Why Does Gamification Tend to Devolve?

Lots of people have been jumping onto the anti-gamification bandwagon lately. I’ve been surprised by the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the critiques that I’ve read… particularly those that are short, sweet and to the point. And since so much has been eloquently said about the problems with gamification, I won’t bother to repeat the arguments here. Instead I want to address something that everyone else has ignored up till now: why some of gamification’s proponents have allowed it to devolve into the mindless application of points, achievements and leaderboards.

Is it because the proponents of gamification are generally not game designers and don’t understand how hard it is to make a good game? In some cases, probably so. But there’s a deeper and more pervasive problem that is driving the “dumbing down” of gamification. The problem is: gamification is a very tough sell.

It doesn’t matter how many books on the subject are published: most executives aren’t reading them. It doesn’t matter how many conferences are created: most executives aren’t attending them. But these issues are positively trivial compared to the biggest challenge of all: getting your average executive to understand the importance of prototyping and iteration.

I mean, a fair percentage of executives who work for publishers in the video game industry still do not understand the importance of prototyping and iteration. What are the odds that a marketing VP at Coca Cola is going to get it? Certainly not zero, but not too far above zero either.

Corporate executives are accustomed to being pitched things in a very defined way and don’t like it when the pitch includes too much ambiguity. “Hire my consulting firm and we’ll tell you the best strategy for entering an exciting new market after a three month research phase in which we will do X, Y and Z.” That works. “Hire my software development firm and I’ll have a new and better intranet built for you in nine months, and it will look almost exactly like this [insert mockups here].” That works, too.

You know what doesn’t tend to work? “Hire my game development studio. We think we can gamify your product in about three months, but it might take two months if prototyping goes really well and six months or more if prototyping takes longer than expected. And we can’t show you pretty mockups of what the final product will look like because we don’t know yet — that’s the point of the prototyping phase. Hey, you can trust me — I’ve done this 100 times before! No, not in your industry. Does industry expertise matter to you? Damn.”

I’m exaggerating a bit to make a point. The folks who are trying to sell gamification services are trapped between a rock and a hard place. The product they are selling is naturally hard to sell. And it’ll be another five to ten years before most of the senior executives at any given company are people who grew up with and “get” games, which complicates things further.

Given all that, is it any wonder that some folks have been driven to distilling the power of games into “points”, “leaderboards” and “achievements?” Those are easily defined things. You can show pretty pictures of them. And if you can convince a buyer that they are easy enough to implement, the buyer might be willing to take a gamble on you. In other words, gamification proponents are under enormous pressure to dumb down their pitch.

I’ve never talked publicly about why I didn’t focus my career primarily on the topics in my book after it was published. It wasn’t for lack of interest — I’m a deep believer in the power of games to transform business and I expect them to infect every aspect of the corporate world during my lifetime. One reason I chose to focus primarily on traditional entertainment (aside from personal passion) is because I believed the next several years would be an extremely hard slog for the serious game and gamification movements. So far, given the relative dearth of great gamification case studies to be published since my book was released in 2008, it appears that I was right.

I still do a little bit of serious game and gamification consulting. Every once in a great while, I meet a client who actually understands and appreciates the risks and uncertainties associated with game design. But more often than not, when I explain how game design works, my only reward is a blank stare or a nervous smile. And at that point, I know they’ve basically stopped listening to me. They’re thinking, “This sounds complicated and risky. I’m just going to buy some Google Adwords to advertise my product. I know that works.”

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