The dangers of gamification

Gamification is a way of making things fun and it’s a way to encourage good behaviour but “good” isn’t baked in. There’s no morality inherent in the use of gamification, it’s just about guiding behaviour. Good or bad or indifferent, the designer wants to provoke you into doing something. This is why I feel wary about it, especially if it’s presented as a way of improving society. It’s not a panacea, in fact where I encounter it most is as a way to encourage people to repeatedly perform some action which is of little benefit to them or society but of some benefit to advertisers and marketers. Check-ins, badges, achievements. All help marketers gather mountains of concrete data about consumer behaviour but don’t benefit the person doing it beyond stimulating an atom-sized psychological high that reinforces the desired behaviour.

The idea that these techniques are derived from games is reductive. They’re derived from a certain type of game. Games that offer unlockable elements, achievements or collectable tokens have become more widespread, or at least those elements have started becoming the very focus of the game more often, especially since these kinds of things have been built in to consoles like the Xbox. But this element is not the game itself. This is a misunderstanding that these elements are core to the experience of games. Games are seen by those that don’t play them as trivial, a waste of time and a way of having fun without making an effort. And on the whole, that does seem fair when you look at the current state of games. But there are experiences of games which do not focus on these shallow types of engagement. There are games where the pleasure comes from achieving something difficult, of testing yourself mentally against the world created by the game designer. And there are games where there is an element of expression, of creativity. (One of the reasons I think Minecraft has been so successful is that it fills a hole for creative sandbox games where the action and ultimately the goals and aims of the game are directed by the player.)

As more and more apps and websites use these types of techniques, I think they will begin to lose their power, or have to become more sophisticated. People will begin to question the time they spend in so many different places trying to achieve the next arbitrary goal. Or maybe they won’t. Millions spend hours on MMOs doing the same thing. But then people can burn out of they have to many points of contact with this kind of activity. For some of us at least, the fast food of check-ins and achievements doesn’t have any appeal or perhaps once did and has now lost its glamour.

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