Gamification, Manipulation, and Ethics

Manipulation

Gamification, Manipulation, and Ethics

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Please subscribe to the mailing list on the right to order the book when it launches. This post may be moved into a Premium Area after a certain period of time).

During my conference talks, I regularly get questions from people who ask me whether gamification is a form of manipulation and therefore unethical to use. While there is no “correct” answer on this topic, and while the focus of this book is on effectively designing for behavioral change rather than ethics, I will attempt to share my own thoughts on the issue.
My quick answer: yes, gamification is a form of manipulation.

However, even though “manipulation” is a strong word with immense negative connotations, we regularly accept it in our daily lives and even expect it.

If you think about it, saying “please” is a form of manipulation. You weren’t going to do something for your friend, but your friend said “please” in a sincere manner (Core Drive 5), and even though nothing tangible has changed about the transaction, you now willingly and happily agree to do it for them.

That’s manipulation.

And when your friend says, “Thank You,” that’s an emotional reward that makes you feel like the action was worth it. If your friend offered you payment (somehow paying someone to do the activity is one of the only ways that people don’t complain as “manipulation” these days), you may even become offended.

And in our society, we don’t seem to have a problem with people saying “please” and “thank you.” In fact, we expect that, teach that, and get mad when people don’t do it. It makes our brains happy and improves our quality of life. We enjoy that sort of manipulation.
When you want your employees to work harder and you transform the work to become a lot more interesting and engaging (as opposed to paying them more) – is that exploiting them? What about providing them a stronger sense of purpose, accomplishment or autonomy?

I have a litmus test to determine whether gamification or human- focused design is ethical or not:

  1. Is there full transparency on its intended purpose?
  2. Does the user implicitly or explicitly opt-in to the system?

If you have an extremely charismatic friend who is trying to persuade you to go to a party that you are not interested in, you may reject him with a smile. He will then pour in a lot more energy, saying something like, “Come on! Everyone’s doing it! You got to show up!”

Even if you still didn’t want to do it, you are starting to be persuaded. But in no way do you think your friend is being unethical in doing so. There is full transparency in what he is trying to get you to do. You also “opt-in” by allowing your friend to persuade you, especially when you turn him down with a smile. You may or may not change your mind, but because there is transparency in his intention and you’ve opted-in to his continued persuasion, you don’t feel negatively manipulated.

However, I believe that gamification is completely unethical when there is a hidden agenda that users are not aware of. For example, when users think they are signing up for something, but in reality they are signing up for something else. False statements, lies, and a lack of authentic transparency create unethical interactions.

As a stunning example of whether transparent manipulation is bad, consider the field of hypnotism. Hypnosis can be considered the ultimate form of manipulation because, supposedly, once hypnotized, a person is fully compliant with whatever the hypnotizer wants them to do.

However, it is not generally considered unethical because a) there is transparency in what the hypnotizer is trying to accomplish, and b) the person fully opts-in to being hypnotized.
At the end of the day, gamification is not mind control.

When we see amazing case studies where gamification increased conversions by 100%, it’s often only where these metrics increased from 8% to 16%. A crushing 84% of the users can and still choose to not engage with the Desired Actions. If an action does not create emotional or physical value for someone, they still won’t do it.

But good gamification design motivates those who are on the fence – those who are interested with the end-results but need a bit more motivation to push through.

The people who don’t want a service to begin with won’t sign up (unless the marketing is being dishonest). Just as you don’t have to agree with people who say “please” to you, nor do you have to finally consent to your charismatic friend who is persuading you to do things you hate. If you truly don’t want to go to your friend’s party, you still won’t do it.

5 thoughts on “Gamification, Manipulation, and Ethics”

  1. If I never “know” I am being manipulated, then does it matter? I am being “forced” by my desires to compose this blog entry. 🙂

  2. To be ethical I think transparency is required. However, I do not agree that the user being given the choice to opt in completes the required factors. The desired behaviour has to be moral & ethical.
    E.g. The Holocaust. The German guards etc. opted in knowing what was being done. Ethical? No.
    The prisoners of course were given no information in advance or a choice (well, got the choice of complying or being killed immediately)

  3. My opinion is Gamification is Manipulation as much as Diplomacy is or a Conference, a Webinar or Advertising is.
    Gamification does it better, that’s the point. Being focused on Human behavior as it is, gamification becomes indeed a powerful tool and therefore scaring, as anything new and amazingly working.
    Like i always say: there are no good or bad tools, there are only good or bad designers.
    Would you stop selling Sport cars because they are too fast? People don’t have car accidents because cars are fast, people have car accidents because they are distracted and irresponsible when they drive.
    Same is with Gamification, use it well and use it right, is all about the designer.

  4. Thanks for sharing these thoughtful thoughts.
    I think at the end of the day there would be obvious difference between a good and transparent gamification design and the one that tries to hide the main objective from players. It would be visible in long-term KPIs for sure.

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