Jen Bisignani

Gamification: On Play in the Digital Age


Bohumil Kubišta, Players, 1909
“I felt so clever when I found a way to game the Fitocracy system by incorporating a set of easy but high-scoring activities into my regular schedule. Took me a bit to realize I’d been tricked into setting up a daily exercise routine.” –

Introduction to Gamification

Silicon Valley produces like a motherfucker. Every day, startups launch new phone or web apps. Nine out of ten fail. To succeed, these products must attract and retain a large number of active users. This is a very difficult problem, largely because of the competition, but also because the Internet hasn’t been around long enough for the techniques of user acquisition and retention to be well-understood. There are, however, well-recognized strategies for achieving a promising user base, and dominant among these is the practice of Gamification.

The term “Gamification” is somewhat vague, and impossible to define without resorting to awkward phrasing. Wikipedia defines it as “the use of game design techniques, game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts.” The idea is simple: people like to play games. Gamification, then, is the distillation of what is “fun” about games and insertion of these elements into activities that are otherwise painful, difficult or boring. Tasks that are often gamified include weight loss, financial management, and looking at ads. Proponents of gamification gamble that the “gamified” tools will radically increase user engagement, and ultimately increase user performance.

Here are some of the most common ‘game design techniques’: avatars, in-app friends, levels, progress bars, badges, quests, and timed tasks. To your average web-savvy twenty-something these design elements are familiar not just from popular games such as World of Warcraft but also from many modern websites—Foursquare, Groupon, Yelp, Mint, Fitocracy, and even the eminently respectable Quora and Stack Overflow.

The Practical Applications of Gamification

Proponents of gaming and gamification argue (or just assume) that this power can be harnessed for the betterment of the game ecosystem, the user, and ultimately the world. In the TED talk that created the very idea of gamification, game designer Jane Mcgonigal argues that all we have to do to accomplish this is design the correct games. And gamification has produced results. For instance, the insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield has demonstrated that giving employees access to a weight/fitness tracker and a “game” site where they were rewarded with “props” and badges for reaching fitness goals resulted in striking health benefits, including “a 50% loss in smoking prevalence” and a two-thirds decrease in the “incidence of hypertension.”

Gamification’s effectiveness is perhaps best seen in the success of Zynga's game FarmVille. FarmVille is the diabolically clever gamification of marketing. Users create farms on which they grow virtual crops. Growing these crops is a big job: once the seeds are planted they grow for a number of hours, and must then be harvested within about as many hours. In other words, the player “plants” the crops, walks away, and must then return some number of hours later to perform another virtual action–or be penalized with a spoiled harvest. Visits from friends can ease the virtual farmer's burden since they can harvest the crops for him–but in the absence of friends, the farmer can pay (real) money for easier game play, or make farm friends with corporations. Visit the McDonald’s farm–get a free (virtual) tomato plant whose tomatoes ripen faster and decay more slowly. You can plant that tomato on your farm, but then everyone will see that you have a McDonald's branded tomato plant.

Gamification is Not Play

It is perhaps the appropriate time to draw what I think is the crucial distinction between gamification and the traditional concept of play. When children or adults get together and play a game, the game generally has a set of rules that are more like guidelines. These rules may have evolved over time (tag), or the game may come with instructions (Monopoly), but the moment any rule is not useful it is cheerfully discarded or replaced. Thus, they are subordinate to play itself. Even cheating is often a part of the game. In fact, it can be one of the best parts—the rules of when it’s ‘acceptable’ to cheat are always unwritten and thus completely open to interpretation and improvisation. Cheating hilariously is generally rewarded.

With the advent of computer games the rules became supreme, non-negotiable and strictly enforced by the game system. Gamification uses this ‘game design technique’ as well: in gamified systems, the player is rewarded for understanding and following the rules as closely and industriously as possible. Rather than venturing outside the rules, players ‘game’ the system by finding the fastest way to get rewards that the system allows. The tasks required to do this are always the most boring—such as killing hundreds of low-level characters in World of Warcraft.

The supreme nature of the rules is crucial for gamification to work. It allows the game creators to design the rules so as to manipulate the users into performing desired actions. The user’s enjoyment of the game is the chosen tactic to keep the user active, but certainly not the end goal. Rather, it serves to persuade the user to do the work required to complete the required tasks.

The Significance of Avatars

To keep performing these tasks, the user must be able to ignore what he or she is doing in reality. The virtual platform is key to accomplishing this: it gives the user an avatar to hide behind and removes the administrators from the user’s awareness altogether. Thus, the user is left free to embrace the virtual world as the reality.

One way gamification can support goals like weight loss is by replacing a difficult real goal with a set of attainable virtual ones. Take, for instance,, a fitness tracker with 230,000 users. You join on ‘level 1’ and have to earn points to ‘level up’ to a higher fitness. A 27-minute three mile run is worth about 800 points (good enough to skip straight to level 3) and unlocks the “go for a jog” badge (run at least one mile in less than 10 minutes). If this is the user’s first workout, he or she is now maybe an ounce lighter and marginally more fit—but the virtual page looks dramatically better: two levels higher, with a badge and some fancy stats.

This interaction would be very strange if acted out in real life. Just imagine a universe where you walk up to a real human—perhaps someone in Human Resources—and tell them your exercise for the week and get rewarded with a small token of achievement, such as a sticker for your cubicle. The next day your name tag is updated with the information that you are now at fitness level 3. As your co-workers pass you in the halls, they give you a thumbs up and yell “Props!” loudly enough to be overheard twenty feet away. Over the next few months, your cubicle will go from a set of four grey walls to a quilt of little stickers and plastic trophies. Your body, by contrast, may become a couple pounds lighter—or not.

The ability to hide behind an avatar creates distance between the user and the interaction and makes the whole thing less strange. In the virtual world of the game, the user is not constrained by what is socially acceptable in normal interaction. Thus, the user can proudly display a badge celebrating the accomplishment of running one mile, saving $50, or clicking on a set of pixels resembling a tomato at the right time. The user can even congratulate others, be they real-life acquaintances or total strangers, on accomplishing similar goals with less fear of rejection or ridicule.

Thus the avatar can enable the user to be more honest about her desires than she is in her real-life interactions. By being allowed to interact through an avatar, the user is allowed to solicit praise for mundane accomplishments that are nonetheless very difficult for her, or create a sense of community around very little.

Responsible Puppeteering

Even more crucially to the game’s success, the gamified framework conceals the game’s creators and administrators from the players. These administrators interact with the users through cute disembodied messages that pop up in the application. (My Yelp landing page currently says: “Feng shui your profile. Create a List.”) The gamified framework through which the administrators and users interact obscures the simple fact that the former are exerting power over the latter. This is an uncomfortable truth. By changing the incentives in a game they can control the behaviors of thousands of people. Because the administrators are largely anonymous, however, they cannot be confronted and their decisions are final. What's more, it's very easy for the users to forget that the administrators exist at all. Thus, they do not become angry when they are asked to perform tasks they would never agree to in real life.

But if the cute characters, virtual rewards, and sense of community are fulfilling and entertaining enough, the user continues to play. We have seen that gamified websites can provoke people to expend a great deal of effort for virtual rewards. However, it is not at all clear that gamified systems create lasting change in the user—that if the user quits playing, he or she will continue to budget money or eat well. The games are not designed to ever be abandoned, and the things the user gives up to start playing—the ability to pursue goals openly and with full self-awareness—are difficult to recover. Unfortunately, there is no game for that.

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