Gamification is a Dirty Word

Nils Pihl Bohlin
9:00 am on Sep 17, 2012

Nils Pihl founded Mention LLC, a Beijing-based international consulting agency specializing in engagement design and behavioral engineering.

Every now and then a word comes along that captures the imagination of everyone it touches. Almost overnight these words spread across our collective consciousness and alter the tone and content of our conversations. Gamification is one of those words, and it has completely hijacked and derailed many meaningful discussions.

The proponents of gamification rightly point out that there are opportunities to learn from games, ways that we can make our products more engaging, and that an increased awareness of what makes games so engaging could help us solve a lot motivational problems that we are struggling with. By unraveling the substance of games we can use these building blocks, popularly called game mechanics, to build a new generation of products.

The problem is that the proponents of gamification don’t actually understand the substance of games. In their enthusiastic fervor they have mistaken some of the least important parts of games – things like leaderboards, points, and badges – as the essence of games. Margaret Robertson rightly called the movement out in her entertaining piece on why it should be called “pointsification” instead. Others, like Ian Bogost, have said that even that would be too kind, arguing that “exploitationware” would be more descriptive. There is a huge discrepancy between the people who understand, master, and use game mechanics, and those who claim to be able to gamify your product.

The entire edifice of gamification is built on investor hype, anecdotal evidence, and the opportunistic exploitation of a powerful new word without a clear meaning. Millions of dollars have been poured into companies with cheap first-to-market technologies, regardless of how shallow and superficial their understanding of the problem at hand is. Badgeville, a company whose name itself is an affront to people who make a living making engaging experiences, raised 15 million dollars in venture in their first year of operation. The leaders of the movement, people like Gabe Zichermann, are happy to toot their own horn and describe a future economy where gamification will one of the most valuable skills on the market. Bullish analysts caught up in the craze are fast to follow and give astronomical market caps for an industry that no one has really bothered defining. At no point during all of this do the enthusiasts stop to look at how vacuous Zichermann is.

The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place.

Say it often enough and it will be indistinguishable from the truth. Zichermann wants us all to believe that the things that are the cheapest to program and implement just so happens to be “key game mechanics.” Make no mistake about it, the reason these things are touted as important is not because of their proven effectiveness, but rather because of how cheap, scalable, and attainable the technology is. Zichermann goes on to argue that gamification has “Armed [marketers] with a new understanding of what people tick, and how to wind them up,” and they can now build experiences that are both enduring and engaging. But where is implied understanding? What deep insight of human psychology can you really glean from the anecdotal evidence you are marshaling?

The sad truth is that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, and the art of making engaging products and games remains well outside the abilities of the hundreds of opportunistic bandwagon passengers that try so hard to dominate the discussion.

Other enthusiasts, like Seth Priebatsch and Jane McGonigal, step up on the popular stages like TED and spread the word. The problem is, for all the enthusiasm that they bring to the topic, that they do the topic a disservice by oversimplifying or being straight out wrong.

I can attest to the fact that it is possible to make a living helping companies make more engaging products, and learning from games is a great way of getting there. There truly are some deep, intractable truths at the core of game design that can be applied to a variety of other designs – but “gamification” is a word that has derailed the conversation, polarized the community, and created unhealthy expectations in both designers and customers.

Quite frankly, I am tired of cleaning up the mess that people like Priebatsch have created.

Gamification Venn Diagram

The metric for measuring your progress in a game is not what makes the game. Implementing a leaderboard on your website will probably not make people buy your product. A badge is no substitute for quality and substance.

What we can learn from games lies at the very core of what a “game” is:

When all the fluff and marketing hype is peeled away, a game is a system where we voluntarily engage in something to receive a perceived reward. We can learn meaningful design lessons by understanding the difference between work and play, and by realized that the reward is always a subjective thing brought to the table by the player.

What we can learn is that making a product engaging means understanding what brought our users there in the first place, and enforcing those structures by clearly communicating how they can get what they came for.

Ask yourself: Did your users come to “earn points”?

I must admit at this point that I was once very excited to see how the word gamification gained popular acceptance. I thought, for a while, that this new vocabulary addition would make it easier for me to explain some of the more arcane and mystical aspects of product design – The opposite has happened: I spend more and more time having to deconstruct the many mistakes that seem to accompany familiarity with gamification.

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

  • Sascha

    Man how this ‘gamification’ thing ticks me off. Attended an online marketeer meeting last week (ok, going to such an event in the first place was, of course, my fault) and the amount of ‘gamification’ talks there was just incredible. ‘There must be an app for that’ kinda changed into ‘There must be an app and a stupid game for that’.

    Btw: ‘I saw this amazing talk on TED’ isn’t anymore what it once used to be. Unfortunately.

  • Nils Pihl (OP)

    I think the reason that gamification is so popular with marketers and “trendy CEOs” is that it promises an easy to solution to some very difficult problems.

    The idea that all you need to do is add badges and you’ll get measurable results is a very powerful meme.

    I also think it is very telling that the people who actually do game design (or other kinds of serious, systematic and scientific product design) seem to have a pretty big distaste for gamification.

  • Kathu Sierra

    For every 2,000 pro-gamification posts, there’s one like yours that gives me hope for humanity. So, thanks for that. I agree with every word you said, right down to the fact that I, too, used to feel (as a former game designer, and one who has been applying principles of ACTUAL game design to other domains) that perhaps “gamification” was a positive step.

    It was not until people started saying, “Hey, you need to meet Gabe! He says just what you’ve been saying!” that I decided to read his first book. On cracking the first page, I thought, “cool.” by around page 15, I was hurling the book against the wall, and horrified that I was viewed as anything related to this. And it’s been kind of a mission ever since to help explain why most of the gamification proponents — including the well-intentioned ones — do not understand this the way they believe they do. Starting with phrases like, “we take the essence/key of what makes games so engaging and apply it to non-games.”

    BF Skinner, the father of modern gamification, understood later in his life that when you apply behavioral mechanics, you end up with mechanical behavior. Even his missile-guiding pigeons, he agreed, weren’t performing complex behavior, just a long chain of simple ones. Game mechanics without understanding (let alone designing for) the soul of actual games — the intrinsically motivating experiences that do no, CAN not exist in most gamified systems — is unethical at best.

  • Ryan Braley

    I sleep at night because the pointsification charlatains cannot escape the rising tide of reality for long. /Ryan, Mention LLC

  • Nils Pihl (OP)

    Kathu, thank you for your kind words.

    I think you’re right to (humorously) name Skinner as the father of modern gamification. The problem with the entire movement, I feel, is that it is making it difficult for us to have a conversation that is really worth having:

    How can we learn from games?

    The gamification craze is drowning out many reasonable discussions, to the detriment of everyone except for a few. I’m countering their bullshit books with a book of my own (hopefully done by the end of the month), and I’ll make sure that it is free to read.

  • Nils Pihl (OP)

    OMG NILS WAKE UP! THE Kathy Sierra? Honored to have you comment.

  • Kai Lukoff

    I have to suppress my gag reflex anytime I’m introduced to a new gamification startup. Or when I enter a game and am immediately awarded a meaningless badge for doing nothing. Such shallow, overt manipulation makes me want to run, not walk, in the other direction without collecting the ‘level two’ award for spamming my entire address book to ‘join the fun’. It’s a shame that this insufferable trend has sullied the name of all game mechanics.

    Thanks for writing this Nils Pihl, I like your style.

  • Angelo

    Very happy to hear a different point of view on the subject.
    I agree with you: too many people argue on gamification without a real knowledge on the subject or for opportunistic reasons (I don’t know if Zichermann or McGonigal are among them).
    I would then ask you if you could suggest an author who really knows the subject and doesn’t have second purposes. I’m also interested in what you think about applying gamification in education.

    Thank you in advance.

  • Nils Pihl (OP)


    My advice is to skip the literature on “gamification” entirely and go straight to the science, philosophy and psychology behind product/game design and motivation.

    An easy and great read is Dan Pink’s “Drive” – it’s a great place to start if you want to learn more about human motivation.

    I think making education more engaging is ultimately about communicating why learning is fun – rather than important. We’ll be writing a post on that soon on our own blog, so keep an eye out there.

  • Benjamin

    Hi Nils, nice post and explanations, clear as usual. I didn’t take time to find words for what I thought about “Gamification” (I didn’t either for most of the “Social” stuff, notice the double quotes), but you now I can say “yep, that was that”.
    I agree to use the term pointsification instead, and give all credit back to what really is gamification.

  • Megan Carriker

    I’m curious, after reading this article, what you think of my own that was on Gamasutra in May titled “Gamification: The Misunderstood Dirty Word” –

  • Nils Pihl (OP)


    I don’t think the word gamification is “misunderstood” the way that you describe in your article. I think you are closer to the truth when you differentiate with the people who know what they are doing (who rarely seem to refer to it as gamification) – and the people that don’t.

    One of the most insidious gamifiers I’ve seen is Bart Hufen ( who shamelessly points to other people’s successes in his case studies section.

    Some people out there know what they do – others use the word “gamification” and borrow from the good reputation of others.

    Why are there so many gamifiers pointing to the same old solutions? Where is their own track record?

  • Kathy Sierra

    (Nils: hah! Your comment made my day :).

    Re: pointing to the work of others in case-studies, this is a reflection of extremely sloppy thinking, at best, in much of the pro-gamification articles, talks, etc. For example, the now-cliche use of the LinkedIn profile progress bar, held up as an example of gamification. WTF. When everything ranging from a progress bar (useful design/UI attribute) to a complete game, to quantified self, to anything that might ever be fun is all given as evidence that “gamification works”, no meaningful discussions can exist.

    But I also wonder about the lack of skepticism around the claims made by consultants and gamification platform vendors. In the tech world, we become suspicious when a company selling a product does not actually appear to use that product themselves… I have worked for several tech companies large and small where it was crucial we “eat our own dog food”. Yet it is near impossible to find gamification consultants and vendors who actually USE gamification themselves. Gabe used virtually no gamification in the promotion of his books or conferences, just plain marketing. Badgeville and Bunchball both claim substantial results *for their clients* using their solutions to “engage customers”, yet neither can prove that they have been able to use this to build their OWN “engaged community” (and in fact their own communities — like their blogs — are ghost towns, and only one of them even allows comments.)

    When a “thought leader” or company claiming to be a world leader in a new practice cannot point to a single example where they have managed ALL ON THEIR OWN to use their silver bullet to increase their own business or — as they now refer to it — “send engagement through the roof”, red flags are flying.

    I also agree that those wanting to learn more about the underlying science (the real science, not the faux-science too many gamification folks are either misunderstanding or deliberately obscuring) through Dan Pink’s Drive, and thn going directly to the source with Deci and Ryan’s work on Self-Determination Theory. Amabile’s “The Progress Principle” is a nice related read as well (includes her own studies on the dangers of extrinsic rewards). And of course one could never go wrong with the first book that was required reading way back when I first went to work as a game dev at Virgin: “Flow”.

    I very much look forward to your book. I might just have to start blogging again. You’ve no idea how much you’re his discussion is encouraging me :) Thanks again. So so much. And, go you.

  • Nils Pihl (OP)


    A very long throat-clearing before I actually defend (!) Gabe a little.

    My humble opinion is that the key to engaging design is “decoding the game”, rather than making a game.

    Every product that relies in any way on a relationship with the user (i.e. not a chocolate bar, but a chocolaterie) is already a game. The users are coming there voluntarily engaging in the game of trading their exertion (whether it is clicking Like buttons or spending real dollars at a real cafe) for a perceived reward.

    To make a product more engaging we must start by understanding the game that is already in place. What are the rewards that our users are looking for? What are we asking them to do in exchange for that reward? Can we improve the exertion/reward ratio?

    If look at something like a professional social network like LinkedIn, some likely desired (simplified, obviously) rewards are:

    Expression – The users want to communicate their professional achievements, concerns and aspirations. They want an opportunity to impress with and build on their professional image.

    Opportunity – The users want to understand what the market they operate in has to offer them in terms of opportunities. They might not be looking for employment, but keeping your ear to the ground offers much of the same values of reading a normal newspaper.

    Validation – The users want confidence-building and social-reinforcing validation and recognition for their talents, achievements, opinions and personalities.

    Making a professional network better should involve improving the users’ access to these rewards. That they have chosen to use our network means that they recognize the potential for getting these rewards, so let’s not waste their times with things of no importance to them. One of our client’s is a professional network, so we helped them like this:

    They wished to increase profile completion (the status bar they had just wasn’t cutting it, Gabe!), content generation and user registrations.

    The first thing we did was to (counter-intuitively) remove ALL mandatory profile fields. We significantly lowered the exertion of signing up, at the cost of having no (!) profile fields filled in. The new users would be funneled directly to the main page, containing some hopefully interesting news about the industry – but there was a new addition to the design: an eye-catching widget that politely asked you to answer a simple question about who you are:

    Where are you from? or Where do you work? or How old are you? (Things that would fill in your profile)

    Whenever a user answered one of these simple questions they were rewarded with either useful information (validation/opportunity: “Did you know people in [your city] makes [amount]?” or an inspiring business quote that the user might potentially resonate with (validation/expression). Of course, we created ample opportunity for the users to share these insights with their friends.

    This had put the users on a much faster reward schedule. Instead of getting a profile bar jump to 70% after you had answered the mandatory fields, the user would almost immediately get something relevant to her professional social network experience.

    The solution is still being polished and going through internal testing, so I can’t say yet how well it will perform when unleashed on the world – but in our internal testing very close to 100% of the people that started answering questions FINISHED answering questions.

    Our client wins (they get full profiles, which helps create value for them) and the user wins (they get to express themselves by sharing inspiring quotes and facts about their place in the market, they get access to opportunities and they get validation).

    To borrow your words – don’t create a killer app – create a killer user. The “killer app” approach tried to provide value to the users by having a lot of information accessible to them (which is why they need full profiles!) – the “killer user” approach tried to encourage the users to make that happen themselves.

    To me, that’s what a good “game inspired” solution is.

    Now, to defend Gabe:

    Would a site offering gamification services really be better if it was gamified? I don’t think so. If anything, a user that comes to his site to evaluate if gamification is right for her business might pay extra attention to any game that Gabe puts in place – and that makes it less likely that she’ll actually enjoy the game – she’ll be too busy trying to see if it works to let it work. Lost sale for Gabe.

    Also, let’s exchange emails! I’m nils at

  • Keith

    Hi Nils,

    First of all, great read. +10 for you (; I’m the co-founder of a gamification startup, Gametize (, the team behind our gamification platform, GameMaki ( Your article made me smile for many reasons – right from the title and the blue/pink venn diagrams. Indeed, when we were building GameMaki, we believe true fun is the biggest absentee from most campaigns.

    I don’t deny gamification is a dirty word – in fact, I think it is a terrible word. But kudos to the dirty guy who invented the word: before it was coined/mainstreamed, I was using “hybridization of reality and gaming to drive human psychology” to describe my products, thanks to my fancy comms lead. Gamification, just like many other marketing terms, was coined to make boardroom meetings more efficient. And indeed, my professional career has been made easier. There’s even a way to describe gamification in just 3 chinese characters (2 less syllabus than the English word). I had my fair share of time explaining to misinformed partners/clients/friends, but I certainly am not as bothered as you – afterall, doesn’t this also present an opportunity to stand out as an authority? I would imagine part of consulting would encompass educating your clients. And isn’t that the same case with many other buzzwords such as social media, social engagement? They were often misunderstood (and still are sometimes), and they took time to evolve to where they are today.

    I’m not the biggest fan of Gabe, Seth or Jane, but I don’t think they had misled their audience intentionally. Take Gabe for example; his workshops usually last for 1 entire day at least – it is not his fault that his audience chose to absorb only the simplified bits. Companies like Badgeville, or myself, recognizes too there is no one size fits all. What we merely want to do is to take the complexity out with our technology so the business can focus on design a great gamification experience. Check out this video from Badgeville (funny I am promoting my competitor!)

    I wouldn’t generalise that “proponents of gamification don’t actually understand the substance of games”. There are many proponents who actually came from game design backgrounds. This is also where I take the liberty to be a little controversial: I don’t think a proponent need to actually understand substance of games. I have always emphasized in several of my talks that gamification is not a magic pill, but simply a strategy to drive actions, provide timely feedbacks, nurture intrinsic motivations and even encouraging collaborations. Imho, you don’t need to be a game designer to do all of these. You should be a fair expert of human psychology, stealing ideas from the game designer like an Ali Baba. You would also need the common sense to know gamification doesn’t improve a product that suck – and have the balls to deliver the bad news.

    Again, fking cool article. For now I’m just glad Gametize/GameMaki isn’t linked anywhere in it – and oh, if you are wondering what you can do with that 10 points, please redeem a coffee/beer from me when you are in Singapore. (;

  • Rhein Mahatma

    I believe in some type of startups, gamification turns citizen journalist into unpaid freelancers.

  • JJ

    Although I respect your argument, I disagree with you that the concept of Gamification is meaningless. Gamification is nothing new or special, adding on UI and system elements that are similar to video games for non-video games is, as you said, cheap and simple. The actual effect of Gamification for users is standardizing a system of actions so that “perceived rewards” (however pointless it may seem to some people) can be claimed. These perceived rewards may offer nothing but a virtual gift in a virtual environment, but it does encourage social engagements through competition between users. People like to compare with each other, especially when there are positive differentials. If I have a certain “Mayor” badge on 4Square and my friend doesn’t, I can make fun of him for not having one. This most fundamental human nature of comparison of differentials is what makes Gamification such a unique and powerful tool, albeit being very simple.

    Virtual tokens and rewards derive meaning from social context. Social context involves more than one individual. Virtual rewards within video games don’t have any meaning for those who don’t play the game, but for those who do, it may be a whole different story (see Examples from MMOs such as WoW), perhaps so much meaning that people are willing to die for it. From a technical/product innovation standpoint, Gamification may be just another moot point on our technology evolution chain. But unlike other moot points (such as group-buying), Gamification gives us the ability to provoke the deepest human nature of competition and apply it to any and everything that we want. That is its true accomplishment.

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