Gamification: Don’t say it, don’t do it, just stop


This post originally appeared on MediaCommons, as part of a series on gamification.

I think it’s time we had a frank talk about what gamification is, and why we should stop doing it — or at least, why we should agree that if we’re not going to stop doing it, we ought to stop calling everything that involves real-world game design by that name.

Gamification as formulated by its proponents — let’s thumbnail it as, “the application of points and badges and other representations onto real-world behaviors under the assumption that doing so will ‘incentivize’ or motivate certain actions” — is anti-human. It’s about closing down possibility rather than opening it up. When “successful” (which, to be sure, it often is not), it amounts to a sleazy kind of behavioral control system. Population control is anathema to what games are, or have been, or ever will be.

A true game is a set of rules and procedures that generates problems and situations that demand inventive solutions. A game is about play and disruption and creativity and ambiguity and surprise. A game is about the unexpected. Gamification, on the other hand, is about the expected, the known, the badgeable, and the quantifiable. It is about “checking in” and being tracked. It’s not about breaking free, but rather about becoming more regimented. It’s a surveillance and discipline system — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Beware its lure.

Of course, if your goal is to create compliant employees, students, consumers, or citizens, then maybe gamification is for you. What better way to hammer home the idea that innovation, intellectual development, identity, and citizenship consist of doing what one is told and checking off boxes than by, well, “rewarding” people for doing what they’re told and checking off boxes? This is the essence of gamification: here are X number of things that you can be rewarded for doing. Now do them. Your activity will be monitored, and you will be credentialed accordingly.

In education, gamification is the hellspawn of No Child Left Behind and other kinds of quant-led learning policies. It posits that the main role of the educator is to identify a finite set of things that students ought to learn and do, and then to make them learn and do those things by whatever means necessary. If trickery is involved, then so be it. The principal “trick” gamification deploys is to make the tasks it seeks to support feel like game activities by using scorekeeping metaphors drawn from videogames and role-playing games to track completion. But aside from superficial similarity, is this approach really any different from handing out As and Bs, certificates and diplomas, GPAs and SAT scores?

Make no mistake: gamification — for we must differentiate it from game design proper, else the term is meaningless — is a credentialing system, and while it sometimes poses as a way of honoring and acknowledging informal learning, what it really amounts to is an extension of the formal into the realm of the informal. It is not concerned with teaching learners how to learn, but rather shockingly exclusively with offering them a set of discrete objects that they must accumulate (in part or in whole) in order to be credentialed. This is not a recipe for creating the kinds of creative problem-solvers our civilization needs. This is a recipe for creating rule-followers who are more concerned with optimizing their badge collections than with truly exploring and engaging with the world in which they live.

So just stop. End this dark chapter, this Frankenstein perversion of all the beautiful and liberating things that games can do. Refuse the marketing pitch. If you want to design games to make your school or city or country a better place, then do it — design games and change the world. But don’t do gamification. It’s bad for people. And if you’re an acolyte who just won’t let go, then at least do the rest of us a favor and keep your dirty word to yourself.