Gamification is great, until it destroys us

sartre_gamification_ceaOr:  “On the ethical use of gamification.”

Gamification is the use of game theory in practical application to drive real world activities and behaviours. One of the most simple examples of this is the rewarding of badges on websites where users are encouraged to participate. This may be a television show’s site or a topical forum that promotes active discussion.

Implementation of game elements in various real world business applications has been proven to be an effective method of encouraging desired behaviours and is quickly becoming the solution de rigueur for increasing participation. Rajat Paharia’s article on exemplifies why: “This is not a game: Why gamification is becoming a multi-billion dollar way to motivate people“. Clearly, there is money to be made by businesses implementing gamification concepts and structures to drive loyalty among its clients, or to improve operation efficiencies within its employee base.

Seems like the perfect solution, doesn’t it? But what if it had a dark-side to balance all of these benefits? What would that dark underbelly look like?

Without the rose-coloured glasses of increased profits, gamification can lead to a society that expects rewards for every action. Similar to the positive reinforcement ideologies which molded education changes in the 1980’s and subsequently created the entitlement generation (as outlined by Brian Moore‘s article in the NYPost: The worst generation?), gamification has the potential to condition us to expect  returns and benefits for every action we take, which previously wouldn’t have had any value or discernible impact in our lives. Worse yet, is how that entitlement to reward drives further selfishness and individual focus on benefit regardless of larger impact.

This is where the ethical implementation of gamification really comes in to play: as corporate entities, we must understand all the potential ramifications and long-term costs of doing business when implementing behaviour changing models. While proven to dramatically improve returns on investment, the longer term effects of gamification on culture are not yet fully understood. What was once a novelty and unexpected reward may soon become expectation. Imagine a day when a company rewards people for tweeting about a product; soon you’ll see people expecting to be compensated for those very same product focused tweets. Sure, it is an over simplified example, but one which we have already started to see emerging with the influx of articles about monetizing your twitter activity.

Lest I leave you with the idea that I detest gamification: I don’t. Game elements to help drive real business results are not only effective, but also valuable to both sides of the client/business relationship. When used properly they can drive true success in many differing aspects of business or simple community engagement across disciplines and industries. I do enjoy a well gamified site and am often myself caught up in getting more badges/mayorships/or achievements. is a good example of gamification implemented in a way that helps to drive my own consumer behaviour to particular restaurants to maintain my mayor status (really more of a slight added benefit than an actual behaviour modifier, but still).

It is the over use  and permeation of gamification principles into every  aspect of daily life that can and will condition our behaviour and quickly lead us down this path of culture change driving entitlement and expectation. As social business professions we need to evaluate and understand our own motivations for implementing these elements, while as consumers we must be informed and understand how these varying tactics can play into our own psychology to motivate our actions. Only by ethical use and educated consumption can we keep ourselves from falling down this dark well of badges and unlocked achievements.

The long and short of it all: gamification is not a panacea. It can help solve some business problems, but should be implemented with thought and care to ensure its impact isn’t thwarted by the very nature of what makes it work.


image credit:  Some rights reserved by Cea.