First, let’s talk about what Gamification actually is. By most standards, it is the use of game design theory and techniques in order to solve problems, engage audiences, or otherwise increase the “stickiness” or popularity of a brand, a technology, a person (who could be a brand in their own right), and so on.

In short, Gamification is the idea that if you want people to participate in something or to otherwise increase their satisfaction (or addiction) with something, then turn it into a game.

Gamification is nothing new, but the way in which it is currently being used in society today is very different than the way it used to. This is due in large part to the Pavlovian conditioning (see my previous post about dopamine squirting) brought about by today’s casual gaming obsession with Facebook and mobile apps. These games are typified by things like:

  • Badges or Achievements, many using phrases like “Achievement Unlocked”, etc.
  • Levels, Points, or otherwise assigning a numeric value to someone’s progress
  • Progress bars so you can watch your overall progress as well as individual progress of sub-tasks
  • Assigning some value to points, which can then be used in virtual commerce
  • Micropayments – this is huge. Many, many games make giant, heaping piles of cash simply by charging people $.99 to buy more virtual currency, increase virtual points, unlock achievements, or otherwise progress in the game.
  • Comparison – These games facilitate the ability to compare your numeric scores, points, levels, badges, etc. with other players. If it seems superfluous to you, think again. The ability to provide a context of comparison to gamers is a psychological necessity for giving meaning and value to all the other aspects of the game.
  • Competition – Games that let you compete against your buddies, enemies, family members, etc.
  • Cooperation – Games that let you team up with these same types of people against computer opponents or human teams, etc.

Anyone who has played an iPhone game lately (or has children who play them) is very, very familiar with the above model. It’s the “recipe” by which these games are created and what makes them so popular on the mobile form factor for casual gamers. Casual gamers are enticed more by the preceding features than they are by graphics, audio, smooth animation, or other yardsticks by which hard-core gamers measure their console games.

So what does this have to do with reality? This is where Gamification comes in. It is the application of the aforementioned techniques to real world problems to encourage people to solve them, to encourage people to participate and engage with your branding effort, to increase the stickiness of a message, or otherwise get a massive number of people to do what you want them to do (including pay you money).

You see this start to creep out from mobile applications with software like FourSquare that lets you earn badges, unlock achievements, gain score, and compare your stats against those of your friends all by “checking in” at real-world locations with your mobile device and GPS. Another one that I’ve seen quite a bit of recently is using software that gives you badges, points, leaderboards, and so on for participating in fitness activities. Even scientific endeavors like SETI use some form of gamification by giving you statistics about the number of blobs of information your computer has chugged through in the search for alien life.

Gamification, at its core, is a motivational tool. It provides incentive for people to do something you want them to do. This can be really, really useful or really, really detrimental. You could gamify the decryption of puzzles (as was recently done in deciphering a German code from an ancient eye-worshipping cult), you could gamify the search for cures for cancer or charitable organization donation distribution algorithms to maximize the benefits of donations… These mad scientist powers of human motivation can be used for good or for ill. Largely the examples I’ve seen have been relatively harmless, but is there a side effect caused by all this gamified motivation? What is happening to us, as a society, as a result?

Consider this: When a child is misbehaving and a mother gets frustrated and she starts counting.. “1 …. 2…. don’t make me come up there, Timmy! 3… ” Now, you ask the mother the question, “Why did Timmy wait until 3?” The mother then responds, “Because he’s  stubborn!!” But the real answer is more interesting. The real answer isn’t because Timmy is stubborn, the real answer is because the mother taught Timmy that he can wait until the count of 3 before behaving.

Gamification is everywhere and the thing that bothers me is how blissfully unaware we, the general public, remain to the fact that we are being gamed.  Take NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month. They’ve gamified the act of writing in order to motivate budding and published writers to produce 50,000 words in a single month. They use a website where you can record your progress (remember progress bars, assigning point values, and most importantly, comparison?). Note: I am actually participating in NaNoWriMo, so despite knowing that it is artificial motivation via Gamification, and despite writing this blog, I’m still doing it because it’s still fun.

This all looks great – motivating people to do the things that they should be doing, charitable things, or even things that make you money. The flipside, however, is that, once conditioned that rewards and gamification is available for all sorts of things, people may stop doing things unless motivated in this fashion.

The dark side to NaNoWriMo might be that writers will be horribly unproductive during months other than November. The dark side of too much gamification is that its ubiquity is conditioning people to expect gamification, to expect rewards and badges and achievements and comparison and competition for everything. While giving people all these things that their brains love is not necessarily a bad thing, I wonder what will happen to our ability to motivate ourselves to do things because they should be done or we want them done without badges, leaderboards, achievements, or bragging rights.

What do you think?