Gamification Is Bullshit

Gamification Is Bullshit
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In his short treatise On Bullshit, the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt gives us a useful theory of bullshit. We normally think of bullshit as a synonym-albeit a somewhat vulgar one-for lies or deceit. But Frankfurt argues that bullshit has nothing to do with truth.

Rather, bullshit is used to conceal, to impress or to coerce. Unlike liars, bullshitters have no use for the truth. All that matters to them is hiding their ignorance or bringing about their own benefit.

Gamification is bullshit.

I’m not being flip or glib or provocative. I’m speaking philosophically.

More specifically, gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is video games and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.

Bullshitters are many things, but they are not stupid. The rhetorical power of the word “gamification” is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want: it takes games-a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people-and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.

Gamification is reassuring. It gives Vice Presidents and Brand Managers comfort: they’re doing everything right, and they can do even better by adding “a games strategy” to their existing products, slathering on “gaminess” like aioli on ciabatta at the consultant’s indulgent sales lunch.

Gamification is easy. It offers simple, repeatable approaches in which benefit, honour and aesthetics are less important than facility. For the consultants and the startups, that means selling the same bullshit in book, workshop, platform or API form over and over again, at limited incremental cost. It ticks a box. Social media strategy? Check. Games strategy? Check.

The title of this symposium shorthands these points for me: the slogan “For the Win”, accompanied by a turgid budgetary arrow and a tumescent rocket, suggesting the inevitable priapism this powerful pill will bring about-a Viagra for engagement dysfunction, engorgement guaranteed for up to one fiscal quarter.

This rhetorical power derives from the “-ification” rather than from the “game”. -ification involves simple, repeatable, proven techniques or devices: you can purify, beautify, falsify, terrify, and so forth. -ification is always easy and repeatable, and it’s usually bullshit. Just add points.

Game developers and players have critiqued gamification on the grounds that it gets games wrong, mistaking incidental properties like points and levels for primary features like interactions with behavioural complexity. That may be true, but truth doesn’t matter for bullshitters. Indeed, the very point of gamification is to make the sale as easy as possible.

Bullshitters are many things, but they are not stupid.

I’ve suggested the term “exploitationware” as a more accurate name for gamification’s true purpose, for those of us still interested in truth. Exploitationware captures gamifiers’ real intentions: a grifter’s game, pursued to capitalise on a cultural moment, through services about which they have questionable expertise, to bring about results meant to last only long enough to pad their bank accounts before the next bullshit trend comes along.

I am not naive and I am not a fool. I realise that gamification is the easy answer for deploying a perversion of games as a mod marketing miracle. I realise that using games earnestly would mean changing the very operation of most businesses. For those whose goal is to clock out at 5pm having matched the strategy and performance of your competitors, I understand that mediocrity’s lips are seductive because they are willing. For the rest, those of you who would consider that games can offer something different and greater than an affirmation of existing corporate practices, the business world has another name for you: they call you “leaders.”

Ian Bogost is Professor of Digital Media at Georgia Tech and an award-winning game designer. His latest book, How to Do Things with Videogames, will be available this month..


  • YES. Completely agree.

    Very much enjoying Professor Bogost’s posts.

    “The title of this symposium shorthands these points for me: the slogan “For the Win”, accompanied by a turgid budgetary arrow and a tumescent rocket, suggesting the inevitable priapism this powerful pill will bring about-a Viagra for engagement dysfunction, engorgement guaranteed for up to one fiscal quarter.”

    ^ This is a fantastic turn of phrase. Handily sums up the attitude of many of the “social media engagement” consultants, and the companies that scramble to create a ‘game strategy’, or a ‘social media strategy’, because the assumed wisdom is that young people won’t buy anything unless it comes with points and rewards.

  • I think some of this article is bullshit.

    What he is really arguing is that marketing is bullshit and that gamification is just the latest form of marketing.

    Truly it has nothing to do with games. It just uses the human psychological traits that have been exposed by games in the last 25 years.

    People like feed back on incremental progress.

    People like to compare what they have with what their friends have.

    People like to have small achievable goals as part of a larger overall goal.

    This is all gamification is. It can be used for good or for bad. But it isn’t bullshit. It is a fact. If it wasn’t a fact then it wouldn’t work.

    But using it for marketing is a bad thing so I guess you can call “Gamification marketing bullshit.”

    I’ll repost here 2 videos from extra credits on the escapist that highlight some of the good uses of gamification, particularly in education (an area I think it could be used very effectively).

    and here ends the rant.

    • p.s. The clips are about 6-8 mins each. Extra credits is well worth watching for people interested in the development of the gaming industry and of gaming in general.

      • I think that’s the point of the article. They say “Gameification” when what they mean is “new marketing strategy.” Its not really got anything to do with games, but with the buzzword appeal, and a keeping up with the Joneses attitude between various businesses.

      • I personally think that gamification depending on how it’s used would be better described as psychology – much of which has been practiced in organisations for 30+ (I’m a work psychologist by the way, if that makes be biased or whatever) or exploitative if it draws on the pavlovian conditioning stuff in the same way that WoW does.

        • I think that the success of games now just gives them more hard data to prove how well tapping into those psychological traits works.

          I guess as Adam pointed out marketers need a new buzzword to market their marketing.

          • I would argue it only really provided more marketable data, hard data on how to maintain motivation has been available since at least WW2.

  • Totally agree. It’s clear we’re going through a tranformative change from a developing medium driven by artistic and dedicated people to a business medium driven by money.
    Music and Movies have both gone through the same process. Both now have found a place where occasionally artistic excellence can push a project into the mainstream consciousness. Occasionally.

  • I agree. I think gamification has as much promise as those expensive pointless training videos you have to watch at orientation.

  • I disagree, Gamification is much more than adding points. Gamification is powerful and can be used for good or evil. It is not bullshit either because it works. Khan Academy is a good example.

    Khan Academy uses a lot of common game mechanics to teach kids maths, there are achievements, gamer score, but its also has a brilliant intuitive interface and its easy to see your progression.

    Adding points endlessly is bs, I agree with that. But A blanket statement like “gamification is bullshit” seems closed minded to me.

    Games motivate us to do a lot of repetitive tasks, and we actually enjoy it.

    Would you prefer a reward for doing your tax early or a punishment for doing it late?

    • Yeah – that tax example is basic Skinnerian conditioning. Gamification is technologically advanced, but is at least fifty years behind on research on motivation, learning and performance.

    • Perhaps Ian should have explained some examples that inspired his thinking. I get the feeling he’s been exposed to many more examples of bullshit uses of game mechanics than really meaningful ones. He’s specifically talking about the superficial skinning of a marketing campaign as a ‘game’ by adding some sort of points recording mechanism, rather than creating anything like an actual game system.

  • Ian, like many other commenters, I have the utmost respect for you and the work you’ve done over the years, and I think this is a very timely blog post that will kick off some major discussions on the overall credibility of ‘Gamification’.

    With that said, Gamification is not bullshit, nor is it as easy as you have implied. What is easy, however, is mindlessly tacking on an ‘off-the-shelf Gamification solution’ without really thinking through how it’s actually going to impact your business – as Tony Ventrice mentioned earlier.

    Gamification doesn’t, and won’t, work for every business/brand, but it will for some. The ones it will work for need a well thought out Gamification strategy before they even attempt to dive head first into the murky waters. Successfully implementing Gamification into a business is a difficult and challenging process that should test any Marketing Manager…and if it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.

    In my opinion, Sebastian Deterding summed it up best in his SlideShare presentation on the topic. He identifies the misconceptions and confusion that surrounds Gamification and addresses them.

    Finally, like Barry Kirk said earlier, it’s still way too early to definitively label Gamification as bullshit. It’s still in an experimental phase…growing, changing and adapting. Mark my words, there will be hundreds of Gamification failures before the year is out, but for every 100 failures, there will be 1 success story that we’ll all learn from.

    – Chris Gander
    BDM @ 3RDsense

    • Agreed Chris.

      Your work is informative and often inspirational Ian, you’ve added so much to game studies over the years, but this article reads more as a rant than it does a genuine critique of where ‘gamification’ stands or what implications it will have in the coming years. Whilst I can understand your frustration at businesses using gamification and in turn subtracting the elements of games that we cherish, I don’t think it will have a negative effect on the games we know and love. On the contrary, with gamification being applied to aspects of business (and the subsequent amount of implementation money) I think we could learn a lot. To me it is akin to a comparison between film/movies and instructional videos. Directors could rage out at instructional videos as lacking integrity and creativity, but then no one would mistake an instructional video for a classic film. One is created for pleasure/recreation, the other to help reach a business objective. Big business gets it’s hooks into everything, the music/film industries being particularly relevant here, but we can learn much from analysing why/how/where gamification is applied and what outcomes it creates.

  • How is this fundamentally different from any other industry? There are car/book/coffee/movie…. makers doing the equivalent in their own industries. People need to make money. They are clearly filling a niche that exists in this capitalist society of ours. And who says that a game need to be any more meaningful than the moving of pixels on a screen? Very interesting article, would love to see it expanded.

  • While I agree with some of what Bogost says, I would also call bullshit on some of his central assertions. Like many in the field he’s coming from a place where games somehow exist outside of capitalism, a place where we can explore “a mysterious, magical, powerful medium”. Games exist inside exactly the same socio-economic framework as other media because, dare I say it, games are just another form of media. As someone who has played games for 25 years and researched them for 15, I understand that they engage us in ways that are qualitatively different to many of the other forms that have preceded them. However, to suggest that games won’t (and shouldn’t) be absorbed by the machinery of marketing is to ignore the fact that pretty much every other media form has been adapted to service existing corporate practices.

  • Bullshit marketing-buzzword-bullshit is bullshit. It’s a simple concept but a lot of people don’t seem to grasp it.

    I dislike things like ‘gamification’ and referring to anyone who plays a video game as a ‘gamer’ and slapping a space marine on some kind of disgusting orange soft drink and slapping “Xtreme Game FUEL!” on the label… it’s all marketing bullshit.

    At no point did I ever say I dislike games or think that games and the many reasons we play them is bullshit. And yet every time I say something akin to the former people react as though I said the latter.

    I see a lot of that in the comments right now. It’s kind of frustrating.

    But hey, somebody’s gotta drink all that orange crap, right? 😛

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