Gameover for Gamification?

On September 2011, Kathy Sierra, game developer and co-author of the Head First Series had left a comment on Toby Beresford’s blogpost about the question whether Bartle’s Gamer Types are applicable for enterprise gamification. These are parts of her comment:

“Bartle’s Types have virtually no relationship to anything that happens in the workplace… they were never meant (according to him) to have meaning beyond a highly specific scenario. Even the most gamified of all workplaces will still not reflect the conditions under which Bartle’s types apply.”

“…the entire lucrative “types” industry, most notably the MBTI, is beginning to crumble under the weight of scientific scrutiny. And that is for a typing system that has been used and tested on millions. If that system is not holding up well (among other things, people tend to shift “types” rapidly, fluidly, and contextually), it is highly unlikely that one that was never intended by it’s designer to EVER be used this way will.”

“I suspect the Bartle’s Types falls into that same persistent myth category… we can easily “see” ourselves identifying with one type more than others, but context turns out to be far more relevant, and the same process developers have always used to understand their users is going to be far more useful. Personas, deep ethnography, plain old use-cases… all known useful practices with tested design patterns.”

Of course I had to find out what Bartle’s thoughts were and I discovered that 4 months earlier he held a presentation at the Digital Shoreditch and explained why he doesn’t like to see his model used for gamification. I was shocked. One of my strongest pillars for the support of Gamification was crumbling.

The Limitations of Gamification

His critic on Gamification starts off with the following point: “Games are play you can lose” but “gamified activities are not play and you can’t lose at them”
This is easily explained with a gamified classroom. Getting a good grade in an exam can be gamified to a certain extent. A teacher can give students points and badges for accomplishing a task, attendance or answering questions and thereby invoke competition among the students or just increase participation, but if students fail the exam they can’t simply restart or go back to a save point like in games.

In my opinion, a conclusion for a teacher who wants to gamify a class is not to apply game mechanics on the surface to increase the engagement of the students but to design the entire class like a game allowing for earned points to be spent on buying real points during the exam, swapping badges for being able to stay absent for one lecture, etc.

Stephanie Morgan, producer and game designer for social entertainment products is more radical and stated that “Gamification Sucks”. It sucks at delivering meaning. The usage of game mechanics is too shallow. She especially criticizes the use of points and badges as simple numeral tallies.
In games, scores don’t just represent how often a player has repeated the same action over and over again but they show a player’s performance in the game. Furthermore scores define how players can experience the game, how their perception of the game is changed. For example are game scores connected to the progress in the game- many gamified systems don’t have a roof because marketing people don’t want the player engagement to end. Scores are also tied to possible, optional ways to complete the next task. You can use your earned points to get different skills which allow you to approach a challenge in different ways. This feeds the intrinsic needs of players in contrast to extrinsically motivating a player to do something for you by waving with a reward.

Bartle has also noticed that and explains: Gamification “exclusively relies on extrinsic rewards” in form of titles and badges. “Gamification is basically bribery”, if players only do a certain task for the reward they never learn the meaning and potential fun of that task.

Unfortunately, Gamification is applied to tasks that aren’t fun to begin with. If they were fun, there would be no need to gamify them. Bartle bluntly says: “Gamifiers readily acknowledge that their content is not compelling”. Instead of putting rewards and mechanics on them, the task itself should be altered so it becomes fun. In many cases, that is not possible and Gamifiers have to use extrinsic motivations/rewards to engage people.

The problem with extrinsic motivation in form of rewards is that they have to be valuable to compensate for the exhausting or annoying action they entail. In games, most actions are perceived as fun by themselves and don’t need a valuable extrinsic reward. That is why rewards in games often revolve around making the player more potent and allowing him to perform more actions. For example: beating an enemy to acquire more gold to buy new weapons to beat new enemies and so on. Morgan calls that the “Compulsion Loop”.

Concerning the excessive use of extrinsic reward Bartle warns that players will eventually realize that a reward holds no value. It doesn’t work to rely solely on points and badges if the player can’t exchange them against products or services or use them in another way than simply for status.

Fight between experts

Kathy Sierra, shares Bartle’s sentiment and calls this a lack of long-term sustainability in gamified experiences. However, she admits that “… this is complex and there are appropriate uses for extrinsic rewards to help bridge people into behaviors that do not yet carry intrinsic rewards though they are intrinsically *valuable*. Most sports and fitness activities suck at the beginning… there is very little inherent pleasure and you do not have the resolution to have a deep and rich experience. yet. So the careful application of extrinsic rewards (not necessarily gamification!!) can help carry them over the “suck threshold” to where they can begin to become more awesome.”

With that statement she reacts to Gamification enthusiasts like Gabe Zichermann. The quote is an extract from a heated debate between her and Zichermann that started in the comments of one of his posts.

Sierra also tries to make Zichermann aware of the fact that Gamification is used by many only as a tool of manipulation and can lead a brand down the “dark path”. She brings up ethical questions that business people seem to be allergic against.

Another problem she sees with Gamification lies in its application to things that could have intrinsic value but are simply done because of extrinsic rewards, for example reading. She makes the connection to Zichermann who wrote in his book about how to improve costumer engagement and sales by having a leaderboard in the store showing who bought the most books, sorted by genre. Her critic is that this might increase the sales and motivates people to buy books but it doesn’t guarantee that people read all those books and understood them or had a consciousness expanding experience.

Evaluation of the debate

Gamification can be successful if:

    …the Gamifier knows the customer/user/player well

That takes consideration, empathy, benevolence, time for research and hard analytical work.

    …the Gamifier makes sure to respond to the needs of every type of player

Points and badges only satisfy the achiever but not the socializer or explorer.

    …the gamified experience is voluntary

Work is often not perceived as fun because it is not voluntary, optional or in our control.

    …the Gamifier adds meaning and depth instead of putting a game layer on top of the system.

(Sebastian Deterding, Londong 2010) Intrinsic motivation must be considered and satisfied. Extrinsic motivation is not sustainable.

I believe Erica Swallow has found a balanced way between the two opposing factions as she answers the question “Is Gamification Right For Your Business?” with “7 Things To Consider”.