Yesterday, Slate featured “I Don’t Want to be a Superhero”, a scathing critique of gamification by Heather Chaplin. “Gamification”, for those who don’t know, is the term applied to the idea of integrating elements one might find in games to real-world activities, such as collecting badges for checking in at restaurants, bars, and other places on Foursquare. Reaction to the article has been mixed, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from my twitter feed – I follow a lot of people who make games, and a great many of them are quick to hold Chaplin’s piece up as evidence of all that is wrong with gamification, that most vile of practices that would trick people in to enjoying mundane or consumerist tasks with the promise of an artificial reward on the other side of it. I’ve witnessed and been involved in a handful of conversations about the article since it went up, and thought I’d use this space to collect some of the thoughts I’ve had in one handy location.
- Gamification is not a new thing. If your school or local library growing up had a program offering rewards for reading (x) number of books in a month, that was gamification. If you ever collected Kool-Aid or Pepsi points to earn prizes, that was gamification. If you were in Boy or Girl Scouts and earned merit badges to proudly display on your sash, or used Weight Watchers, or earned stickers for good behavior in class, or got a free sandwich after getting a card punched ten times that was gamification. The idea of offering incentives for seemingly common-place tasks is older than computers, to say nothing of the internet and social media. To assume the only possible outcome of gamification going increasingly digital is droves of the great unwashed lining up to give corporations money in exchange for a momentary zing of accomplishment is jaded cynicism at best.
- Gamification is a tool, and tools are not inherently good or evil. It’s frankly strange and disappointing to see so many people who create tools and systems for a living dog pile on gamification as nothing more than another weapon of the Man, to rush so quickly to the negative and completely ignore the equal (if not greater) potential for good. Even now as more and more articles, lectures, and rants point to the backlash against social games as the same close-minded approach parent’s groups and others take to traditional videogames, so much of the games industry happily uses that same brush to paint all uses of gamifcation as bad and manipulative.
- If you haven’t read Nicholas Lovell’s “The 10 Rules of Gamification” at Gamasutra, you really should.
- Heather Chaplin’s article has some good points and concerns, but is far more interested in being a misinformed personal attack on Jane McGonigal and her book Reality is Broken. She paints McGonigal as a sap of the evil corporations, a well-meaning but dim servant of those who would ultimately shackle humanity’s free will to the point that we want nothing more out of life than to sign over our friends’ personal information in return for a 25%-off coupon at Wal-Mart. I have no problem with someone not liking the idea of gamification (I’m not 100% comfortable with everything it entails, or the worst-case scenario applications it could lead to – a feeling I have about, y’know, most things in life), but Chaplin isn’t content to stop there – no, she has to be something that can only possibly be bad, going so far as to dress it all up in nightmare Orwellian imagery. Her moral superiority at not wanting to play along in any fashion punctuates the article throughout, completely undermining any point she may have had. Rather than a convincing argument, I came away from the piece with the sense that if Heather Chaplin doesn’t like it, then no one else can either.
- There are and will be people and companies who use gamification to try and manipulate people in to feeling rewarded for consuming their products, and that is pretty scummy. I don’t think anyone outside a board of directors meeting is arguing that. But to dismiss the entire concept because of the possible negatives uses is close-minded and cowardly. There are licensed games that take what they’re given and run with, creating rich, fun experiences, and there are others that crank out a boiler-plate platformer in a couple of months and never look back. Should all licensed games be dismissed and hated because some are just cash grabs? Zynga’s Petville is a pale shadow of their richer Frontierville and Cityville games, focused almost entirely on wringing money form players for virtual goods. Does its greed mean all social games are little more than cash siphons?
- Chaplin says reading about the game McGonigal created to help her recover from a concussion made her “sad”, and that she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t just call and get help from her friends and family without making a game out of it. I’ve spent as much of my life as I can remember making a game out of reality, from turning the backyards and playgrounds I grew up with in to all kinds of different worlds and games to plotting out the best way to weave through the Greenpeace and Children’s International solicitors in Madison Square Park without getting stopped. If reveling in my imagination and using it to better enjoy the world around me, if making a game out of life is something to be pitied, than frankly, Heather Chaplin, I’m perfectly fine never having your respect.