Gamification Fatigue

In his recent piece entitled “Gamification sucks”, Brent Simmons attempts to break down why “gamification” makes for bad software. He arrives at more or less the right conclusion, but not as a result of the right process. In the spirit of design—understanding the why of a process, and not just the end result—I’d like to elaborate a little on Brent’s piece to hopefully help software designers and developers make better decisions with regard to “gamification”.

First, let’s assess what “gamification” entails. Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics to non-game software and interfaces, in order to make them more appealing, memorable, engaging and/or addictive to the end user. In a nutshell, the idea can be summed up as “games are fun, people play games a lot, so let’s make our software more like games.”

Brent writes:

Or you could look at this trend and say, “As software gets simpler, it gets dumbed-down — even toddlers can use iPads. Users are now on the mental level of children, and we should design accordingly. What do children like? Games.”

This is far too simple and big a leap to explain the proliferation of software that is “gamified”. Children like games, sure, but children are not the target audience for the type of software we’re talking about; that audience is adults. Do adults like the kind of games that children like? Not typically, so that would be a poor guiding metric, and would do nothing to explain why gamified software is having so much success. The type of games that adults play tend to be quite complex—sometimes more so than our productivity software.

No, the real science behind gamification is a far more perverse, depressing and manipulative one than Brent theorized. It is all about addictive substances and behaviors, human psychology, and taking advantage of the scientifically-verified knowledge we have of these topics.

Zynga is a great example of a company that has taken gamification to a perverse extreme; they have gamified free time itself, rather than just software. Worse, they have done it so successfully that not only do many of their users mistake time they should spend working, studying or doing otherwise productive things as free time, they have “validated” this entire approach as a viable business plan. Zynga is now just one player in a field of many, all of whom are creating games that survive solely on their gamification principles and completely lack any real gameplay, depth or rewarding satisfaction for the player.

So what is it that they do that is so objectionable? How does one “gamify free time” anyway? Let’s look at what gamification really is all about.

Game mechanics

Badges are an easily understandable example of game mechanics that have been taken out of their gaming environments and applied to other software, from social geolocation networks like Foursquare to learning resources like StackOverflow or Treehouse. Badges are both milestone and reward, elements found in many games. They are a common, but not exclusive, example of relatively superficial game mechanics that have been put in a different software context. They have a positive effect on end users because milestones give you a sense of achievement, and rewards are a positive reinforcement that we all know works well to motivate people.

So what is behind those game mechanics in the first place? Why do games have them? Now we’re exploring human psychology and how games have innocently made use of it throughout their history. It’s hard to pinpoint what the first games were that made use of milestones because they come in so many variants—levels, bosses, map areas, weapons, you name them—but what we can reasonably assume is that these early milestones in games were more related to technical limitations than psychological design. It is more likely that somewhere in the 30+ years of video game history that involves milestones, someone noticed that “finishing a level” was a remarkably satisfying and happiness-inducing experience, and began to study it. Now we have games that are built entirely around rewarding almost every individual action somehow, from the significant achievement to the downright minute.

While the video game industry at large continues unabated with complex games full of real challenges the player has to overcome, subsets of the industry are getting mired in analytical psycho-manipulation, producing games that play us more than we play them. We exchange our valuable time for the constant—if minuscule—dopamine* boosts these games offer, willfully ignorant of the long-term loss we feel when we stop playing and realize that we haven’t truly accomplished anything. We didn’t win a race or thwart an evil boss’s plot to take over a fictional world; we clicked or tapped around an interface designed to wear us down until we fork over some more dollars to speed up the process of losing interest in the game. Gameplay depth is as discernible here as morality is in the financial markets. Both Facebook and the Chrome Web App Store are rife with games like this; entire companies have sprouted from the tainted soil left behind from Zynga’s mad dash to its billion-dollar-plus valuation (and subsequent IPO).

Software gamification

It is no wonder that these principles have blown over to the adjacent industry of software development. It was an industry with little movement in terms of its own design, its own nature. Several factors have changed that, and gamification is one of them.

But simply saying “no” to gamification is not a great strategy; the human creature is a feeble one, easily manipulated by competitors less concerned with the implications of taking advantage of our understanding of human psychology and behavior. While a comparison to drug dealers is far too extreme, our obsession with commerce and profits pushes our field towards similar conduct and methodologies. Competing without at least understanding these principles is becoming harder and harder each day, perverse as it may be.

Most gamification sucks because it breaks down our humanity like it is no more than a computer program that needs to be understood and then rewritten for maximum reward—reward for the company behind it, rather than for the player. That’s how gamification is disrespectful: because it no longer treats us like people.

Fortunately, we can remain self-aware and apply gamification’s principles without reducing our respect for our users. The aforementioned learning resources—Stack Overflow and Treehouse—are pretty good, if rather obvious, examples of this: they offer rewards for actual achievements as best they can, rather than for the sake of offering rewards. Interfaces and software can embed milestones in ways that correlate with real accomplishments, creating a sense of positive reinforcement that doesn’t disrespect the time or value of the user, but rather respects it and uses these methods to create a stronger bond between itself and the user. An emotional connection that helps us as people remember and appreciate the software we use.

There is no shame in this, as long as we maintain a strong awareness of how we apply these principles and methods. And if you have any doubt: even the company that people like Brent Simmons or John Gruber would cite as an example that respects its customers the most, Apple, participates in these principles of positive reinforcement: