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April 1, 2011 / Notmaker

Gamification: New Hotness or Snake in the Grass?


Interesting article from Heather Chaplin at Slate about the ideas behind the philosophical “Gamification” movement.  According to Chaplin:

The basic idea arises from how engaged people are when they play games, even if they’re doing mundane things like running a farm or mining ore. If we make the world more like a game, the thinking goes, we can harness all that energy to solve real-world problems.

Now, this is not a field that I’m particularly well-read in (check out Jane McGonigal‘s blog for lots of good info), but the basic principle behind earning virtual rewards for achievement as a method of motivation shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has ever taught children, owned pets, or had a job that came with a large corporate hierarchy.  What Gamification seems to be pushing is the idea that the same impulses that allow people to feel rewarded through virtual rewards can be applied to society at large to solve current social problems.

Chaplin more or less denounces the entire idea.

In a gamified world, corporations don’t have to reward us for our business by offering better service or lower prices. Rather, they can just set up a game structure that makes us feel as if we’re being rewarded. McGonigal goes even further. She talks about an “engagement economy … that works by motivating and rewarding participants with intrinsic rewards, and not more lucrative compensation.” This economy doesn’t rely on cash—rather, it pays participants with points, peer recognition, and their names on leader boards. It’s hard to tell if this is fairy-tale thinking or an evil plot.

Now, Chaplin’s tone doesn’t really sit well with me.  It really sounds like she’s talking down to her readers and may be putting quite a few words into the mouths of Gamification’s proponents.

However, she’s entirely correct that virtual rewards simply do not function as alternative forms of actual rewards.  It would be far more accurate to say that virtual rewards act as excellent coping mechanisms for when there simply won’t be actual rewards.  It is also 100% accurate to say that Gamification-as-presented would seem to have far more advantages to corporations or institutions of power than individuals; it’s one of the reasons why Gamification is an excellent teaching technique.

Still, Chaplin’s writing tone and her implications of sinister intent on the part of Gamification supporters feels very unnecessary to making her point.  I would like to see Jane McGonigal and other supporters of Gamification respond to this article, because while I agree with what seems to be Chaplin’s actual point, her style of presentation makes me wonder if she’s grossly exaggerating Gamification’s negative implications while dismissing or ignoring other positive implications.

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