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Gamification: Applications and Controversy

What is Gamification?

Gamification is the application of game mechanics and game design techniques in non-game contexts. It is usually applied as a means of increasing customer engagement with services and encouraging beneficial societal behaviour by governments. In its very simplest form, it is an online marketing technique that uses elements of games like badges, points, and leaderboards to motivate people to engage with a service. The first example of the term comes from Professor Richard Bartle of the University of Essex in 1980, but it has become popularised over the past 6 years through its application in mobile applications and on the web. Kevin Werbach, professor at the Wharton School of Business and co-author of “For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business”, released a free MOOC in Gamification on Coursera in 2013 in order to explain the theory and history of Gamification in conjunction with its real world applications. Gamification has received some criticism, notably in an article published in The Atlantic titled ‘Gamification Is Bullshit’, but its roots are grounded in psychology, management, and mechanism design theory. Werbach notes that Gamification is very challenging to successfully implement without it coming off as gimmicky. Nonetheless, its application has been successful in increasing customer engagement, employee engagement, and promoting social good.

Applications of Gamification in the Real World

The applications of Gamification can be seen everywhere. A shining example of applying game aspects in business contexts, Swarm (formerly FourSquare) is renowned for providing its users with badges for “checking in” to restaurants, museums, parks and the like, and for creating leaderboards that allow you to compete with your friends as to who has checked in to the coolest (or most) places. Those who check in the most at a certain location are dubbed mayor, and are given discounts by cooperating firms, like a coupon for 15% off their next latte. The financial reward of habitually using the service is secondary to the engaging, game-like aspect of the service, which encourages users to interact and compete with one another. In addition to the external, consumer-based business applications of Gamification, firms have applied Gamification to engage their employees internally. An example of this is the Windows 7 “Language Quality Game”, which encouraged Microsoft employees across the world to assess the localised versions of Microsoft systems in different languages. For every improper use of syntax, grammar, or spelling that an employee spotted, they earned a point and were ranked on a leaderboard across the globe. While the task itself was mundane, the competitive element of the task encouraged over 4,500 people to participate, reviewing over 500,000 dialog boxes, finding 6,700 bugs and hundreds of significant fixes. In addition to encouraging customer and employee engagement within firms, Gamification can be used as a means of promoting societal good. Volkswagen released a campaign in 2010 called “The Fun Theory” in which it attempted to encourage beneficial behaviour through turning mundane tasks into enjoyable activities. They designed a staircase to look like a piano at an underground train station in Stockholm that played music as people walked up it. This promoted public health by encouraging people to take the stairs rather than the escalator. They also designed recycling bins to play a sound (like that of an anvil falling off a cliff in a cartoon) every time somebody dropped a can or bottle in the bin. Most notably, Volkswagen partnered with the Swedish National Society for Road Safety to discourage speeding and encourage obeying the speed limit. They set up a speed camera that photographed drivers’ license plates on the road, penalising speeders by issuing them a fine. They then placed the money collected from speeding fines into a lottery to be won by those who were photographed obeying the speed limit.  The applications of Gamification range from those designed to encourage customer interaction, employee interaction, and societal good, but not without criticism from sceptics.


The main criticisms of Gamification are that it oversimplifies the engaging elements of games into a silver bullet solution to a company’s desire to make sure its marketing and customer relation strategies are successful. Sebastian Deterding, a designer and researcher at Hamburg University, argues that Gamification fails because it is presumptuous about the nature of games and behaviour of people. He argues that games aren’t fun because they’re games, but that games are fun when they’re well-designed. He also posits that competition isn’t for everyone, novelty is not the same as engagement, and that video games are intrinsically motivating, not extrinsically rewarding in the way Gamification is assumed to be. His strongest critique is that Gamification practices distract individuals from performing the task itself. To this end, he references a challenge BMW implemented that encouraged drivers to beat fellow drivers in reducing their fuel consumption, leading to car accidents by distracted drivers. Ian Bogost, a designer, decries Gamification as “Exploitationware”, critiquing the language of Gamification itself. He argues that using the word “game” implies that the implementers of Gamification possess some sort of mysterious power as good games are difficult to make, and using the suffix “-ify” implies that the process of gamifying is relatively straightforward and simple. Jane McGonigal, a notable game designer and researcher, has distanced herself from the word Gamification and instead refers to situations where the gameplay itself is the reward as “gameful design.” These critiques are valid in the context of 2010 and 2011, where companies were proliferating points, badges, and leaderboards under the assumption that it would drive user engagement. But Gamification has since been refined in practice. Prof. Werbach himself denounces the simplification of Gamification to points, badges, and leaderboards. A truly gamified system successfully engages the user with the activity and does not simply motivate the user to achieve external rewards.

Good Gamification is good, bad Gamification is bad

Successfully implemented Gamification has profoundly beneficial implications for creating public good by making mundane tasks engaging, though a thoughtless gamified system has very little positive benefit.