Let’s talk about gamification

Some painful truth for designers from game designer Eric Zimmerman on Mark Pesce’s podcast The Next Billion Seconds:

Eric: I’ll just be flat out: For me, gamification is generally not a positive thing.

Mark: Is that because it’s trying to get you to do something you generally wouldn’t do on your own? Is it depriving you of your agency?

Eric: Well, it’s because gamification generally means strip-mining superficial aspects of games, right? Rewards, points, the kind of the behavioural psychology of games and leaving behind the soul of games.

Mark: The wiggle room.

Eric: The kind of deep, playful innovation. So part of it is, every design – I’m a designer – and every game that’s designed, every chair that’s designed, every urban plan that’s designed implies a sort of model of what it means to be human in the design.

Mark: Well, there are assumptions that are baked in about the way you’re going to behave and approach and all that.

Eric: Exactly. So if your idea of designing a casino machine or a mobile app for behaviour change or social change is a Skinner box where your model of a human is a rat being given rewards or punishments …

Mark: For pressing the bar.

Eric. That’s right. Then that’s a very impoverished idea of your audience and what it means to be human.

Mark: Does it impoverish the audiences playing that game?

Eric: Well you can have short-term benefits from behavioural modification, there’s no doubt about that, so if what you want to do is assessment and research you can manipulate people into changing their behaviour but there are other behaviourists that have written about this idea of being punished by rewards.

So for example, if you have a kid and you want to reward them for cleaning up their room. If you start rewarding them for cleaning up their room the danger is that they will only ever clean up their room if they get a reward; they don’t learn the positive intrinsic value of having a clean room – in fact, it’s sort of the opposite. They learn that the standard is to have a dirty room and they’ll expect a reward for cleaning it as a special case.

You can actually educate the opposite of what you’re trying to do in terms of deep and lasting change, in terms of people learning values and deeper ideas than just a kind of manipulation of their surface behaviour.

So that’s the problem often with gamification that it’s really about human manipulation that implies a very shallow and impoverished idea of what it means to be human.

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