Gamification is a polarizing and divisive topic with many proponents and vocal skeptics and cynics. But it is not bullshit. Gamification is real and its benefits are tangible. Gamification is here to stay.
Some say that gamification is a "perversion" of games, their mechanics twisted into a magical marketing pill for big, evil corporations. This overlooks all the good that gamification does, and has the potential to do more of—while conveniently ignoring that the critics themselves work for giant corporate interests of their own.
But even as we acknowledge that some corporations might have nefarious interests, we must recognize that the fundamental purpose of all organizations is to create as much "value" as possible. This value may be measured in assets or lives saved, children made healthier or kilos of trash diverted from landfill. Regardless, there is no evidence that any of the passionate designers using gamification have ill intentions, but a lot of evidence to the contrary.
Is there truly deceit in gamification's fundamental nature, as some claim? Let's take Nike+ as an example. In Nike+, players are provided with clearly-disclosed encouragement to improve their physical fitness using a gamified system. And while Nike would clearly like for you to buy more shoes, they don't trick you into doing so by any other method than wearing them out from exercise. Conversely, advocates of persuasive games tend to bury their real message without full disclosure (see Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker or Dean for America as examples). By comparison, which application is more deceitful? The one trying to get you to vote for a candidate you might not like or one designed to help you get healthier? The question is really more subtle—hinging on issues of truth, disclosure and self-determination rather than who designed the product and what it's advocating.
It also must be said that gamification is about much more than marketing. While the trend first took root in the marketing and advertising industries, it has spread to industries trying to solve social issues like obesity, education, good government, sustainability and the like.
In education, game mechanics are proving to be very useful tools within the classroom. Ananth Pai, a one-time business exec turned elementary school teacher, found that by adding games to his curriculum and using leaderboards and social challenges in the classroom his students improved dramatically in reading and math. In 18 weeks, his below-third-grade level class is now performing at a mid fourth-grade level in reading and math.
By implementing a gamified waste diversion program, Recyclebank has increased recycling rates and reduced landfill by 16%. Simultaneously, NYC-based NextJump has convinced 70% of its employees to workout regularly using gamified techniques like leaderboards and team challenges. This has resulted in improved health, reduced absenteeism and healthcare costs both for the company and its employees. These are only several of the dozens of examples that can be found across the spectrum.
Gamification is helping real people with real issues—promoting fitness, reducing waste, and helping improve education are only the start. If something has the power to do this, how can it be a perversion? And if, by an academic's definition, it truly is a perversion of video games–-so what?
Some also question the motivation of gamifiers, but I wonder how many skeptics have actually met the men and women working toward a more gamified world. In common law, two elements are required to prove a crime - actus reus (the act) and mens rea (the intent). Though no one suggests a crime in this debate around gamification, this is a useful standard to use. The facts are that the majority of gamification implementations so far (actus) have been successful. And as I know most of the people involved in these projects (many of which will be speaking at GSummit this September) I can also tell you that the intent is positive and affirming. The argument against the motivation of designers building gamified platforms has very little basis in fact.
In his latest guest editorial on this site, Ian Bogost writes that the "-ification" of gamification denotes that the process is easy and repeatable to a fault. But what exactly is bad about a process, scalability, and repeatability? No matter what the art form, there must always be both a process and creativity. One must dip the brush in paint and put it on the canvas, letting it dry. How you choose to move it, what colors to use, and what the subject matter may be is up to you, but both process and creativity are required. This in no way diminishes the art form.
Similarly, no one person, group, or philosophy owns the definition of a video game, nor does one perspective get to say how the mechanics behind games can or cannot be used. Gamification is an industry in infancy, one that can and will create jobs and livelihoods for many people.
This year alone, gamification platforms have raised over $30 million dollars, hundreds of startups launch every week with game mechanics at their core, and thousands of marketers, strategists and - yes, even game designers - descend on events like Gamification Summit to create an industry. By 2015, Gartner Group forecasts that 70% of the Global 2000 will use a gamified app, spending over $1.6Bn in the US alone (according to M2 Research) to make that happen. This, we believe, will eventually lead to over 10,000 jobs created, including many for budding game designers that want to both find jobs in a tough (and shrinking) market and to make life better.
There are real and tangible benefits to Gamification that cannot be denied. To write them off simply as perversions or tools of evil, scary corporations and marketers is more than denying your fellow gamer or designer the chance to make an honest living. It denies the world a chance at being a better place.
Gabe Zichermann is the chair the Gamification Summit (September 15-16 in New York City), an entrepreneur, and author of Gamification By Design and Game-Based Marketing. As an expert on using game mechanics in non-game contexts to solve real world problems, Gabe consults with industry, advises startups, and often speaks on the subject at industry events.