The dark side of gamification

How well do you chop your cucumber?

It’s a ridiculous question, I know, but in the short film Sight the protagonist plays an augmented reality game that awards him points for the consistency in the thickness of his slices.

The scene irked me. The last thing I would want while preparing dinner is a computer judging me. Really, who cares how wide I cut the slices, and who judged that distance to be the perfect width anyway? It’s certainly not my idea of fun. And besides, it all tastes the same.

It’s a clear case of gamification gone too far – and of course that was the film’s message. The plot continues to delve into much darker uses of the technology, raising the spectre of what appears to be utopia on the surface hiding dystopia underneath.

In my previous post Game-based learning on a shoestring, I advocated the use of games to support learning in the workplace. I believe they have much to offer in terms of motivation, engagement and the development of capability.

However, I also recognise another side of games that can in fact impede learning. They may be downright inappropriate for several reasons…

1. Life is not a game.

Points, badges and leaderboards may be critical elements of game mechanics, but they have little bearing on real life. Firefighters don’t save people from burning buildings for 200 digital hats; soldiers can’t heal their shrapnel wounds with a beverage; and utility workers who die of asphyxiation in confined spaces don’t scrape into the Top 10.

So if you want your game to be authentic, dispense with the inauthentic.

2. Games can trivialise serious issues.

While serious games such as Darfur is Dying shine a light on worthy causes, sometimes even the best of intentions can backfire.

Take Mission US for instance. In one of the missions you play a slave girl in 19th Century Kentucky who tries to escape to the north. Prima facie it sounds like a way of encouraging young folk to appreciate the horrors of slavery. In practice, however, it’s gone over like a lead balloon.

3. Games may reinforce the wrong mindset.

The concerns that many people have over Grand Theft Auto are well documented.

What is less documented, however, is the undesirable influence that work-based games can have on your employees. Do you really want them to compete against one another?

4. Games can contaminate motivation.

Forcing those who don’t want to play a game is a sure-fire way to demotivate them. If you’re going to gamify my chopping of cucumbers, I’ll chop as few cucumbers as possible as infrequently as possible.

Even encouraging those who want to play the game might promote their extrinsic motivation over their intrinsic. This begs the question… How will they perform on the job without the prospect of external rewards?

5. Games will be gamed.

Regardless of the purpose of your game, or its sound pedagogical foundation, someone will always seek to game it. That means they’re focused on “winning” rather than on learning.

And what’s the point of that?

A chopped cucumber.

To conclude, I reiterate my belief that games have much to offer workplace L&D. But there’s a fine line between an engaging learning experience and an insidious waste of time. So before embarking on your gamely quest, take a moment to consider – and mitigate – the unintended consequences.

May the odds be ever in your favour.

31 thoughts on “The dark side of gamification

  1. I love this, Ryan. I definitely was asking myself some of these questions after reading Daniel Pink’s Drive. I think you bring up some excellent points.

  2. Thanks KA. Drive is an excellent book. Now that you mention it, I see the connection with Daniel’s argument about motivation.

  3. As a serious gamer for most of my adult life, while I agree with number one and number 5, life is not a game (people need to be able to separate games from reality) and games will be gamed (that is what they are for it is all about winning), I am not so sure about the others. I know you have used the word can and may but if you take the example of GTA or violent video games in general, despite concerns that people may have around these games all of the studies done show no links between video game violence and real violence. Games only contaminate motivation in the same way that being forced to do team building exercises contaminate motivation when some or all of the people involved don’t want to do it. And yes games may well trivialise serious issues, games are just that games they are at their heart entertainment. Yes some games as you note may either intentionally or unintentionally attempt to be something else, but we call them games for a reasons don’t we.

    This idea of gamification, turning video games into something they really aren’t, or trying to integrate them into the workplace has always seem to me to somewhat problematic. Some of that has to do with the general lack of shotguns and PVP areas in most corporate games, but to be honest I have no desire to play a game at work to learn something. Video games are about sitting on the couch, having a beer, shooting zombies and leveling up. Why would I want to ruin my relaxation and enjoyment by having to play something at work that is, to be honest, going to suck in comparison, to virtually all of the games I have on my shelf.

  4. Oh btw do you know where I can get me some of those fancy lenses. :)

  5. @ Paul – Thanks for your comment. What you are saying is don’t twist something into what it is not, and yes I agree. I too probably wouldn’t want to play the X-box type of games at work if that was my idea of out-of-the-office leisure.

    Having said that, I’m thinking about the difference between fun and engagement. Via LinkedIn, AJ Grove reminded me of Lifesaver which I think is an excellent example of gamification. I consider it both authentic and engaging – but is it fun? Hmm… not in the Halo sense.

    Regarding the fancy lenses, that’s what I had hoped Google Glass would be. While everyone was associating it with augmented reality, all I could see evidence of was digital data display. To me, true AR integrates with the real environment.

  6. @ Ben – Cheers Ben!

    @ Craig – That’s a top-notch article, Craig. I wish you had told me about it before I went to so much trouble ;0)

  7. Good stuff as always Ryan. Not all games need to be competitive with someone else though, in fact some of the best games are about competing with yourself and trying to get better. I agree wholeheartedly that sometimes gamification is exactly what is required and sometimes it isn’t :) Trick as always is knowing both when and how to I guess. Of course there are games, games and games and they are all different :)

  8. Interesting post, Ryan, I can imagine that you already know these articles that critizise gamification: and

    Anyway, gamification can be a good tool for e-learning, specially for engaging people. We just need to be aware of some important aspects, like: gamification has to be voluntary, it has to go beyond points, leaderboards and badges, it must reinforce desirable behaviors and it shouldn’t substitute intrinsic motivation. All of this has to be taken into account when designing a gamified e-learning environment.

  9. Thanks for pointing me to those articles, Belen. No I hadn’t read them.

    To be frank, I have problems with both of them. I won’t go into detail, but overall it appears to me that both authors are railing against ill conceived and poorly executed gamification. That, we can all agree, is undesirable.

    I didn’t recognise much acknowledgement for gamification done well (or if it’s in there, I lost it in the sea of negative sentiment), which is a shame because I think it would have balanced their respective arguments.

    Both also appear to be upset with unscrupulous business folk who twist the latest buzzwords into a money making gimmick. OK, but that’s what we expect them to do. I’m not excusing it of course, but rather suggesting that we shouldn’t blame the hammer when a bad carpenter makes a shonky table.

    As for education, I agree with your comments. Unlike the two authors mentioned, I maintain that gamification has value to add to the learning experience. But poorly done, it can do more harm than good.

  10. I’ve always been sceptic about the virtues of gamification of learning content and my research of the subject shows that there is a dearth of literature as to how rewards affect user behavior in a gamification setting where users are not predisposed to gaming. Gamification is based on principles of extrinsic motivation where students will indeed work harder for the reward, but ultimately gamification will detract from students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. Although rewards can control people’s behavior, the primary negative effect of rewards is that they tend to forestall self-regulation. In other words, reward contingencies undermine people’s taking responsibility for motivating themselves.

    In offering a reward to complete a task, we signals to the learner that the task in itself is undesirable. Otherwise, there would be no need for a reward. Performance incentives offered by teachers can even adversely impact a learner’s perception of the task and encourage unwanted behavior. For example, targeting a competitive time management badges may have a negative impact on carefulness.

    Gamifying boring content does not make it more relevant, it just makes it more interesting to use. Scores and badges only extrinsically motivates learners. Relevant content, on the other end, fosters intrinsic motivation. Using gamification to make a boring subject matter more appealing, using extrinsic rewards to compensate for low intrinsic motivation, is likely killing whatever intrinsic motivation to learn is left.

    The question is not to know whether gamification makes content more appealing but whether it makes it more effective. And based on the research to date, there is very few empirical proof of gamification effectiveness, at least in the mid to long terms.

  11. Some good points, but I would just point out — regarding the poorly done Slave Simulation — that any art dealing with a serious issue has the potential to be mishandled. We could say the same of books: some are fantastic, some make serious issues trivial or ridiculous. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write, read, and teach books about important issues. I would argue the same applies to games. Darfur is Dying is a great example, as I use it to teach my grade 6s about a complex situation. Another really interesting one is Papo & Yo, which is a beautiful extended metaphor about life with an alcoholic father.

    TL;DR: Any art form, games included, has the potential to be mishandled, but it doesn’t mean we should eliminate them.

  12. @ Guy – Thanks Guy for articulating the impact that gamification can have on motivation much better than I did! Indeed the question is not to know whether gamification makes content more appealing but whether it makes it more effective. Bearing in mind that simply making it more appealing might make it more effective, at the lower end of the scale, I’m much more more interested in the higher end of the scale: can gamification cultivate intrinsic motivation?

    @ missrithenay – Excellent point, Caryn. The arguments for and against gamification are so extremist; I’d rather we try to find some common ground. Thanks for the pointer to Papo & Yo – I’ll check it out :0)

  13. Thanks Jared for your passionate and comprehensive response.

    Just a note on my use of the terms “games” and “gamification”. I do know they are different things, but I consider them related (and on that I suspect we again disagree). I am aware I tended to use the terms interchangeably, but in doing so was trying to illustrate a prevailing determination to transform something that isn’t a game into a game.

  14. Ryan – I totally agree that they are related. In fact it is the hair that I most like to split – we can gamify education but we can’t necessarily make it a game. I also totally agree that the “prevailing determination” (great term) is generally misguided. The question of “Why” is one I think needs to be discussed. “Why” because kids want to play game, because they want to be in that space, because they pay attention there so we don’t want education to be a game we just want them to have the same focus and if we spent more time on Why do they play the games then (in my opinion) we could apply the right parts into education.

  15. I for the greater part agree, but I would also be interested in knowing where your line goes. When is a game “a game” – answering a few question and pressing som buttones – or does it have to be full scale interaction. And when is a toppic to serious? – I have made “games” handling topics like anti corruption which is pretty serious, but not often involving the taking of human lives – do you deem that – Gamification NO GO?

  16. Good questions, Trine. I’m not sure I have definitive answers for either of them.

    I don’t think a game need be a full-scale interaction. For example, I consider Jackie Van Nice’s Climb Heroes Mountain to be an excellent example of a simple little game. It’s engaging and dare I suggest effective, without being complicated.

    The term “serious game” is an intriguing one because it calls for judgement upon the term “serious”. Darfur Is Dying is obviously serious because it involves life and death, and yes, I personally would consider an anti-corruption game to be a serious game. This is in comparison to Angry Birds, for example, whose primary purpose is to entertain rather than educate.

    So, for what it’s worth, I guess my overall answer invokes Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it”.

  17. Interesting article but, I think, a little off-base. You describe poorly executed games and gamification and imply a comparison with well executed alternative learning (lectures, demonstrations, discussions).

    You start by stating “Life is not a game.” Ok, sure but “Life is Not a Lecture”, “Life is not a Demonstration of software” “Life is not a discussion” “Life is NOT a multiple choice test”.

    To start with such a broad statement doesn’t do justice to the idea of using games for instruction (which as been done successfully for centuries, the military used war “games” all the time to keep troops at a state of readiness). Research also indicates that learning is possible and long-term and at the problem-solving level if a game is properly designed.

    Next you go on to describe the possible damage poorly executed game-based learning can inflict. I agree but all that is the result of poor game design, poor execution and poor planning. The same could be said of a lecture that trivializes content, that reinforces the wrong ideas, that demotivates students because the lecture is so boring. I’ve seen plenty of corporate learners who are so focused on getting a 100% on the elearning quiz at the end of the module that they don’t care or pay attention to the compliance content (they “game” the quiz questions to get 100%).

    So to lay all these problems on only games is not fair, you can lay all these problems on poor design of ANY instruction.

    I know this article is designed to provoke so, sure, it has some out there and unfounded accusations about games and fostering this type of discussion is helpful but, the bottom line is that well designed games and gamification experiences (just like other well designed instructional events) fosters learning, ignites intrinsic desires and helps learners to gain new knowledge.

    I’d much rather talk about how to create effective learning solutions than to “bash” broadly a learning approach that has been show to be effective in many, many situations.

    Also, this entire intrinsic vs extrinsic reward argument is a false dichotomy. People are simultaneously intrinsically and extrinsically motivated most of the time. It is an artificial dichotomy to separate intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, if you are motivated to go to college to get a better job and, therefor, more money. You could be motivated by the money (external reward) as well as motivated about learning new knowledge (internal reward) so are you intrinsically or extrinsically motivated in this case?

    Or if you need to learn new policies and procedures to keep your job, are you intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to learn the policies and procedures? Dan Pink is “cute” in theory but totally breaks down in the real word.

    In fact, some research indicates that an initially extrinsic motivator like getting an A can, eventually, become internalized and turn into intrinsic motivation. So the entire intrinsic/extrinsic discussion is much more nuanced than the overly simplified “extrinsic is bad” and “intrinsic is good” argument.

    See Lepper, M.R., Iyengar, S.S.,m & Corpus, J. H. (2005) Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation orientations in the classroom: Age differences and academic correlates. Journal of Educational Psychology 97(2) pp 184-196.

  18. Thanks for your detailed response, Karl.

    I feel I need to clarify my position somewhat. Indeed I describe poorly executed games and gamification, but I did not intend to imply a comparison with well executed alternative learning such as lectures, demonstrations and discussions. In my mind I was comparing them against well designed and executed games and gamification.

    For example, under my first rather broad label “Life is not a game”, my point was not that games and gamification are useless because they don’t reflect real life. On the contrary, I implore that games and gamification should reflect real life as much as possible. I suspect the war games that you mention do just that; no magic potions to be drunk.

    You make a good point that poor design of any instruction is problematic, and of course I agree. I focused on games and gamification in this post because the former is something that I happen to be thinking about lately, and the latter has morphed into a buzzword that is in danger of being dismissed by our peers – which I think would be to our profession’s detriment.

    Apologies if you interpreted my post as bashing gamification. The thrust of my argument isn’t that gamification is necessarily bad; in fact, I believe it has much value to offer workplace L&D. Done badly, however, it can do more harm than good. So I wanted to highlight the ways I think it can be and is being done badly so that we can recognise them, and hence address or avoid them.

    Thanks also for the reference to the paper about motivation. I generally agree with what you say about this topic, except perhaps Dan Pink’s theory on which I don’t feel sufficiently au fait to comment.

  19. Hi Ryan,
    that is an interesting point of view. Thank you for writing it as it gave me a lot to think of.
    I would strongly disagree with your point no. 2 and strongly agree with the point no. 4.
    I guess that every issue, either elearning or gaming must be approached with a common sense.
    Nevertheless, thanks for the food for thoughts.

  20. Thanks for your comment, John.

    Regarding Point 2, I guess it depends on your point of view. To me, for example, Mission US indeed sounds like a way of encouraging young folk to appreciate the horrors of slavery. No disrespect, of course, to the African American lady who strongly felt otherwise.

    Thanks for agreeing with Point 4! This one I think is the tougher sell, though I stand by it, so I appreciate your support. Karl Kapp commented above that intrinsic / extrinsic motivation is a false dichotomy. I disagree; while they are intertwined, I maintain it can be useful to focus on one over the other.

    Which brings me to your point about common sense. A recurring theme of my blog is that so much about e-learning and education in general is circumstantial. Extremist arguments are rarely helpful.

  21. A very thoughtful list.

    Another way of expressing some of these ideas is: games rely on strategic, goal-oriented behavior; whereas we often want to support what Habermas calls “communicative action” or communication oriented towards mutual understanding and agreement.

    Yes, there are cooperative games. But when we ‘gamify’ learning, we often don’t think quite deeply enough about the dimensions of games and play-like behavior.

    Reflections like yours are always welcome. We can’t forget how important reflection is for learning.

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