisingly’ these use the same mechanics and elements that gamification do. But this did not occur because gamification was ‘discovered’. Gambling did not suddenly become addictive because we now know what gamification is and have a name for it.

Another example is that of loyalty programs. The abundant nature of loyalty programs may have something to do with the popularity of gamification but they existed long before. They date back to the 19th Century, but for a modern example, American Airlines started theirs in the 1980s. Quite a while before the gamification boom of the 2010s.

Inherent in these examples is also that when gamification is added to a system it somehow becomes a form of control over the customer and that it removes the freedom choice from the individual.

With the example of Disneyland, this is certainly true. An external entity made a conscious choice to remove freedom of choice and add a very clear form of control and manipulation to a system. But that argument only works there in my opinion. You cannot argue that a language app or fitness app that you choose to download and use for self-improvement is somehow a system of control and has removed your freedom of choice? If that is the case, then I feel you need to reassess how you make choices in life and how much willpower you can enact on yourself.

These arguments smack of similar concepts such as those around desires, obsessions and addictions. For example, the idea that you do not have sweets in your home is because the temptation of them being in the cupboard would too great. This has nothing to do with the fact of how effective they were sold to you (gamified or otherwise), but more to do with the fact that they contain sugar, the root cause. Or that the complexities of choice, desire, obsession and addiction are reduced to such a simple idea.

Unfortunately, as often is the case with these discussions, the many arguments for the shadow side of gamification become reductive. They end in focusing heavily on what games have offered us; fun, distractions or enjoyable proxy experiences. And that gamification has now used these good things about games for sinister purposes, in some strange way corrupting the goodness of what games were. What the argument should focus on is the reason why and for what purpose the tools of games were used in other contexts, good or bad.

Alignment, Goal setting & Purpose

To have a better implementation of gamification and game-based solutions, you will need to consider various things. One of importance is whether the implementation will align with your goals and your target audiences goals. Misalignment of goals and intentions will lead to friction between the parties and eventually have a bad outcome: bad gamification and calls of manipulation and obsession/addiction creation. A method of overcoming this issue to get to know your audience better. Be a part of your audience and learn to understand their wants, needs and dislikes.

This process of consideration around goal alignment does bring us back to the question of freedom of choice and/or the illusion of choice. If your goal is to become better at a language and your choice is to use an app such as Duolingo which uses concepts of gamification and behavioural psychology to motivate you to learn a language, is this still manipulative? If you are more motivated to do something because it is more fun or more meaningful is it a form of control? When considering these questions, that if these are related to performance or an activity in some way, then you must ensure that it is for the right reasons and that the outcomes benefit all parties.

What you need to understand about gamification as a tool and it’s relation to control, is that it allows you to exercise control in such a way where you can refine and define activities in a much better and more efficient way. What it should do and does, is give individuals a sense of control over the activities that they choose to do. It should be an empowering tool. Aiding your audience to have a directed goal, and to remove the random and aimless wandering around in trying to figure out how to take an action and what to do.

This naturally relates to the notion of autonomy. Creating a roadmap for your audience does not remove their autonomy, their choice, nor does it remove their opportunity for creativity and exploration. Autonomy is maintained if gamification is implemented correctly. You could view it from the point that true creativity is when you think outside of the ‘box’. Not when there is no box at all and you have to deal with the endless void of infinite choice.

Mindset & perspective

As I stated at the start, the use of gamification should be done with clear intentions, an insight of what it can and cannot do, and a level of educated comprehension. You should be aware that it is a method that ‘simplifies’ complex interactions to promote more efficient understanding of various concepts and activities.

When implementing such a tool that simplifies complexity, it should be transparent and authentic in its purpose. Having any hidden agenda’s around cost or control defeats the purpose of having gamification, you’re not improving an interaction, your exercising power over it and it’s users. Though it needs to be said that having mystery and promoting curiosity by having something hidden in the experience is separate from this, as those promote joy and entertainment from discovery.

The discussion of the purpose of gamification and its agenda is the next issue then. Naturally, companies want to make money, they need to continue to exist. Gamification is a method in helping to improve this outcome, but the mindset should not be to squeeze out more money from your audience. It should be to improve your audiences lives in some way, for example by educating them, having learning objectives inherent to the gamification experience. This is an altruistic perspective and one that your audience will likely be happy to exchange money for. This leads on to and is intrinsically associated with the goals of the short-term and long-term that you choose as a provider of a product or service that uses gamification.

Final thoughts

Many of the issues and discussions around good and bad implementation of gamification stem from short-term versus long-term goals. Each situation is unique and should be dealt with as such. Unfortunately, too often we want standardized experiences when it comes to gamification implementation. But using the wrong mechanics and motivators for the wrong situation simply because it’s standardized can lead to the issues of bad gamification.

Many guides and articles on gamification discuss the mechanics that lead to short term gains, and those for long-term gains. Each has its place and should be considered with the right intention and forethought. Onboarding your target audience quickly so that they can positively benefit from your service or product for longer is the essence of this idea. And benefits you and your audience.

Gamification is a complex concept and it isn’t simply just creating a digital version of something that solves the problem you have. This is too simplistic and just a one-dimensional use of gamification. It also isn’t a one-all solution of for example running a team-building exercise to help alienated colleagues. This is also bad gamification as it ignores the core issue and merely tries to slap a band-aid over the real problem.

If you want to use the true power of gamification and any game-based solution, you will need to go through the process of determining what your goals are, what the problems are that you want to solve, what the process is to do this, and if gamification is the right tool for this.

As that is what gamification really is, just a tool. It can solve many things, but as shown with Disney, it shouldn’t be used to solve issues of productivity in that form. But as with Duolingo or Zombies Run!, it can be used very well to solve people’s want’s for education and better health.

The benefits of good gamification are numerous, but like many things in life, if it were easy, everyone would do it. Doing it right takes effort and time, but it is worth it in the end.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æStranger.com, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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