Putting Gamification in its Place: The War on Words

This is an excerpt from the second part of the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and LeaderboardsBuy a copy hereor listen on Audible.

Putting Gamification in its Place

Before we jump further into deeper experience and engagement design through the 8 Core Drives, I’d like to take a moment to resolve some pressing questions regarding the various forms of gamification campaigns.

While the topic of Gamification is exciting and productive, many people new to the industry have a hard time figuring out what gamification means and how to categorize it.

What if our employees don’t want to play games? Is calling some- thing a quest considered gamification? Is the gamification BlendTech uses to promote its blenders the same as the gamification that eBay uses to make its platform addictive? How do I know what type of gamification works for my company?

All this can be quite confusing to the average reader (which of course, you are not). As Gamification is such an all-encompassing umbrella term for “making things game-like” (by the way, the popular Wikipedia definition is, “the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts”10), there are almost no bounds for what it can or cannot be. This allows gamification to be far reaching into all sorts of fields and industries. However, it also invites many critics who are upset about how broad the term can be. They especially criticize that, due to the broad nature of the term, gamification enthusiasts are claiming everything good, fun, motivating, or immersive as something they perform on a professional level.


Before you read on, I want to make a disclaimer that this chapter does not teach you how to gamify an experience towards better results but merely addresses some issues on the language and semantics within the field and my own opinion on the matter. I can’t promise you a definitive conclusion to the debate over what is and what isn’t gamification, but I do hope you leave the chapter with a more rounded understanding of the field.

There are many more fascinating topics on human behavior and good design that excite me more in the chapters to come. Even though it breaks my heart to spend precious time writing about this non-productive topic, I don’t want my readers to be unaware of the greater “Gamification World.”

The War on Words

Back in 2011, gamification notables Gabe Zichermann and Sebas- tian Deterding had a public debate on gamification concepts.

Some background info: Gabe Zichermann is a brilliant marketer, speaker, CEO of the largest Gamification conference in the industry, the GSummit, and is one of the leading evangelists of Gamification and its commercial use.

Sebastian Deterding is the Ph.D. academic that studies the deep theories and motivations of game design and Gamification. He is considered one of the most respected thought leaders in the space.

In this debate of epic proportions, Sebastian Deterding publicly examined each chapter of Gabe Zichermann’s book Gamification by Design, and explained why he considered each chapter to be flawed and/or inaccurate11. Hyperbolically speaking, his blog post on the subject was almost longer than the book itself.

One of Deterding’s critiques was that, contrary to what Zichermann states in Gamification by Design, serious games and advergames should not be considered examples of Gamification. For those who are unfamiliar with these terms, Wikipedia defines serious games as, “a game designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment.” In other words, games that are generally built for a productive purpose, such as training, education, healthcare, and the like (Hence, the term “serious”).12.

BusinessDictionary.com defines advergames as, “A video game which in some way contains an advertisement for a product, ser- vice, or company.”13 These are games that basically act as interactive advertisement campaigns which draw potential customers onto a website or into a business. When I refer to “shoot-the-duck banner ads” as early and embarrassing forms of marketing gamification, those banner ads are technically classified as Advergames.

As you can see, both definitions have the word “a game” in them, which seems to go against the core essence of what “gamifying” something means. In my own writings, I talk about how you can gamify anything that involves human motivation, as long as it is not already a game, just like how you can’t liquefy liquid. You can however, apply better game design to games.

So because advergames and serious games are “games,” by that standard you can’t really gamify them. Right?

This is an excerpt from the second part of the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and LeaderboardsBuy a copy hereor listen on Audible.

Readalong: Reality is Broken, Ch 4 – Fun Failure and Better Odds of Success

This continues the Readalong by Erik van Mechelen of Jane McGonigal’s ‘Reality is Broken’ with insights from Yu-kai Chou’s Octalysis framework. For in-depth discussions of this book and others, join Octalysis Prime.

tl;dr Both serious and casual games bring blissful productivity, one key element of more satisfying work. 


McGonigal explores research from the M.I.N.D. Lab and Nicole Lazzarro, Raph Koster, and and Randolph Nesse to investigate why failure, fun failure specifically keeps us playing games, and how its relationship to better odds of success actually improves our enjoyment of a game (both individually and with others) and gives us hope of better outcomes.


This short chapter kicks off with game researcher Nicole Lazzaro’sfindings that gamers both spend more time failing than succeeding in games AND that they enjoy doing so.

If you examine your own experience, you’ll notice this to be true. When I was first learning to play Starcraft, I lost many of my games on Battlenet before mastering some build orders with Zerg which gave me a fighting chance. Same with Chewss and Go, which I am now just learning.

Super Monkey Ball 2 (which in 2005 was researched by Helsinki’s M.I.N.D. Lab was the focus of the specatcular failures of this action puzzle game. The finding was simple, when players are shown ‘agency’ in the failure to complete a puzzle (by sending the monkey spiinning into space), they feel ownership and control and the prospect of improving the seuquenece on the next effort feels achievable. The game can also draw a laugh, which doesn’t hurt.

I’ve played Super Monkey Ball 2 and can echo this feeling. My brothers and I had a lot of fun exchanging the controller when we fell off the map into outer space, laughing, and then laughing again when our brothers failed, too. We got a lot of CD5 collaboration from helping each other find ways through the obstacles and mazes.

The sense of difficulty matters. The documentary about solo game developers comes to mind, about Super Meat Boy, Indie Game, spends tieme delving into the game design which highlights spectacular failures but also teaches the player new skills in-game.

One other note to take away from Indie Game: The Movie, is that making games and motivationally powerful experiences is hard work. There is a reason great experience designers and game designers can get paid top dollar. But it is also a reminder to us, designers of at minimum our own lives, should give ourselves a break once in a while and realize that our lifestyle design efforts may have some bugs in them 🙂

Fix #4: Better Hope of Success

Compared with games, reality is hopeless. Games eliminate our fear of failure and improve our chances for success.

Even in games which eliminate progress on failure, the player can always still start the game over. This isn’t true in life, or is it?

Here again I must differ slightly in the delivery from McGonigal. While she does invoke Raph Koster’s concept of games being “fun as long as we haven’t master them,” I feel McGonigal is a bit to overt in her depiction of reality as a nearly insurmountable adversity.

Again, I should mention I’ve met McGonigal in person and she was wonderful to speak with. Also, let’s remember that this book, Reality is Broken is in its conclusions precisely about learning from games and applying their design strategies to the real world. 

Next up, hope.

We all hope to if not flourish, then live up to our potential, to be our best self. Here I tend to align with McGonigal’s attention to Randoph Nesse’s research on the evolutionary origins of depression.

She jumps from this research to a claim that ‘today’s best games help us realistically believe in our chances for success.

Games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are tough to master, and require allies like WoW raids to successfully complete songs.

Rock Band specifically gives players CD5 collaboration, CD2 sense of progress, and CD3 empowerment of creativity and feedback (“let me play the drums this time!”).

Again, I love that McGonigal discusses the 2008 study showing that among the 7,000 players in the study, 67% said they were likely to try learning an instrument. It is this merging between games and reality that is exciting. And it is the difficulty of mastery, the failing toward a goal, and the hope of success that prompted this movement.

What do you think?

Have you ever been inspired to do something in the real world because of a game?

How do you think of failure? Does it scare you? Deter you? Or do you embrace it?

What do you think?

Let me know in the comments or on Octalysis Prime‘s community (paywall).

Trojan Horses and What Makes a Good Designer

This is an excerpt from the second part of the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and LeaderboardsBuy a copy hereor listen on Audible.

A Trojan Horse without Greek Soldiers

Generic game mechanics and poorly constructed game elements such as levels, boss fights, or quests often fall into the same hole as PBLs. Simply put, applying traditional “game elements” ubiquitous in popular gameplay without diving deeper into user motivation contributes to shallow user experience: it’s all flash and no bang. An almost humorous example of this is when people I meet call something a “quest” instead of a “task” thinking that this automatically makes the same original actions fun and engaging. Sure, having a playful attitude can make a big difference, but it only goes so far, especially when your customers and employees may already distrust your motives.

The truth is, simply incorporating game mechanics and game elements does not make a game fun.

Games aren’t necessarily fun because of high quality graphics or flashy animations either. There are many unpopular, poor-selling games with state-of-the-art 3D high- resolution graphics. There are also games with very basic graphics such as Minecraft, or even no graphics, such as the purely text-based multi-user dungeon games (MUDs), that have large communities of players addicted to them. Clearly, there are more to games than “meets the eye.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people who work in gamification incorrectly think that applying game mechanics like points, badges, and leader- boards – elements that you can also find in boring and unsuccessful games – will automatically make the product or experience fun and engaging. Unfortunately, it’s not just what game elements you put in – it’s how, when, and most importantly, why these game elements appear.

It would be foolish for a modern army commander to say, “Hey! The Greeks sent a big wooden horse to the Trojans and won the war. Lets send our enemies a big wooden horse too!” In this case, he clearly doesn’t understand the true design behind the Trojan Horse, but he only copied the outer shell of it. Instead, it would be much more effective if he created a virus that pretended to be a normal file to corrupt enemy computers. Learn from the design; don’t copy the shell.

Continue reading Trojan Horses and What Makes a Good Designer

Readalong: Reality is Broken, Ch 3 – More Satisfying Work

This continues the Readalong by Erik van Mechelen of Jane McGonigal’s ‘Reality is Broken’ with insights from Yu-kai Chou’s Octalysis framework. For in-depth discussions of this book and others, join Octalysis Prime.

tl;dr Both serious and casual games bring blissful productivity, one key element of more satisfying work. 


“Playing World of Warcraft is such a stisfying job, gamers have collectively spent 5.93 million years doing it.”

Erik: This is impressive, and only accounts for playtime between its release in 2004 and 2011, when this book was published.

McGonigal goes on to describe and test her hypothesis of satisfying work (recall the 4 internal or intrinsic motivators in Ch2, one of which was ‘more satisfying work’).

“Blissful productivity is the sense of being deeeply immersed in work that produces immediate o and obvious results. The clearer the results, and the faster we achieve them, the more blissfully productive we feel. And no game gives us a better sense of getting work done than WoW. ”

McGonigal describes Alain de Botton’s take on work (The Pleasures of Sorrow and Work) and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft, and finally Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology. to cement her argument.

Continue reading Readalong: Reality is Broken, Ch 3 – More Satisfying Work

The Points, Badges, and Leaderboards Fallacy

This is an excerpt from the second part of the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Buy a copy here or listen on Audible.

A Story about Social Media

The landscape of gamification development must be viewed within a historical context to see why gamification mechanics themselves don’t ultimately lead to effective design. Let’s start by taking a look at social media

Due to the proliferation of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, the versatile term “social media” overtook “social networking” in 2007 and became a new buzzword. When enough interest and excitement in an industry hits critical mass, there will always be people and agencies proclaiming themselves as experts, to capitalize on the trending buzz. It really doesn’t matter what the new buzzword is — SEO, SaaS, Cloud, Big Data, you name it — the terms are so new that while no one can truly be an expert, everyone is in the running to be considered as one.

And so these “experts” saw the growth in “social media” platforms and services as heralding the dawn of a new era in technology, business, and culture. They made sure to demonstrate the importance of its influence through viral growth models and by collecting case studies that show companies obtaining huge successes due to their social media savviness. “Everyone is now a publisher” became the motto, and how companies leveraged the phenomenon became the focus. The pitch was very inspiring and logical.

Unfortunately, being an “expert” only went so far. When companies actually hired these social media services to run their marketing campaigns, they found that all these “experts” could do was create Twitter profiles and Facebook Fan Pages (I’ve even seen services that charge thousands of dollars just to create these accounts).

However, the real question wasn’t how to publish but what to publish. Content strategy was still a mystery in the early days of the social media revolution. For content, the “experts” would simply ask their companies to send them worthy updates for posting. Every once in a while they might even provide some customer support using the companies’ Twitter accounts or share pictures on their Facebook Fan Pages. But overall, the industry felt a little disillusioned by this new “fad,” as the miracle they were expecting in ROI (Return on Investments) just wasn’t being realized.

What most people didn’t recognize then was that social media is much deeper than simply possessing and posting on profile ac- counts. That’s just the outer shell of its influence and impact. Today, we know that great social media campaigns focus on how to create value for the audience by sharing information that is insightful and engaging, has a personal voice, engages and sincerely interacts with each potential customer, and much, much more. In essence, the beauty of social media was in how you designed and implemented a campaign, not in the bells and whistles you used. It was the informal and formal dialogue you had with your community that ultimately taps into the platform’s unique possibilities.

Having knowledge of good social media principles does not necessarily mean someone can execute them correctly. Take popularity for example. Most people know the principles of being a“popular” person — be outgoing, funny, confident, in some cases compassionate, etc. But when you look around your community or network, you find that there are still only a few people who are truly “popular,” while some may even appear to be sleazy as they try. Helping a brand become popular is exactly what true social media experts would be doing if both principles and execution were aligned.

Fortunately, social media does have the power to make a company radically successful and the trend stuck around. (There are still dozens of successful social media case studies appearing on a monthly basis.) Today, most companies now subscribe to the belief of, “If your company doesn’t have a social strategy, it will become irrelevant.”

What connection does this have with gamification? We will soon see that the early days of social media almost completely mirror the gamification industry today.

An Obsession with Grunt Work

As I mentioned in the last chapter, games have the amazing ability to keep people engaged for a long time, build relationships and communities among players, and cultivate their creative potential. Still people often ask, “Do games really have the power to motivate people?” Consider this: many feel that children today do not have strong work ethics. They complain that kids nowadays don’t have discipline, are easily distracted, and don’t show persistence when encountering challenges.

But when it comes to playing games, these same kids have what most people would consider amazing work ethics. Many of them wake up secretly behind their parents’ back at 3AM in the morning, just to play a game and level up their fictional characters.

What’s the motivation behind this? If you have ever played RPGs (Role-Playing Games) before, you would know that the act of “leveling up” often requires defeating the same monsters over and over again in the same stage for hours on end. Even mobile games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds require the same repetitive action (bird-throwing and gem-matching) for weeks or months in order to level up and progress. In the gaming world, this is appropriately called “grinding,” and it is fun and addictive for children and adults alike.

In the real world, this is often defined as “grunt work.” Generally, no one likes to do grunt work, and it requires strong work ethic and will power to complete it. But kids, who again are assumed to have no discipline or work ethic, are somehow sacrificing sleep and risking punishment to complete seemingly pointless grunt work for fun.

Why? Because they are excited about leveling their character up. They want to get that extra +5 strength and gain a new game skill to beat a challenging boss that they couldn’t defeat until they reached a high enough level. They do it because they see the big picture, the “why” they are doing it. They like that sense of accomplishment, as well as the use of their creativity in developing and optimizing certain strategies. They desire these feelings so much that anything that stands in the way, be it grunt work or otherwise, is worth doing and doing urgently.

Now, imagine a world where there is no longer a divide between what you need to do and what you want to do. Where everything is fun and engaging, and you actually want to wake up each morning to tackle the challenges ahead. Grunt work takes on a new meaning when understood as an affect of powerful motivational factors. This is the promise and vision that good gamification design can create.

Secondhand Sushi Making

Despite the many case studies on gamification that demonstrate the potential and promise of its great impact in the world, there are still many more examples of poor practices, failed attempts, and misconceptions. When I started my gamification career in 2003, it was a topic that no one really understood or believed in. People thought I was just creating more excuses to play video games

Fast-forward twelve years and gamification is now a leading de- sign methodology for industries across the globe. Though it gives me great pleasure to see that my once lonely passion became mainstream, it troubled me that experts who were working in gamification didn’t seem to understand games very much. Yes, they might have played Candy Crush a little, or even Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. But if you ask them what games have they been completely immersed in and obsessed with for long periods of time, you get very short answers.

As with social media, once gamification became a buzzword, it attracted many who saw it as an opportunity to corner an emerging industry. I’m a firm believer that you should immerse yourself in an experience in order to best understand it. Yes, you can derive insight by closely observing those who are going through the experience. But that is like watching someone eat sushi and asking them to take a survey about it, rather than eating the sushi yourself. You’re not going to get the same findings, and if you try to replicate that experience simply based on the survey, you’re going to impart a “superficial sushi taste” to the product you’re designing.

As a result, many gamification professionals focus only on developing the superficial layer of games. I call this the shell of a game experience. This is most often manifested in the form of what we call the PBLs: Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Many gamification professionals seem to believe that if you put points on something boring, add some badges, and provide a competitive leaderboard, that once boring product will automatically become exciting.

Of course that’s also what a lot of gamification platforms specialize in: adding PBLs into various products in a scalable manner. And as a result, many people who are less informed but curious about gamification start to believe that the sum total of gamification methodology and philosophy is merely the process of adding points, badges, and leaderboards to products. Justifiably, this leads them to believe that gamification is a shallow fad and not very impactful.

This has also generated a backlash from the game development community, as they claim that gamification is a bastardization of the true essence intrinsic to good gaming. And who can blame them? Foursquare seems to be nothing more than points, badges, and leaderboards based on going to places, while Nike+ seems to be the same thing based on running. Is this as deep as gamification goes?

Of course, points, badges, and leaderboards do have a place in game design. That’s why you see them in so many different games. They have the ability to motivate behavior and push people towards certain actions. But gamification is so much more than PBLs. Many gamification professionals are only familiar with how to implement PBL mechanics and even though these do create value, most of them completely miss the point of engaging the user. It is not unusual for users to feel insulted by shallow shell mechanics.

If you ask any gamer what makes a game fun, they will not tell you that it is because of the PBLs. They play it because there are elements of strategy and great ways to spend time with friends, or they want to challenge themselves to overcome difficult obstacles. The points and badges are often an added bonus that’s nice to have depending on the context. This is the difference between extrinsic motivation, where you are engaged because of a goal or reward, and intrinsic motivation, where the activity itself is fun and exciting, with or without a reward. We’ll dive deeper into these distinctions in Chapter 13 on Left Brain vs Right Brain Motivations.

This is an excerpt from the second part of the introduction of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Buy a copy here or listen on Audible.