6th November 2014

Gamification – Good Times or Exploitationware?

slot machines

Gamification – there’s a lot of it about. Everywhere you look, marketeers, contact centres and HR types are publicising their latest gamification projects and talking numbers about engagement conversions, brand loyalty and so on.

But not everyone is so enamoured of these practices or even the word itself. A few years ago, Ian Bogost coined the term ‘Exploitationware’. It was, he said, a much better word to describe what is actually happening when businesses use game elements and mechanisms for non-game applications.

You can see his point. The majority of the thinking about how gamification works is based on Behavioral Psychology. As soon as you mention those words, most people start to think about B F Skinner and all those lever pressing rats. Not a particularly pleasant idea if you think it is being applied to you.

But it works, you see. We love our little rewards. I know for a fact that immediately after posting this, I will find it very hard to resist refreshing every few minutes to (hopefully) see the number of ‘views’ and ‘likes’ rising. That small dopamine rush gets you every time.

So are all these business simply exploiting their customers and employees, taking advantage of neural mechanisms and conditioning to manipulate people to do what they want? And if they are, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Rat in a maze

Consider gamification in the marketing field. Arguably, it is just a new weapon in the same old war, getting customers to notice you, favour your product over others, and ultimately buy it and make you money. It is what has always happened and gamification is just a new flavour. Viewed like that, it makes Bogost’s point in spades. With some products, it is hard to see it any other way. If you’re peddling stuff that people don’t actually need, and might actually be bad for them – like ciggies or nasty sugar-laden flavoured fizzy water, then marketing, for you has to be all about creating demand where none should exist. There is no doubt that ‘exploitationware’ has worked well here. Consumers collecting badges for ‘engaging’ with vending machines have boosted sales, but all I can see are Pavlov’s Dogs.

Upserving not upselling

But some would argue that there has been a major shift in the relationship between sellers and consumers in recent years and that marketing and selling practices have also changed. In his book “To Sell is Human”, Daniel Pink argues that the proliferation of information has shifted the balance of power in the selling relationship to the consumer. Whereas previously the salesman was in possession of all the facts on product, price, quality and so on, now the customer can get that all on the Net, comparing your prices with your competitor’s, reading the reviews about your aftercare etc.. The greater information parity is one of the reasons, he argues, why ‘non-sales selling’ is now the way to go. This approach is all about discovering what it is your customers want, not about getting them to fit in with what you have. It is about having the flexibility to adjust to their needs and it is about ‘upserving’ not ‘upselling’. It is totally customer-centric, and it is important to note that when Pink talks about customers, he is talking about everyone you have contact with. We are all selling ideas, all the time, he says, to our colleagues, our families, to everyone we meet.

Gameful design

I don’t like the word ‘gamification’ too much myself, but I do use it. I probably should take a stand too, but I don’t have Bogost’s clout. It is a useful shorthand for me. Most people have some idea what I am talking about when I use the word, and should the conversation continue, I have some basis to discuss more deeply what it is that I am actually talking about. What I am far more interested in is the concept of ‘Gameful Thinking’, as proposed by Jane McGonigal. An important aspect of this approach is rather than making something ‘look like’ a game, one should design to make it ‘feel like’ a game. This is not a process of trivialising, as ‘gamification’ often is – adding a game veneer to fundamentally mundane activities – ‘chocolate coated brocolli’. Rather, argues McGonigal, games are about being focused and motivated. The spirit of the gamer is optimistic, curious, motivated and always up for a tough challenge.”

our organizational goals need to be achieved by empowering the players to get more of what they really want from life”

McGonigal’s view stated above aligns almost exactly with Pink’s ideas about non-sales selling. And that, in my view is how ‘gamification’, gameful design or whatever you choose to call it will begin to be used in an ever larger number of organisational setting. Games and game like experiences are all about relationships, and interaction, and discovery, and achievement – real drives. These are the ‘games mechanisms’ which organisations should be utilising, not the trivial ‘furniture’ of games, like points and leaderboards, which are actually just the extrinsic signs of these.

It is clear that gameful design is not going to be as easy as ‘gamification’ (as it is broadly understood now). It is going to involve a far more radical rethink of the way activities are designed than simply adding a few badges and points. But for organisations who get this right, the rewards will be immense, true engagement, loyalty and relationships that last. Because novelty is just that, ‘gamification’ will need to be constantly redesigned in oder to maintain the effect – the rats eventually learn the maze. Gameful thinking goes deeper into the design of activities, processes and even whole organisations, and is built to last.

Personally, I would not adopt the term ‘exploitationware’. Many of the companies out there offering ‘gamification’ are in fact operating far more in line with gameful design. They are just using the term which they know will be recognised. “Gamification” is maturing as a discipline and it will be interesting to see what comes next, when the badges and leaderboards start to dwindle.

Images by 19Melissa68 and fsamuels from Flickr under Creative Commons – with thanks


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