Gamification is Manipulation

Alright, I had a different post ready for today but some things happened that I feel I should comment on in a timely matter.

Shamus Young recently made a post and wrote an article responding to a video by Chris Franklin about gamification. Since I just got done talking about gamification myself this timing seemed too good to pass up. (Note: if you watch the video there is some mild bad language near the end)

If you don’t have time to click through all those links, here’s the basic story. Chris Franklin is critical of gamification because it doesn’t actually make things more fun to do. He points out how certain websites and companies are using gamification techniques to get people to stay on their websites longer, watch more videos, click on more links, and post more in their forums. He (with good reason) points out these sites are just using gamification to manipulate people, and the people being manipulated are not getting any more enjoyment for their trouble. Shamus responded by saying in short that yes, gamification is manipulation but so is all marketing, ant the sites using it are putting content out for free and rely on page views for their income. Compared to other types of marketing, gamification could be called a step up. Besides, nobody is being hurt and some people are having fun.

Whether you agree with Chris or Shamus (they’re good friends, by the way) I think the greater point has been missed. Chris starts his video by saying “The general consensus seems to be that we’re on a path to making everything fun and rewarding, that games will make school and work fun and that the lines between boring, responsible stuff and cutting edge entertainment will be blurred away to nothing.” I think this starting point is where the real problem begins.

Gamification is not about making things fun. It’s about making us want to do them.

I don’t write three pages each day because it’s fun. Now granted it’s cathartic and fulfilling, but it’s not fun. It’s work, and I’d rather be playing Minecraft. By writing my three pages on 750words (which gives me badges and points) I’m not making writing any more enjoyable. I am tapping into that dopamine squirt I talked about yesterday which makes me actually want to write every day. It doesn’t, however, make it a single iota more pleasurable to write.

If you read yesterday’s post then you can probably see why people make this mistake frequently. We’re used to thinking of “desire” and “pleasure” (“fun” in this case) as going hand in hand. We desire things because they are pleasurable, right? But as we’re finding out more and more that is not the case. The rats that had their brains wiped of dopamine would have found the food very pleasurable, but they had no desire to eat it. The burnt out drug addict gets less and less pleasure from each dose of meth, but the desire for it is stronger than it ever was. Gamification works off desire, off the dopamine squirt that games have gotten good at providing for us. Maybe you’ll have more fun with gamified chores than normal ones but if you do that’s just extra. The point is tricking you into wanting to do them in the first place.

So when a website uses gamification to make you want to stay on their site, yeah, you might call that a little manipulative. But don’t say that gamification is a fraud because of it. Gamification is a tool. When it’s used to make you waste more of your time on useless things then it’s a tool working against us. But we can also use that tool to make us want to do things that will improve ourselves and our lives.

Just the other day I received the badge that I am most proud to have earned on 750words. It’s “The Flock” badge, which is awarded to users who have written more than 100,000 words. I never thought I could write that much. If it wasn’t for gamification I would have lost the motivation to keep up with it long ago. Gamification isn’t evil. It also isn’t a cure all. The important thing is to be aware of it, to recognize when it’s being used, and to understand when we’re using it and when it’s using us.

I’ll talk about something else on Friday, I promise.


About Mark Hamilton

I am, in no particular order, a nerd, an aspiring writer, a Christian, an aspiring filmmaker, an avid reader, a male, a YEC, a GM, and a twenty something. I like learning how things are made, finding out how to do things from scratch, and I you can find more of my writing at

Posted on June 13, 2012, in Gamification. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I was reminded while reading through this that “happiness” where you’re constantly getting a dopamine high is a relatively new invention. I really doubt happiness should be an ultimate goal for us.

  2. Hey Mark, I’m so happy I found your blog because you seem to be one of my light side knights 😉 I have a blog about gamification ethics and am trying to find out what it is, this light side. I’d really appreciate your feedback on (and of course also on my whole blog).
    May the force be with you,

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