Gamification vs Manipulation

Gamification vs Manipulation image of a puppet on strings

Written by Steven Egan

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When some people hear that gamification is about customizing situations and communication to how people respond, they wonder, “Isn’t that manipulation?” As a game designer focused on education, this is a serious concern to me. With games getting so much negative media attention, it can be hard to tell the difference, but there is a difference, just not where you might expect.

To see the difference, we first need to look at the similarities. In both gamification and manipulation one person, or group, customizes their behavior, based on other people’s response to achieve their goals. Media is often used, but it’s by no means the only method. Tone, word choice and how information is presented is often adjusted to achieve goals. With that said, what’s the difference?

Honestly, on the surface, there might be little difference. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when somebody is trying to manipulate us. Sometimes we can’t tell till it’s too late. This is part of why we care about the answer to “Isn’t that manipulation?” It’s important, but the surface can deceive us, so the surface won’t tell us the answer.

The Power of Choice in Gamification

Taking a deeper look at these two terms, we understand the difference: gamification applies game design outside of games to help a user achieve his/her goals, while manipulation is the attempt to control people to accomplish things. The key part is that games are about the player’s choices, and game design is about empowering players in their choices to experience the intended gameplay. That’s very different from manipulation’s focus on control.

A great example of unintentional gamification that clearly shows the difference is an experiment that was conducted in India with a computer. The computer was made available, for free, with no supervision to the public outside a building. Children, who didn’t know English at all, started playing with it. I say “playing”, because they were just exploring what the computer was and what it could do. When the experimenter spoke with the children months later, the first thing they said was, “We need a faster processor and a better mouse.” Nobody controlled the children or forced them to learn English or figure out how to make the computer work better, like we see in classrooms. They chose to do it, and were able to because the placement of the computer empowered the children to make those choices.  Further experiments refined the findings and inspired experiments in alternative education.

If you don’t think that’s gamification, I’d disagree with you as a game designer. There were designed rules, just not very many. There was a designed situation, despite it being simple. The computer was designed to give feedback based on interaction, and so were the programs made available. There was a designed, open-ended experience for the participants to go through by choice. It was like an exploration-focused sandbox game.

Unintentionally, Sugata Mitra, the experimenter, applied game design to a non-game situation. That is gamification, and in this case it helped children learn a new language and other complex subjects by empowering their ability to make meaningful choices. Yu-kai Chou calls this “Human-Focused Design” in his post “What is Gamification?“. By intentionally applying the lessons he learned about human behavior (Human-Focused Design) Sugata Mitra has made amazing, positive effects in the lives of children, and plans to do the same for many more.

Children are not the only ones that benefit from gamification, as companies like Ideo and Google are known for their playful and game-like work environments and practices. The more reading I do on work environments and employee productivity and creativity, the more I see game design principles being discussed and recommended. At the same time, manipulation tactics and a lack of respect seems to be a warning sign that the company, or group, is on the road to failure. Another TED Talk by Tim Brown on creativity and play shows how gammification by any name can enhance the lives and productivity of almost anybody.

A Warning on Manipulation

It’s important to point out that communication and design are tools, and as tools they can be used to help or to harm. The more effective the tool is, the more potential it has to change our lives. Psychology, experience design, and effective communication have all been used to empower and to control. It’s possible to use a tool either way, but it’s not good game design if it’s used to manipulate. Gamification is about empowering choices, while manipulation is about controlling choices.

While gamification and manipulation are similar on the surface, they very different below the surface.  Gamification is about empowering people to do better and make their own, informed choices, so it can be done honestly, respectfully and with integrity. If you find this interesting, I invite you to explore this blog, my own blog and to do some searching for yourself.

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2 thoughts on “Gamification vs Manipulation”

  1. enTREEpreneurz Gamification can be a great tool to encourage and engage people, so looking into it is a good idea. What kind of gamification, and applied to what areas of your site and community is something to consider carefully. Remembering how you want to engage your community and what you want to encourage them to do will help you stay on track. Without knowing more about your situation, it’s hard to give anything besides general advice. If you’d like to talk more, I suggest contacting me through my site’s contact page: .

  2. I am the founder along with a group of women thought leaders design who have designed a website to encourage and support women in building their most successful lives.  We are looking at gamification to encourage community.  Do you think this is a good idea?

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