Is Gamification Really ‘Bullshit’?

Gamification is a recent field that has been the target of much criticism from game designers. We must admit that there are more fails than success stories. But today most of what was held against it has been resolved.


“Gamification is bulllshit.” We owe this unflattering ‘definition’ to Ian Bogost, professor at Georgia Institute of Technology and game designer.

He explained during a symposium at the University of Pensylvania in 2010: “More specifically, gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.


Reading on his position statement, however, he doesn’t seem to be incensed by gamification itself, but rather, by the term “gamification”. An empty word for something that is nothing close to a game. A catchy word. That sounds pro. That sounds fun. Where game- is but a prefix meant to help it ride the gaming wave – one of the most powerful media of our time, and the suffix “-ification” is used to imply easy reproduction and reiteration. But this, according to Bogost, is all that gamification needs to convince a Vice President or a Brand Manager that it is the solution to boost sales or employee engagement.


Gamification has nothing to do with games

Gamification is often said to have taken from games only the name. But not the essence that makes gaming a fun experience.

The same year, Margaret Robertson sharply criticised gamification on the blog of Hide and Seek, a game design studio (that closed in 2014): “What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience”, explaining that points and badges are more related to loyalty cards than to games. She acknowledges that it’s a good way to reward an effort, but nothing more.

According to her, gamification is only focused on rewards and not enough on failure, which delivers the high levels of emotional engagement. This problem will be treated by Yu-Kai Chou with his “Black Hat Gamification” principle.

Gamification is the wrong word for the right idea, she says. The word for what’s happening at the moment is pointsification. There are things that should be pointsified. There are things that should be gamified. There are things that should be both. There are many, many things that should be neither.

Mario Heger, a gamification consultant, reacts to Ian Bogost’s statement arguing that the fact that people appropriate and interpret game design shouldn’t be seen as an offense but as an attempt to innovate in the field: “We have too many problems in corporations, education, health, government and other areas to waste time on not trying new approaches and concepts (…). Even if an approach fails, I learned from it. That’s better than waiting for the (maybe) perfect solution in several years, when it may already be too late and the world has moved on.

There is a deeper reason behind such criticism: indeed, many gamification attempts do not understand what a game is or what the players want. And the quality of the process is sometimes too low. Many believe that implementing points and badges will make an experience fun. But as Sebastian Deterding, game designer and reader at the University of York, already said in 2010, “Games are not fun because they are games, but when they are well designed”.

On that topic I can’t recommand enough the marvelously sarcastic Progress Wars, a game in which you get points by accomplishing missions that are only about… clicking a button. A single button, right in the center of the screen. Nothing else. You’ll get the satisfaction of leveling up, seeing your progress bar growing and earning a huge number of points! For the price of deadly boredom. (I’m already level 7, though.)



Gamification manipulates us

This is the kind of thing advertising or neuromarketing are usually blamed for: gamification only exists to make us do/buy what we don’t really want/need. With the promise of a poorly-drawn badge or useless points, it forces us to click, to like, to sign-in or to buy. Hardly more than a basic pavlovian reflex. We push the button to get food. Or, in this case, points. Not really fun, not really gratifying. But this kind of “bottom-end gamification” doesn’t work. Every player is unique, all games are different, and we like them for different reasons.

Moreover, when gamification forces us to play we become reluctant. James P. Carse, history and literature professor at New York University says: “It is an invariable principle of all play that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play, cannot play”. A unanimous idea in game philosophy since Johan Huizinga.

Jane McGonigal, who prefers the term “gameful design”, believes that if we are not already intrinsically motivated to do something, a game won’t help much.

Finally, what gamification does wrong, and it is a fault acknowledged by its partisans, is the excess of external rewards. Giving away too many extrinsic rewards makes them lose their value and lowers our intrinsic motivation. We end up like spoiled children, overindulged with points and badges. And the day it stops, since we cannot roll on the floor screaming at our boss like we did to our parents in the candy section of the supermarket, we lose motivation. Or fall into apathy. A good combination of external rewards and personal motivation keeps us on tenterhooks for a longer time.

To avoid that, don’t forget to protect yourself… against an excess of external rewards.


Let’s end now on a very deep thought: gamification is not perfect, but when it’s well done, the experience is great!

Or as Gabe Zichermann puts it, gamification is a tool and “like any tool, this depends on the hand that wields it”.


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