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.”

6 responses to “Why Does Gamification Tend to Devolve?

  1. David, most excellent insight on your part. At Maritz we’ve been working with Rajat Paharia @Bunchball to introduce gamification to the loyalty and incentives space where it is sorely needed (loyalty programs already have “pointsification” — we want to go well beyond that). You’ve articulated the core challenge I’ve experienced in evangelizing the approach — namely, that the best kind of design is “dynamic design” — one that has a degree of predictability, but also includes experimentation, prototyping, test-and-learn and an underlying understanding that as the market changes, so must the design of the consumer experience. This can be a hard sell unless the brand/company is already inclined toward that kind of an approach. Fortunately for us, we have some bold clients who get it and want to be first to market with it. For the ones who don’t work that way, though, I haven’t found “dumbing down the pitch” to just game mechanics to be all that effective an alternative.

  2. David, I think you make some very good points here. One thing that I wanted to mention is that it’s not so much “gamification proponents are under enormous pressure to dumb down their pitch.” but, it’s the notion that it is our responsibility to communicate the specific impact that Client X is looking to achieve, and how our product offering, which may include “Gamification elements,” achieves that Goal.

    From my experience pitching Gamification and Affinity directly to Fortune 500 Executives, they do understand it when you put the benefits and impact in THEIR language. That’s not really “dumbing it down” but translating it into something that the specific marketer is familiar with and can digest and take action on. when we can show the “engagement metrics with a clients brand, brand impact/recognition lift and Social Buzz effect” these are terms that every major executive understands and wants to harness.

    Very well written piece and great insights, and I know you are using “extreme” case examples, but thought I’d share my thoughts too. Cheers on a great book as well.

  3. Sameer Ajmani

    Dave, I’d love to hear your take on the future described here: http://www.ted.com/talks/jesse_schell_when_games_invade_real_life.html

    In particular, about the part that starts with “and what would that world be like? …”

  4. Sameer Ajmani

    starts around the 21:00 mark …

  5. Hey Sameer – Jesse is (I have to imagine) exaggerating to make a point. While we’re not likely to have gamified REM sleep devices implanted in our ears anytime soon (or ever), the idea of gamified products and services isn’t only realistic, it’s already happening. For example, as early as 2009 we started seeing news reports about the first gamified cars. Anywhere you find an inherently rewarding, repeatable activity, you can potentially find gamification.

    It’s the “inherently rewarding” bit that I feel Jesse failed to sufficiently emphasize in his lecture. Sure, you can get points for eating corn flakes. But I can’t eat corn flakes in a “better” way (well, actually, I could avoid overeating them, but Kellogg isn’t going to want to discourage that.) On the other hand, you certainly can brush your teeth in a better way — reaching all the individual teeth, brushing for a sufficient period of time, removing all the flecks of food (if the brush is smart enough to sense that), etc. Jesse gave both eating corn flakes and brushing your teeth as examples, but the former one is an example, IMO, of dumbed-down gamification, while the latter starts to approach more interesting territory.

    All that said, Jesse is a world-renowned game designer and creative thinker, so perhaps I’m simply not seeing the bigger picture that he is capable of seeing. 🙂

  6. Any time you have a subtle idea, you’re going to have difficulties with people dumbing it down to the point of wrongness. A major problem in this case, IMO, is that the hype machine has cranked way up on gamification, well beyond our collective ability to execute. Blame Zynga, they started it (indirectly).

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