Gamification – Good times or Exploitationware?

Giant one armed bandit
Image by Alan Kotok from Flickr with thanks

Gamification – there’s a lot of it about.  Everywhere you look, marketeers, contact centres and HR types are publicising their latest gamification projects and talking numbers about engagement conversions, brand loyalty and so on.

But not everyone is so enamoured of these practices or even the word itself. Some years ago, Ian Bogost coined the term ‘Exploitationware’.  It was, he said, a much better word to describe what is actually happening when businesses use game elements and mechanisms for non-game applications.

A Skinner Box?

You can see his point. The majority of the thinking about how gamification works is based on Behavioral Psychology. As soon as you mention those words, most people start to think about B F Skinner and all those lever pressing rats.  Not a particularly pleasant idea if you think it is being applied to you.

But it works, you see.  We love our little rewards.  I know for a fact that immediately after posting this, I will find it very hard to resist refreshing every few minutes to (hopefully) see the number of ‘views’ and ‘likes’ rising.  That small dopamine rush gets you every time.

So are all these business simply exploiting their customers and employees, taking advantage of neural mechanisms and conditioning to manipulate people to do what they want?  And if they are, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Gamification in marketing

Consider gamification in the marketing field.  Arguably, it is just a new weapon in the same old war, getting customers to notice you, favour your product over others, and ultimately buy it and make you money.  It is what has always happened and gamification is just a new flavour.  Viewed like that, it makes Bogost’s point in spades.  With some products, it is hard to see it any other way.  If you’re peddling stuff that people don’t actually need, and might actually be bad for them – like ciggies or nasty sugar-laden flavoured fizzy water, then marketing, for you, has to be all about creating demand where none should exist.  There is no doubt that ‘exploitationware’ has worked well here.  Consumers collecting badges for ‘engaging’ with vending machines have boosted sales, but all I can see are Pavlov’s Dogs.

Dog licking his chops over sweet treats
Image by Jennifer from Flickr with thanks

A shift in customer power

But some would argue that there has been a major shift in the relationship between sellers and consumers in recent years and that marketing and selling practices have also changed.  In his book “To Sell is Human”, Daniel Pink argues that the proliferation of information has shifted the balance of power in the selling relationship to the consumer.  Whereas previously the salesman was in possession of all the facts on product, price, quality and so on, now the customer can get that all on the Net, comparing your prices with your competitor’s, reading the reviews about your aftercare etc..

The greater information parity is one of the reasons, he argues, why ‘non-sales selling’ is now the way to go.  This approach is all about discovering what it is your customers want, not about getting them to fit in with what you have. It is about having the flexibility to adjust to their needs and it is about ‘upserving’ not ‘upselling’.  It is totally customer-centric, and it is important to note that when Pink talks about customers, he is talking about everyone you have contact with.  We are all selling ideas, all the time, he says, to our colleagues, our families, to everyone we meet.

Are there better ways of describing ‘gamification’?

I don’t like the word ‘gamification’ too much myself, but I do use it.  I probably should take a stand too, but I don’t have Bogost’s clout.  It is a useful shorthand for me.  Most people have some idea what I am talking about when I use the word, and should the conversation continue, I have some basis to discuss more deeply what it is that I am actually talking about. I have two preferred terms, but have difficulty deciding which is my favourite. It depends!

Gameful thinking and human-focused design

An important aspect of this approach is that rather than making something ‘look like’ a game, one should design to make it ‘feel like’ a game.  This is not a process of trivialising, as ‘gamification’ often is – adding a game veneer to fundamentally mundane activities – ‘chocolate-coated broccoli’.  Rather, argues McGonigal, games are about being focused and motivated.  According to her, the spirit of the gamer is

“…optimistic, curious, motivated and always up for a tough challenge.”


“…our organizational goals need to be achieved by empowering the players to get more of what they really want from life”

I also like ‘human-focused design’, the term favoured by Yu-kai Chou, of Octalysis fame. A main idea here is that the design should consider the humans rather than the process. When trying to drive a behaviour, your design should find and enhance the existing motivation for someone to perform that behaviour rather than bend the people to the process.

What are the rewards for getting it right?

Both of these concepts stated above align well with Pink’s ideas about non-sales selling.  And that, in my view is how ‘gamification’, or whatever you choose to call it will continue to be used in an ever larger number of organisational setting.  Games and game-like experiences are all about relationships, and interaction, and discovery, and achievement – real drives.  These are the ‘games mechanisms’ which organisations should be utilising, not the trivial ‘furniture’ of games, like points and leaderboards, which are actually just the extrinsic signs of these.

A network of relationships
Image by Jurgen Appelo from Flickr with thanks

It is clear that gameful or human-focused design is not as easy to implement as ‘gamification’ was in its infancy (and as it is still understood by many).  It is going to involve a far more radical rethink of the way activities are designed than simply adding a few badges and points.  But for organisations who get this right, the rewards will be immense; true engagement, loyalty and relationships that last.  Because novelty is just that, low level ‘gamification’ will need to be constantly redesigned in order to maintain the effect – the rats eventually learn the maze.  Gameful thinking goes deeper into the design of activities, processes and even whole organisations, and is built to last.

A move away from Exploitationware?

Personally, I would not adopt the term ‘exploitationware’.  Many of the companies out there offering ‘gamification’ are in fact operating far more in line with gameful or human-focused design. They are just using the term which they know will be recognised. “Gamification” is maturing as a discipline and it will be interesting to see what comes next.

Editor at Ludogogy
Sarah Le-Fevre is a games-based learning professional who specialises in organisational learning around systemic ‘wicked problems’, and helping businesses spot and exploit opportunities for ethical ‘for good’ innovation. She works with tools such as Lego® Serious Play® and the Octalysis gamification framework to create compelling immersive learning experiences. She is currently writing a book outlining a systems practice approach to delivering impactful learning within organisations.

A real board games nerd, she is considering having her floors reinforced to support the ever increasing weight of the boxes. When she is not designing or facilitating learning games she is the editor of Ludogogy Magazine. Sarah lives in Oxfordshire with her husband, younger daughter, and a beautiful (but very loud) Bengal cat.

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