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Preview: Why Gamification Is Bullshit
From a longer article forthcoming in The Gameful World
May 1, 2013
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My short essay Gamification is Bullshit was a very widely read provocation, but it was never meant to be a complex argument. I've finally written a longer, more detailed version of that argument in an article titled "Why Gamification Is Bullshit." It will appear in Steffen P. Walz and Sebastian Deterding's forthcoming collection The Gameful World: Approaches, Issues, Applications, to be published by MIT Press later this year.

But I have to admit, I've been anxious making all of you wait for it. So I thought I'd post occasional excerpts. Here's one:

Given the long tradition of business intelligence in the enterprise, why might gamification proponents not connect their efforts to such historical examples in order to make their products and services more palatable and appealing? Partly because nobody wants to talk about OLAP and data mining, partly because selling IT solutions is far more complex than selling marketing, sales, and human resources solutions, and perhaps even partly because the gamification community just doesn't know about that part of industrial history.

But most of all: the uncertainty and opportunity presented by a flood of young (and therefore inexpensive) millennials coming of age and looking for work, and the weird and incomprehensible appeal of games among that population (particularly in the minds of older managers and executives) combine to make a game-based solution seem both sexier and more relevant to today's business goals. Among those goals: corporate middle- and upper-managers who have to make themselves and their divisions appear creative and winsome while also keeping up with competitors by ticking the latest trend boxes without giving in to the ennui of meaningless corporatism. No executive wants to attend a conference on "new approaches to business intelligence through smart dashboards." By comparison, a conference on gamification sounds like a trip to Disneyland.

Comments (8)
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Truthfully, with all due respect for your work, this part that you selected here is a little ad hominem and probably does not do justice to the whole of the argument.

The fact that Mr. Marketing and brand product upper left-shelves distribution retailing manager like gamification at all has pretty much nothing to do with why it is a bad trope.

Gamification is hype amongst imbecils. That does not speak to its quality or nature (which, I do agree, is bad).

I was hoping to make a substantive comment here, but first you need to fix that morass of run-on sentences so I can understand what you're actually saying.

@Oscar
There is no ad hominem in this excerpt, although it is (and was presented as) an excerpt, and thus does not represent the entire argument. The fact that corporate actors find gamification rhetorically useful is a core part of what makes it thrive (for now at least), which is entirely relevant to its critique.

@JAD
A run-on sentence is one joined without punctuation or conjunction. It's different from a long sentence. There are a couple long sentences above. I'm sorry but not surprised to hear that long sentences are beyond the grasp of gamification proponents!

Ian Bogost on May 2, 2013 10:14 AM

I'm actually eager to know what the alluded to examples are - I was just reading up on the monitorial system of education (admittedly on wikipedia) and was struck by 'gamification' examples in the 1880's -- 'to stimulate effort and reward merit, "Lancaster used Place Taking abundantly. He also had medals and badges of merit... Tickets could be earned too; these had a trifling pecuniary value." Prizes were given "to excess" ceremonially.'

Halsted Larsson on May 2, 2013 11:14 AM

Halsted, Mark Nelson has written about Soviet precursors to gamification.

The examples I'm alluding to in the excerpt above are the practices of "business intelligence" and its progeny, first popularized by Hans Peter Luhn at IBM in the 1950s.

Ian Bogost on May 2, 2013 1:37 PM

my eyes, what have I just read? what a load of bullshit.. can't believe this was a professor in georgia tech, one of the schools i respect wholly. writing this article and the earlier BS one, was well, shooting himself in the foot and being one of these "marketing" wannabes. your hatred for gamification is totally childish if all you can state is "personal sentiments"

wtf are you saying? on May 2, 2013 3:01 PM

I work in advertising, where for a long time advertisers would spend money on telling people that their products were great, instead of making great products. It seems that gamification is being used in a similar way. However, what is the main problem here? Game design techniques are certainly valuable in business contexts, and were used long before the word gamification was invented. What is a promotion but leveling up? A new project is a new challenge, etc. You could argue that games learned from real-life contexts, so why not give back? I think we are just in a phase. Giving badly run companies new tools to distract workers will fail in the long run, thanks to the education that blogs like this give, and the internet's ability to spread them. But companies, where managers and CEOs who really desire to create mutually beneficial systems for employees and customers, could be helped by the lessons learnt from game designers. There is no stopping it either. I don't work to separate gamicication from social design for instance, they are just new areas of design that I can learn from to craft more useful systems. I do need to know they exist in order to employ them, even if they have stupid names, but I also need to ensure that I learn from blogs like this so I don't employ them needlessly.

One Problem with Gameification

One of the problems with gameification is the game is only as good as the model, and all models are inherently flawed because they are a model. Models are missing something be it size, complexity, flexibility, meaning, interconnections.

The simplification in making a model is the very thing that dooms any outcome using it. This is why meteorologists cannot predict the weather. Well, they can predict some weather. Let me think. The models that meteorologist use--call it a game if you like for this example—are very complex and have evolved over decades.

If real world problems are to be solved with gameification the model needs to evolve as it is being played. The model must become more complex, much like way the weather model evolved and are still evolving over time.

Ross Nippoldt on June 29, 2013 5:36 PM
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