The Agendafication of Gamification

By: Sam Liberty

What we talk about when we talk about gamification

Gamified systems are inherently agenda-driven. After all, they are designed to bring about an outcome, to get us to do things. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, especially since the inherent agenda of gamified systems (for example, gamifying worker productivity) are fairly bald about what they’re doing.

In this article, I don’t intend to discuss whether gamification is ethically suspect (it can be) or whether it works (for the most part it does), but rather what it is, what we mean when we use that term, and why we use it at all.

What Gamification Is and What It’s Not

If you are already well versed in gamification, by all means skip this section, but many students, academics, and working professionals I encounter are still confused by this term. So before moving forward, let’s be on the safe side and try to define it.

There are many different definitions of gamification floating around. The simplest and most honest is probably Gigya’s: “Incentivizing the behaviors that are most closely aligned with your business goals.” In his paper “Gamification: Toward a Definition” (2011), Sebestain Deterding et al. posits this definition:

Gamification is the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.

In the world of professional design and consulting, both of these definitions tend to be understood as true. Note that neither says anything about using a “game” per se. Just incentives and game elements.

So famous educational games like Oregon Trail are not gamification. Using Minecraft in your classroom is not gamifying learning (although ironically report cards are). Serious games like Darfur is Dying do not gamify humanitarian outreach any more than Schindler’s List “filmifies” the holocaust.

The game elements Deterding means in his definition are formal elements and design philosophies. So elements like badges, points, and leaderboards are common in gamified designs. Whether you know it or not, you have participated in gamified systems. The frequent flier miles on your credit card are gamification. So are the merit badges and ranks in Boy and Girl Scouts. So are many apps and social networks, like Foursquare, LinkedIn, and even this site.

When Gamified Design Is Just Good Design

To draw out the distinction a little better, here is an example from health policy. In international development, there is a practice known as Results Based Financing (RBF). In other contexts it is sometimes referred to as “paying for results.” Let me describe for you a simplified example of RBF in action:

Imagine a health system in a developing country where infant mortality rates are high. Hospitals here rely on humanitarian aid to function throughout the year because of poor organization, a weak central government, or lack of funds. Often times, large donors supply X amount of dollars for the year which becomes the operating budget of a hospital or clinic.

In RBF, instead of paying for an operating budget, the donor pays for specific outcomes. Because, for example, children are dying of preventable disease, an organization might wish to incentivize vaccinations. So, they earmark funds to be released when a hospital meets certain milestones (50% vaccination rate, and then more at 65%, then more at 80%, for instance). Because this system can be exploited, transparency is important. In this example, let’s say the program compels all hospitals to publish their results, and the hospitals are ranked as a result.

So what do we have? Points, milestones, a leaderboard, and a reputation system. It is gamification.

But it is not called that. It is simply the design needed to achieve the desired results.

So Why Say Gamification At All?

Given that there is nothing new or novel about incentivizing behaviors, and the motivators used in gamification are psychological or material in nature, not necessarily game-based, why do we insist on using this word?

The answer is, Gamification is a valued term and we use it to support an agenda. There are three main ways this occurs:

  1. It is used by designers to package and market what they do and heap glory on themselves.
  2. It is used by pro-game pedagogues who subscribe to a certain rhetorical view of play to validate their thinking and heap glory on themselves.
  3. It is used derisively by skeptics who see gamification as a dishonest psychological trick to discredit the above two.

There is a movement of extremely optimistic people (ok, yes, like me) that view games primarily as a force for good. They actively fight notions of play that cast it as frivolous, childish, destructive, or a waste of time. Brian Sutton-Smith calls this rhetoric of play “The Rhetoric of Progress.” Essentially, this is the idea that play is done for some greater aim, that it is natural and good, and that it is the means by which we acquire new skills and grow as people. So when we say a process is “gamified” we simultaneously elevate that process, imbuing it with the positive aspects of play, and elevate play by entangling it with an important real-world process. This self-reflexively proves our point: play is positive.

I believe in games for good, but I am also a realist. Of course, we know that play can be productive, but it is not inherently so. Bullying is a form of play, after all. The notion that bringing play into all of our real life processes, championed by serious game proponents like Jane McGonigal, is appealing. But games and gamification are far from a panacea that will mend all our society’s ills.

What They Mean and What You Hear

Gamification is not just another buzz word, and it is not simply a bit of jargon meant to communicate ideas more precisely amongst professionals. The fact that no one can agree on a definition makes it useless as a technical term. It is an emotional term, not a technical one, and the people who use it do so with an agenda, whether they mean to or not.

That’s why in my professional practice, I try to focus on terms like games, play, and user-centered design rather than gamification. As long as we understand this, we can use the term freely and productively. We just need to be clear about what we mean.