Is Gamification Still Bullshit?

In his landmark 2011 speech, Dr. Ian Bogost declared that “gamification is bullshit.” As one of the most prominent scholars on games (both then and now), these words challenged a quickly rising paradigm. Bogost did not back down, again publishing in 2015 the controversial chapter “Why Gamfication is Bullshit” in The Gameful World.

At the time, gamification was a rising star among corporate pencil pushers and others seeking to manipulate using only the most reductionist definition of games. So, for good reason, most scholars agreed with Bogost’s attack on the practice. Many saw it as a necessarily blunt assault on a field that threatened to undermine so much of what games scholars had worked towards.

However, as we pass the 10-year anniversary of Bogost’s comments, do we still agree with them?

Has Gamification Changed

At its core, the tenants of gamification have changed little in the past 10 years. In fact, you could argue that gamification is a fairly rigid structure. To diverge from the “pointsification” of task completion would make it something else entirely.

Certainly, gamification has matured, though. Gamified experiences increasingly take into account the nature of the tasks being completed, integrating those tasks into the gamification. As well, professional gamification experts have moved on from the explicitness of early years. While badges, points, and leaderboards are still a piece of gamification, these are not the only pieces.

However, we can’t say that gamification has truly changed. The world has changed. The field has changed. Innovators have moved on to greener pastures and left gamification to its small piece of the world. But, gamification itself has not changed in any significant way.

Have the Uses of Gamification Changed

What has changed is how we use gamification. In 2011, Bogost referred to the year as gamification height, a trend that would fall as quickly as it rose. While that didn’t happen entirely, corporate culture did chew up and spit out the gamification trend as quickly as they do any other leadership and HR trend.

What came after, however, was a rise in gamification in other spheres, some quite positive and others truly evil.

Uses in Education

Both researchers and educators have had some luck in bringing in gamified elements to the classroom or to informal learning.

Classroom and formal learning gamification is a tense space. On one hand, gamified learning environments have seen statistically significant success. But, this success has been limited by significant ethical and scientific issues. The most trying of these issues is that study after study has shown that gamified learning does little to nothing to actually increase investment in learning. Instead, students engage with the competitive aspect of gamification and disengage further from the actual content and experience of learning. There is certainly space to grow these interventions to meet the challenges that face them, but we are not there yet.

In the informal space, we have seen a surge of apps in the past 10 years that use gamified systems to encourage learning and exploration. Everything from at-home vocabulary builders to museum-based exploration tools have been developed. These tools may rely on the old tenants of gamification, but they do not force the player to player. They do not suck the fun out of play and cover the educational broccoli in chocolate. Rather, they often serve as a tracking and engagement mechanism for a task a learner would likely already be engaging in.

Uses in Social Justice

Ironically, researchers and designers have recently begun applying gamification to topics that fly in the face of the corporate cultures that built the gamification empire.

Gamified experiences now track environmental actions, social justice actions, anti-capitalist actions, and more. The initial paradigm of using addictive competition to pacify workers into efficiency has been flipped on its head. Researchers have shown that positive gamification can be used to provide players with a sense of efficacy and belonging to a cause. What’s more, this belonging can contribute to community growth and real positive changes in our world.

Abuses in Gambling and Mobile Games

I’ll end with a quick nod to the trends of using gamification to make gambling and mobile gaming even more addictive than they already are.

Recent years have seen a rise in mobile games and mobile gambling alike. And this is no coincidence, as the line between the two has become increasingly blurred. Many less-than-ethical developers have introduced gamified payment models. The “loot box” movement shows us the worst aspects of gamification and gambling rolled into one.

If you’re not familiar with loot boxes, the idea is simple. First, a player amasses currency either by playing (points) or just buying it with real money. Then, the player purchases an in-game loot box with mystery contents. Finally, the player opens that box and receives some in-game item.

What is less simple is the subtext involved. Designers have used this model to gamify purchasing, reducing play to the simplest of rote tasks (click here as many times as possible) in order to associate a points system with monetary value. The points are then put into a mystery loot box on which the player must gamble, never knowing what may be in the next box they open.

The result is gamified addiction, and it is something the games industry can and should stand up against.

Final Thoughts

So…is gamification still bullshit?

The answer isn’t simple, I suppose.

The answer may be that gamification will always be bullshit, and that is what makes it so easily utilized for good or evil. At its core, gamification is empty, a hollow husk of a game that does not offer anything to the player other than an organized to-do list.

In the worst of cases, developers abuse our natures to increase profits by hiding gambling-based gamification under a thin veneer of fantasy. They pop a doll’s head on a slot machine and call it a toy. And, because the veneer is convincing, we believe them.

But, in the best cases, we see the veneer pulled back and the machine is revealed for what it is. The developer and the player enter into an agreement, both knowing that it isn’t really a game, just a tool for encouraging progress.

So, in word, yes. Gamification is still bullshit. A Tiger cannot change its stripes, and gamification cannot cease to be bullshit, lest it cease to be gamification.

However, we as scholars and game designers must remain aware of gamification. The approach to learning is no longer one worth laughing at, and the new and creative usages require a watchful eye.

About the Author

Clayton Whittle is a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, focusing on games for social impact research. He serves on the board of NASAGA and handles the blog.

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1 thought on “Is Gamification Still Bullshit?

  1. Mark Chen Reply

    Great post!

    Just for background, this video of Bogost giving a talk about fun in games serves as a really good companion piece to the reasoning behind saying that gamification is bullshit. In the video he describes how finding fun in games comes from interacting with interesting systems, and I believe he basically is arguing that games are essentially systems to explore. Thus adding points and achievements on top of some activity that is not already a game/system doesn’t then make it a game (and his rhetorician self can’t let the misnomer go).

    Bogost, Ian. (2013). Persuasive games. UX Week 2013 [video].

    He is invoking Bernard Suits, describing playing a game as the willing endeavor to deal with wretched and oppressive systems. Discovering ways to cope and accommodate (in the actor-network theory sort of way, I believe) is essentially what Raph Koster calls pattern recognition, which equals fun, which equals learning.

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