The Current, and Unfortunate, State of Gamification

If you know me, you probably know that I am I fairly outspoken critic of gamification; the practice of incorporating game design gestures into non-game products and services. The problem is, I could also be considered an early adopter of the practice.

The truth is that the interactions we engage in through the course of play, be it an infant’s game of peekaboo or an incredibly complex computer simulation, are so innocent, dramatic, meaningful, joyous, etc., that we would be remiss as designers if we did not attempt to adopt them into our native, non-game vocations. Before the term ‘gamification’ had been coined, I referred to this practice as ludic interface (meaning game-like interactions and/or communications). However, I am certain that an inconsequential amount of research would quickly show that many came before me with similar theories and intentions.

When done with skill, class, and restraint there is nothing wrong with introducing ludic gestures into non-game constructs. It has successfully been done too many times to be ignored. That being said, it is beginning to feel like gamification is entering its dark ages when it should be a golden one. The core problem at hand is that gamification has become a parody of itself. What was a playful way of providing users with feedback has simply become a feedback loop.

…let it be said that the road to design hell is paved with points and badges.

Gamification, if we even still want to call it that, has reached a state of crisis. As I see it, gamification now finds itself under three unfortunate circumstances that have rendered the practice as laughable to those with trained hands and eyes:

  1. Gamification has become a marketing gimmick used to camouflage mundane product design.
  2. Gamification, in this lampooned state, is incapable of being a change agent over any significant period of time.
  3. If gamification continues on its current course, there is little incentive to improve upon its methods.

1. Gamification has become a marketing gimmick used to camouflage mundane product design.

Recently I encountered this post from Hide & Seek and thought that it hit the nail on the head when it said:

What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience. Points and badges have no closer a relationship to games than they do to websites and fitness apps and loyalty cards. They’re great tools for communicating progress and acknowledging effort, but neither points nor badges in any way constitute a game. Games just use them…

In many contexts, the act of using something is an ugly one in that the connotations of such are generally an odd mix of both compulsion and disinterest as I hope this actual case study will show. (Note: Specifics of the situation have been altered as to not directly incriminate the naive. I should also add that, while I do have intimate knowledge of this project, it is not one that I have personally worked on.)

Company X designed an app intended to teach basic math skills to grade schoolers. The basic premise of the app is that a solution is displayed to users and then they are asked to select problems that would produce that solution from a larger bank of problems. Overall, the design of the app was dreadfully average. While there was really nothing wrong with it, there was also really nothing great about it either…which in today’s app market can pretty much doom any app to failure.

Company Y was engaged to assist Company X in marketing the app and, after several rounds of things marketers do, Company Y reported back to Company X saying that the app lacked anything that would differentiate it in the market. Company Y’s recommendation was that, in order to be successful, the product needed additional features that would allow them to surround it with unique messaging in the marketplace.

Company X took this feedback to heart and ultimately decided to gamify the app with points and badges via a white label service provider. This really got Company Y’s creative juices flowing and suddenly there was an abundance of tagline that could be used to sell the app to iParents hoping to teachify their grader schoolers:

  • [Product Name] uses game design secrets to teach grade schoolers math.
  • Your grade schooler can “Level Up” while doing their homework with [Product Name]!
  • Learning Math + Video Games = [Product Name] = FUN!

The truth is, the gamified marketing initially worked. The app appeared to be gaining traction and the initial sales were promising. Then, suddenly, the sales all but stopped. The fact the Company X never readdressed the dreadfully mundane product design had caught up with them. Gamification allowed them to turn a lemon into very bittersweet lemonade, and a few people bought into it. The probably was that after those individuals did their spit-take, they gave the app poor ratings and reviews which ultimately killed sales.

I suppose gamification advocates could call this a success. After all, the addition of points and badges really did allow the app to sell more copies that it probably should have in the first place. If are someone who would choose to call this case study a success, then you are left with a bit of a philosophical crisis as implicit to this stance is the fact that the gamification process was nothing more than a marketing gimmick that moved a few initial units.

Before I move on, I’d just like to say that I am a true-believer in a game’s ability to teach almost anything. If you revisit the product description I used above, you’ll see that I very abstractly described MECC’s classic learning game Number Munchers.

2. Gamification, in this lampooned state, is incapable of being a change agent over any significant period of time.

How strong of a motivator is a badge? Because if gamification is what many claim it to be, then you can get someone to do just about anything if you are willing to compensate them with a [virtual] badge.

Over the past several months, I have had the opportunity to take a look at analytics data for a few gamified products. Interestingly enough, each dataset shared similar trends with respect to their gamified features. While I’m not at liberty to share that data here, the trends that I observed align close enough with a public dataset that I can still present the insights with a degree of confidence.

Below you can see a table displaying the earn rates of what is often considered Foursquare’s introductory set of badges. The data was sourced from SquareGrader and, while I cannot absolutely vouch for its accuracy, it does adhere to trends that I have observed elsewhere.

While much could be written about this dataset, there are three points in particular that I wish to call into focus. However I should first point out the Foursquare’s badge system is not as insidious as many other that exist today. Badges, and the criteria by which they are earned, are not front and center in the application. As such, the earn rates for most of these badges would likely increase if the badge system was given more prominence in the experience.

The first thing to observe is that the data reports that only 77% of Foursquare users check-in for the first time and earn the Newbie badge. This metric seems potentially suspect to me and could be a product of how SquareGrader collects their data. To elaborate, in order to access SquareGrader’s data you have to login with a Foursquare account. That, in turn, allows SquareGrader to parse your account and add to their dataset. It is highly likely that a number of individuals have create fake Foursquare accounts with the intent of accessing SquareGrader’s data while protecting their own. For this reason, I will be focusing my next two points solely on users who have earned the Newbie badge (checked in at least once).

One of the badges I find to be interesting is the Local badge. Only 76% of users find enough value in checking in somewhere (their place of work, school, or gym) at least three times in any one week. The question remains, would this percentage be higher if the badge criteria was promoted with more urgency within the app? Probably. The attrition rate might not be as drastic as 24%, but there still would be an attrition rate. Another point that could be debated is whether this attrition rate is a failing on the product design or a failing of the gamification system. As many would argue that they are both one and the same in the case of Foursquare, I am simply going to identify this potential debate and move on.

The badge that I find to be the most telling in this dataset is the Superstar badge. Of the users who we know actually tried the product (checked in once), over 75% of them didn’t continue to use the product enough to earn the Superstar badge. There are a lot of factors that could be used to account for this drastic attrition rate, but I’d prefer to fly above that fray by observing the following.

By the time a user earns the Super User badge (30 check-ins in a month / 51% earn rate), they are likely to be well-versed in Foursquare and its badge system or at least versed well enough to have familiarized themselves with a badge list earning criteria. In other words, we can be fairly certain that they know what they Superstar badge is and what they would have to do in order to earn it. Despite this, less than half the users who earn the Super User badge go on to earn the Superstar badge?

Why is this? I sincerely doubt ~25% of the checking in public simply stopped using Foursquare all together. The reality of the situation is problem closer to the fact that people are highly habitual and aren’t likely to change those habits for a piece of digital swag. When you look at the badges that 50% of more of the effective user base has earned, you can see that they are all earn-able by simply checking in as you go about your regular, established routine. The Superstar badge, however, would actually require a user to go new places or maybe try new things.

The actual user attrition rate between the those with the Superstar badge and those without is probably menial. The gamification attrition rate isn’t. In this case, as well as the others that I alluded to above, the badge system ultimately requires the user to adopt new behaviors and subsequently failed as a change agent. In contrast  Mayorships, Foursquare’s other gamification system, appears to be flourishing. Why? Because it reenforces existing behaviors rather than attempting to change them.

None of this is new.

The Hawthorne effect is a debated psychological premise that theorizes that by simple virtue of grafting explicit measurement/quantification to the performance of a defined behavior, a short-term increase in the productivity of said behavior can be observed. Critics of the Hawthorne effect that the experiments that supposedly proved the theory amounted to little more than crass manipulation of test subjects. Whether it is actually a true psychological effect or simply crass manipulation, the operative outcome in both schools of thought is that any increases in productivity were short term at best.

This aligns with the data I’ve seen and speechs to the fact that gamification, of the points and badges variety, is not an effective long term change agent.

On a side note, Foursquare is not successful because it has been gamified. Foursquare is successful because, only God knows why, but people find value in its core product. When founder Dennis Crowley talks about the platform’s future, he rarely mentions anything that might be considered gamification. What he does talk about are things that will make the product more useful to is users (Deals, Recommendations, etc.).

3. If gamification continues on its current course, there is little incentive to improve upon its methods.

Gamification, thy name is ketchup.

By popular definition, gamification augments a core product design with game mechanics in order to produce a ludic flavoring; much in the same way that a condiment is added to a hamburger for additional flavor. As such, gamification = ketchup.

First off, nobody ever goes to a restaurant and orders ketchup- although I’m pretty sure that I’ve ordered tomato soup and been given ketchup. The truth is that condiments are rarely consideration that drives end user/eater sales. End users choose products based on the merits of the product. …and if you ever try to pass ketchup off as tomato soup, you can bet your ass that hardly anybody will ever order tomato soup from you a second time.

This is doesn’t mean that there isn’t good money in selling ketchup, it just means that marketing it to end users/eaters isn’t the best business plan. The only time a condiment truly drives purchase is when it is being bought in bulk relative to its serving size.

I’ve never been in a user validation session where someone has, openly or through implication, expressed a desire for gamifying features. Similarly, I’ve actually witnessed anyone requesting ketchup at a four star restaurant. The learning: Superior products don’t need condiments. (Note: I’m aware that four star restaurants do serve hamburgers, french fires, etc., but often when this is done it often for the novelty of serving ‘pub food’ at a four star restaurant).

So before I digress into a debate regarding the economic outlook of the ketchup markets, I’ll make my broader points and move on. A condiment must always function in a supporting role to the entrée it has been added to. Too much ketchup ruins the hamburger.

There is no doubt that there is endless possibility in coming up with new entrées that ketchup might be added to, but I ask you this… Where is the ROI in attempting to improve ketchup?

If people insist that gamification is nothing but tactics (points, badges, levels, etc.) that, as Hide & Seek put it, are the least essential to games, then we’re done here. The white label services can keep selling their white label services for the sake of marketing gimmickry and the real designers can move on to more meaning constructs.

…because the truth is, they already have.

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Dakota Reese Brown

Hi, I'm Dakota Reese Brown.

I am a Game Designer, User Experience Designer, Researcher, and Critic based in St. Paul, MN.

I specialized in game design, mobile user experience design, user interface design, interdisciplinary concepting (sketching sprints), and rapid prototyping for proof of concept.