A Quick Buck by Copy and Paste

A Review of “Gamification by Design”

Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham: Gamification by Design. Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps. O’Reilly, Sebastopol 2011, 169+xix pages.

In the course of but one year, “gamification”, the use of game design elements in non-game contexts, has managed to grow from a self-description used by some vendors and proponents to a placement on the Gartner hype cycle – and in the IT business, it doesn’t get much more ‘official’ than that. Yet the term still stirs hot debate. On one side, game designers and scholars despise the whole notion as an “inadvertent con” (Margaret Robertson). On the other, proponents counter that gamification already ‘delivers’ (in terms of numbers), yet is still in its infancy. Hence it would be premature to call foul on something so young, with no time to learn from failure and sort wheat from chaff. So who’s right, who’s wrong?

For one answer to this question, let’s have a look at the new book by Gabe Zichermann, Gamification by Design. Zichermann is one of the most public gamification proponents today, and chair of the Gamification Summit, now in its second iteration this September 15-16 in New York, where the book will be officially launched.

Update (September 18, 2011): Tim O’Reilly has posted a reaction to this review, to which I responded here.

Update 2/3 (September 20/21, 2011): Gabe Zichermann has posted his response here, to which I responded here.

Update 4 (September 22, 2011): Gabe responded to my answer here, to which I, keeping my promise to Nicholas Lovell to use less words, responded directly in the comments here. And Buster Benson chimed in with a nice mapping of some of the debate faultlines.


Gamification by Design sets out by defining three terms – gamification, engagement, and loyalty. Gamification is defined as “The process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems”, a definition that “unite(s) concepts such as serious games, advergaming, and games-for-change into a cohesive worldview that’s informed by the latest research into behavioral psychology and the success of social games.” (p. xiv)

Zichermann leaves unanswered what “game-thinking” is supposed to mean – apart from being an obvious attempt to steal some of the alreadywaning luster of “design thinking”. Also, his definition makes a huge landgrab – Serious games? That’s gamification! Advergames? Dito! – only to then exclude such “actual games-with-a-capital-G” (p. xviii) from further discussion.

Anyhow, next, engagement is defined as “the connection between a consumer and a product or service”, “being comprised of a series of potentially interrelated metrics that combine to form a whole”, namely recency, frequency, duration, virality, and ratings, which are then summarized into a unified “E-Score” (p. xvi). This falls into the common trap of metrics, namely, their blindness for sentiment and valence: An enraged customer blogging, tweeting, and commenting to keep other customers from using your product because he had such a bad experience scores as massively engaged. Likewise, a troll irritating your community in a flame war does wonders to your short-term engagement scores, but huge harm to your community’s satisfaction.

Finally, loyalty is defined as what “gets users to make incremental choices in your favor when all things are mostly equal.” (p. xviii) I leave it to Kathy Sierra to answer to that.

Chapter One: Foundations

Using the well-known iPhone game Flight Control as an example, the chapter opens by arguing that everything can be made fun, because fun comes from the mechanics, not the theme of a game. Fair enough – discounting all social contexts (not themes) where fun would be inappropriate or ineffective. I, for instance, would want neither funerals nor trials to be fun. The chapter then discusses the evolution of loyalty programs in the United States, from “buy X get 1 free” to stamps (introduced in the 1930s), to frequent flyer miles and facebook games, tracing a shift from real goods and money to virtual currencies (stamps, then points, then virtual goods), and from real utility or monetary value to status. Finally, it argues that in society itself, social status has become an evermore powerful motivator, and introduces Zichermann’s self-devised “system of rewards” named “SAPS”, standing for Status, Access, Power, Stuff: “Conveniently, it lists each potential prize in order from the most to the least desired, the most sticky to the least sticky, and the cheapest to the most expensive.” (p. 10).

At first, it may seem puzzling why the foundational chapter of a book on using game design outside of games spends most of its pages discussing loyalty programs, rewards, and social status – rather than, say, games and game design. But this focus is apt as it reveals the basic mental model from which Zichermann, whose educational and professional background is in marketing, frames “gamification”. In essence, Zichermann argues that gamified applications (and by extension, games) are loyalty programs that have shifted from monetary rewards to rewards in virtual currency conveying social status, thus allowing to fleece customers to the benefit of the company: Whereas customers cannot accurately determine the real-money value of a virtual currency, the company can price the value of the customer’s loyalty exactly, and is thus able to make a unilaterally better deal: providing cheap virtual currency for valuable customer loyalty.

This basic model is already explicit in Zichermann’s previous book, Game-Based Marketing. Quote: “But what is a loyalty program if not a complex, multilayered, gamelike exercise in achieving status, rewards, and special treatment?” (Game-Based Marketing, p. 15)

Let’s look at the flaws in this argument in detail, starting with the rewards part, to then move on to social status and customer fleecing.

Rewards are not achievements, or: Why are games fun?

In the preface and introduction, the book promises to reveal “what drives users to play and the core psychology that makes games so compelling” (xviii), and already summarizes the answer it gives: “reward structures, positive reinforcement, and subtle feedback loops alongside mechanics like points, badges, levels, challenges, and leaderboards.” (ix)

Thus, gamification represents “a cohesive worldview that’s informed by the latest research into behavioral psychology and the success of social games.” (p. xiv) This “cohesive worldview” is illustrated with the example of getting children to eat broccoli:

“The two workable approaches—used by parents for generations—are to make a game out of it (e.g., the “airplane” landing) or to slather the broccoli with cheese sauce. Approach #1 tends to stop working after a while—there are only so many airplanes a child will consent to land. And approach #2 tends to produce a love of cheese sauce, and outweighs the health benefits of getting the kid to eat broccoli in the first place.

The obvious solution is to combine the two ideas. Make eating the broccoli both more fun (with a little game) and more rewarding (with a little cheese sauce, or dessert afterwards). The interplay among challenge, achievement, and reward not only allows you to train children to eat their broccoli, but it releases dopamine in the brain, intrinsically reinforcing the action as biologically positive. In other words, by turning the experience into a game—including some reward for achievement—we can produce unprecedented behavior change.” (p. xv)

Zichermann repeats the latter claim a bit later: “(B)rain scientists the world over agree that games’ challenge-achievement-reward loop promotes the production of dopamine in the brain, reinforcing our desire to play.” (p. 4)

Reward, reinforcement, feedback loop, positive reinforcement, behavioral psychology – the language is clear: Games are fun, even ‘addictive’, because they exact some behaviorist operant conditioning on users, positively reinforcing activities by giving a reward afterwards. Indeed, the book spends two pages discussing reinforcement schemes, liking games to gambling slot machines, to end with the recommendation: “In practice, you should plan to include some amount of slot-style rewards in your experience, regardless of the context.” (p. 19) And the rewards to use for that are SAPS: Status, access, power, stuff. This argument is wrong on at least five levels.

(1) It misrepresents games and what makes them fun. Force-fitting “rewards” onto games, Zichermann claims that games by definition are “including some reward for achievement”, that rewards are what makes games engaging, and that games couldn’t sustain engagement without rewards. But as I already argued elsewhere, if this were the case, the following would be the most engaging game ever, earning you a whopping trillion points every time you hit the button:

The funnest game ever – if fun were about "rewards". (Inspired by Jakob Stjerning's Progress Wars).

You only need to think for one second of any game you enjoyed playing to realize this yourself: Hopscotch, Minesweeper, Scrabble, Sudoku, Risk, whatever – none of them feature nor require any rewards. Indeed, playing is one of the quintessential behaviors that got psychology to realize in the second half of the 20th century that there are things we enjoy doing for their own sake, without any reward or punishment attached – things that are intrinsically motivating.

So why is playing games fun, then? The reasons identified by designers and researchers like Marc LeBlanc, Raph Koster, Nicole Lazzaro, Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan as well as others are varied and manifold: The aesthetic joys of beauty and pattern; the autonomy in choosing who to be, what goals to pursue and what strategies to pick in doing so; the creative expression of yourself; novelty and humor; excitement in suspense and its release; the sensual pleasures of physical movement; the immersion in exotic fictional worlds and stories; the relaxing reassurance of affecting and ordering a constrained world with minimum effort; supporting others and being supported by them; having a pretext to socialize. But no matter what model you pick or what study you look into, all theories and all empirical data on the motivational psychology or “fun” of video games agree on one thing: Mastering challenges. We enjoy games because games are purpose-built to provide opportunities to overcome a challenge – a puzzle to solve, a chasm to jump, a monster to beat –, and the joy of succeeding in it.

In the terminology of the most thoroughly developed and researched theory of intrinsic motivation, Self-Determination Theory, games satisfy one of our three innate psychological needs – namely, the need to experience competence, our ability to control and affect our environment, and to become better at it. Or in the words of game designer Raph Koster: “Fun is just another word for learning.”

Interestingly, when Zichermann discusses what motivates people to play games in chapter 2, he once mentions some of these reasons (namely mastery or socializing), and status, access, power, stuff or any other reward are nowhere on that list. Yet in the rest of the book, mastery and socializing never reappear to inform his actual design recommendations.

(2) Behaviorism is not “state of the art”. For many good reasons, behaviorism has been replaced as the dominant paradigm in psychology for decades – chief among them that behaviorism provides no insight into cognitive processes out of principle, that it fails to explain more complex human behavior such as language, as well as the intricacies of human motivation. (Check any recent undergrad textbook on the history of psychology if you want to know the details, or any recent textbook on motivation to learn the actual state of the art of motivation research.)

(3) SAPS is for grabs. It’s Zichermann’s personal pet theory, coined around 2010. There’s no research behind it. No data to back it up. And it’s woefully incomplete when it comes to the reasons why people do things (see above on motivation).

(4) Behaviorism is not the foundation of game designers doing game design. Check any game design book, like Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design lauded by Zichermann in the introduction of Gamification by Design as a major inspiration.

(5) The argument abounds in dangerously wrong-but-scientific-sounding claims. “We can produce unprecedented behavior change.” Can we? Did someone? Unprecedented compared to what? Where’s the data? “Brain scientists the world over agree that games’ challenge-achievement-reward loop promotes the production of dopamine in the brain, reinforcing our desire to play.” To the best of my knowledge and research efforts, no scientific paper, in the neurosciences or elsewhere, ever spoke about any “challenge-achievement-reward-loop”. Yes, a study published in Nature in 1998 (and several others afterwards) found that playing a video game can lead to dopamine release in the brain. But many things lead to dopamine release, the functions of dopamine are manifold, highly dependent on the specific brain regions, and still far from being fully understood – though among those functions, yes, is pleasure and motivational ‘wanting’.

But more importantly, the fact that playing video games can lead to a dopamine release doesn’t tell you anything about why and how a certain event in a certain video game does so (i.e., why jumping your first Goomba in Super Mario Bros. is pleasurable), and why certain other events don’t (i.e., why 90% of everything, including games, sucks). Likewise, saying “delicious food makes you drool” doesn’t tell you anything about what makes some food delicious and some disgusting. For instance, the above-mentioned 1998 study Zichermann presumably refers to reports that the level of dopamine release was correlated with players’ performance in the game, not with any level of reward given – a finding coherent with the predominant theory of video game fun (that it’s about mastering challenges).

Similarly, it’s an obvious fallacy to say “alcohol is in beer, beer is somewhat like food, therefore, alcohol is what makes food delicious, so put lots of alcohol in your food to make people drool”. Yet that precisely is the basic logic of Gamification by Design: “Rewards are in gambling and loyalty programs, gambling and loyalty programs are somewhat like games, therefore rewards are what makes games fun, so put lots of rewards into your product to make it engaging.”

All of this is not to say that learning by association and habit formation are not essential building blocks of human cognition and action. Neither do I claim that rewards do not play a significant role in human motivation – though their functioning is complex and limited, and they often come with unwelcome side effects. The point here is twofold: One, Zichermann misunderstands or intentionally misrepresents “the core psychology that makes games so compelling”. Points, badges, and leaderboards are all feedback mechanisms games use to signal to a player how well she has done in overcoming challenges on the way to her goals. The joy comes from the realization that she overcame an interesting challenge, not from any extrinsic “reward value” of the point/badge/whatever. Play one of the countless achievement game parodies out there to experience this for yourself.

And two, Zichermann falls for a classic lay psychological error: We habitually overemphasize the importance of extrinsic incentives for other people (like salaries or promotions), since we can readily observe these incentives, but cannot ‘look inside the head’ of people to see what else drives them ‘inside’. Among others, Chip Heath (yes, that Chip Heath of Made to STICK and SWITCH) has demonstrated this lay error in an elegant series of experiments (PDF). It is similar to the well-known third-person effect (we believe that persuasive messages like advertisements affect others much more strongly than ourselves), and no news to any industrial-organisational psychologist: Scientific studies as well as global surveys done by Monster.com, the Kelly Global Workforce Index and others show time and again that interesting, satisfying work and the personal aspiration to do a good job are the most important motivators at work, more important than salary or promotions (i.e. status in the organizational hierarchy). Sufficient and fair pay and promotions are ‘hygiene factors’ – we are greatly demotivated if they are missing. But they do little to actively motivate us beyond that.

Bonfire of Vanities: The limits of social status

With those general flaws of out of the way, lets move to the one reward Zichermann singles out as the predominant motivator both in games and society-at-large: competition for social status. Indeed, his whole book reads as if it were a strange cross-breeding of Pierre Bourdieu, Thorstein Veblen and Tom Wolfe.

“Status drives much of our actions, and it forms a critical part of how we understand ourselves in context and relation to others. Status is so ingrained in our society that even those who renounce the system often derive their sense of self from the degree to which they reject it (e.g., anarchists, punk rockers, bike messengers). But while status is a big, complex, and omnipresent human desire, it can be understood simply as a system for determining where and how we fit into a hierarchy.” (p. 91)

Thus, status is “a great driver of loyalty, not to mention a player’s fiscal behavior” (p. 10). This emphasis of status is even more articulated in Zichermann’s previous book Game-Based Marketing.

As for the role of status in games, the core motivation of “explorers” – one of the four “player types” (see below) – is to “bring that (explored) knowledge back to his peers for kudos”, whereas “killers really want as many people as possible to see the kill, and for their victims to express admiration/respect.” (p. 22/3) (The original player type description by Richard Bartle says nothing to that effect.) Mastering a difficult challenge in a game is motivating because it creates the feeling that users “have become part of an exclusive group” (p. 46). The core function of leaderboards is “to publicly compare” (p. 53), the primary function of badges is “signaling status” (p. 56), and three of the twelve main “things people like” in games are status-related: “recognition for achievement”, “fame, getting attention”, and “gaining status” (p. 80).

It would be cheap to psychologize what this obsession with social status says about the author of the book. More important is that it again misleads readers with false pseudo-psychology. First off, it blinds Zichermann to the obvious: Why are people partaking in Frequent Flyer Programs? Because priority boarding and all the other instances of “standing in a shorter line for just about everything” is a desirable public display of social status, according to Zichermann (p. 8-9, 29). Forget about the actual big gains in value and experience that reduced waiting time and comfy lounges bring, especially welcome if you are a frequent flyer. Forget about the joy of mastering the intellectual puzzle game that is maximizing your mileage score.

Second, competition and the acquired social need for recognition do not appeal to everyone equally. There are dozens of the most hardcore empirical behavioral economics studies demonstrating this. Specifically, women tend to dislike competitive situations more than men – because men are (overall) notoriously overconfident in judging their chances at winning, and because men are much more myopic when it comes to the negative side effects of competitions for others.

Finally, Zichermann seriously underplays the conditions for something to afford meaningful social status: “Status benefits and rewards give players the ability to move ahead of others in a defined ranking system. Importantly, this ranking system need not be based on the real world at all—it works perfectly in a purely constructed environment.” (p. 10) No, it doesn’t. I couldn’t care less how I’m doing compared to my “friends” (read: imported facebook contacts) on GetGlue or any of the other dozen-or-so services I try out once then leave behind each month that have recently added badges or leaderboards. For something to convey meaningful, motivating social status, it better be (a) connected to something I already care about, (b) something that people care about whose opininion I care about, and (c) something that represents an actual personal achievement I’d be proud to communicate to said people, in a way that wouldn’t count as shameless bragging.

For example, I am a big board game fan, and being one is relevant to my identity. Therefore, I care about the opinion of other educated board game fans regarding my board game-related wits and knowledge. Thus, if my review of a recent board game submitted to Boardgamegeek.com is voted highest by other board game fans I consider knowledgeable, this means something to me – to the point that it might motivate me to write another review, put effort into it, and share a link to it among fellow board game fans (though I wouldn’t broadcast that into any social circle I also partake in that doesn’t care about board games). An “I just watched a video on this odd site” badge, on the other hand, doesn’t qualify for any of this, and I sure will not retweet it. Thus, “gamification” elements that appeal to social status are begging the question: Personal relevance and community are prerequisites for status indicators to work, not something you conjure into being by adding status indicators. I don’t start to care about French Cuisine or the opinion of Brazilians if I come across a Brazilian website for French cuisine that tells me I’m “three checkins away” from advancing on its leaderboard.

Again, this is not to say that the social needs of achievement and power are not important human motivations. I only want to call out that (a) ‘social status’ is but one of many human motivations, (b) its not at the core of what makes games compelling, (c) it doesn’t appeal to everyone equally, (d) status relevancy isn’t created out of thin air once you introduce some system of status indicators – at best, you can make explicit and amplify some personal relevancy that is already there, and (e) once you do so, there are many ways in which it can go wrong.

Exploitationware? You bet

Let’s move to the third part of Zichermann’s core model of “gamification”: Engaging users with virtual currency conveying social status is a cheap opportunity for businesses to take advantage of. The exploitive nature of this thinking is maybe best illustrated in a statement Zichermann first made in his November 2010 Google Tech Talk “Fun is the Future: Mastering Gamification“, repeated in the initial rough cut of Gamification by Design: “Uniquely, games are able to get people to take actions that are not always in their best interest, without the use of force, in a predictable way.” The final version of the book tones this down a bit: “Uniquely, games are able to get people to take actions that they don’t always know they want to take, without the use of force, in a predictable way.” (p. 15) Can you think of any “actions you don’t always know you want to take”? I cannot. But anyhow, the underlying sentiment remains the same, as the following sentence shows: “like games, sex has the unusual ability to make people do things that are not necessarily in their best long-term interest.”

Zichermann explicitly and repeatedly lauds loyalty programs and facebook games that dupe customers: “What S&H understood was that with the introduction of a virtual currency, people lose track of value. They can no longer identify how much those individual stamps are worth.” (p. 7) With any kind of tangible reward, “players tend to value the interaction accurately.” Yet “how do players value status, access, power, and stuff? They cannot accurately price those benefits, so—in general—they tend to overvalue them.” (p. 12). FarmVille‘s sliding real-to-virtual money conversion rates are smart because they “obfuscate convertibility for users”, creating “additional confusion by using complex fractions in conversion and uneven numbers on the converted unit.” (p. 43)

Indeed, ‘good’ gamified systems not only confuse and obfuscate – they also trick customers into believing something was their intention to begin with: “Our fundamental observation is that when something is designed well, it feels intrinsic to the player. He perceived that it was intrinsically driven whether or not it was (just as a good sales person can convince the buyer it was his idea to buy that set of encyclopedias in the first place).” (p. 28)

All this essentially translates into loyalty-for-cheap: “the price is almost always cheaper—and the reward stickier—than giving away free stuff.” (p. 12) The SAPS model ensures that the “cheapest” way of motivating users – status – is “conveniently” put first (p. 10). “If you don’t have a ton of cash to give away as an incentive (who does?), status is an excellent alternative. It is a great driver of loyalty, not to mention a player’s fiscal behavior (and, over time, you can bet it is a whole lot cheaper).” (p. 10) “The cost of producing customer loyalty has dropped precipitously. It used to be 10 cents on the dollar—buy 10 get 1 free. Now, for applications like FarmVille or Foursquare, costs are nearly zero.” (p. 9)

Zichermann also applauds online communities for their AOL ways of exploiting users by letting them do unpaid content policing work as sysadmins: “The best part is that these roles can serve as a reward for success within your game and be ‘awarded’ to players.” (p. 72) (On a side note, AOL recently settled the original 1999 class action suit with its community leaders suing them for such exploitation for US$ 15 mio.)

Zichermann summarizes his thoughts as follows: “no matter what the player thinks, the house will always win a well-designed game. Just as any honest casino manager will tell you, while the illusion of winning is vital to motivating use and play, actually winning is much harder than it seems.” Thus “you have a fundamental choice: either be the house, or get played.” (p. 13)

Health Month designer Buster Benson has rightfully called this line of reasoning out as a downward-spiral “gamification battlefield” where neither businesses nor customers can win because each side constantly tries to get the better of the other. I have called it the “abuse is not a value proposition” pitfall. It flies in the face of decades of user-centric product and experience design; lean startups, agile product and customer development; relationship marketing, “markets are conversations“, “marketing 3.0” (Philip Kotler) – and in general, any business practice which has realized that identifying and creating value in a continuous authentic relation with your customer is the only sustainable (and worthwhile) business model to be in today.

Chapter 2: Player Motivation

Simply put, this chapter is the single most wrongheaded piece of pseudo-knowledge and the most impudent case of uncredited copy-pasting I have seen in a very long time.

Sprinkled throughout the chapter (and supported by the downloadable “workbook” at GamificationU.com) are “design exercises”, the majority of which are taken straight from Amy Jo Kim’s 2010 gamification workshop. Now I am not a lawyer when it comes to the question whether this constitutes a breach of copyright. But its clearly a breach of any good practice of authorship and plain decency to do so and neither credit the original author nor ask for her consent (I checked with her). Judge for yourself:

Original: Kim
Copy: Zichermann
Original: Kim
Copy: Zichermann
Original: Kim
Copy: Zichermann
Copy: Zichermann
Original: Kim
Copy: Zichermann
Copy: Zichermann

Would you say that “We are also lucky to have been able to access and distill the insights of … Amy Jo Kim …”, hidden among a listing of ten other names in the “Acknowledgements” preface, counts as due credit for this?

Moving on, Zichermann begins with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” – the state of optimal experience –, reducing it to a “state between anxiety and boredom” where a person is “meeting his own motivational level in that experience” (whatever that means). Neither does Zichermann talk about the many other preconditions for flow outlined by Csikszentmihalyi, beyond matching skill and challenge – clear goals, clear immediate feedback, perceived self-efficacy, lack of distractions or outer threats, autonomy, and so on –, nor why and how they create an “optimal experience”, nor about the many conclusions to be drawn from that (and drawn by Csikszentmihalyi himself) for designing games and other experiences. Instead, Zichermann moves on to claim that reinforcement is “important in this process of guiding a player to master a system” (p. 17), to then discuss different reinforcement schedules from operant conditioning. What these have to do with flow remains unclear, since the humanistic-experiential approach of flow theory is plainly incompatible with behaviorism.

The next section, “Why People Play”, bullet-points four motivations for play without explanation what they entail or how they connect to gamification (mastery, destressing, fun, socializing), then quickly reduces a 2004 paper outlining Nicole Lazzaro’s “four keys to fun” into four further bullet points – cryptic in their brevity and long since obscolesced by more detailed and refined work of Lazzaro (freely available online) –, to end with retelling a story from Eric Berne’s 1965 book Games People Play, illustrating that we are all involved in everyday social interactions which can be understood as games – all this in the space of roughly one page. Confused by the incoherent side-by-side of competing concepts? Don’t worry. The remainder of the book doesn’t make use of them anyhow.

Instead, what the book introduces next and then uses repeatedly are the four player types of Multi-User Dungeons or MUDs (text-only predecessors of today’s MMORPGs like World of Warcraft), originally devised in a 1996 web article by game designer and researcher Richard Bartle. According to the initial version of the model, there are four types of MUD players, which can be classified using the two dimensions of people/world and acting/interacting:

  • Achievers are interested in acting on the world, that is, achieving game-related goals they set out for themselves, measured in levels reached, loot gathered, experience collected, etc.
  • Explorers want to interact with the world, that is, discovering how the virtual world of a game looks and works.
  • Socializers are interested in interacting with people; the game is only a pretext that allows them to do so.
  • Killers want to act on people; they enjoy imposing themselves on others, causing distress.

There are many, many things wrong with using this model to think about the users of non-game products, but here are the three main ones:

(1) It’s misunderstood. As Bartle himself recently complained, people misunderstand his model as ‘socializers want points for socializing with friends’ – whereas only ‘achievers’ care about points in the first place. Zichermann also falls into this trap: “Consider mapping your collection mechanics to the Bartle personality types described in earlier chapters to best align the collection design to your audience.” (p. 83)

(2) It’s obsolete. Richard Bartle deserves respect for being a pioneer and a sharp mind. However, his player types are essentially “one man’s theory based on his personal observation of one 1990s online forum debate”. There’s no solid empirical research behind it, but many other researchers have since called into question and superceded his model with better ones based on extensive quantitative and qualitative research.

(3) Its use beyond MUDs is silly to begin with. It’s a plain fallacy to assume that a model of motivations for playing MUDs should map onto anything but MUDs. That’s just like saying “Here’s the four types of people who like to drink milk – the sportsmen, the healthy eater, the Dutchmen and the baby –, so now we also know the four types of reasons why people go to the movies: Simply find out whether they are sportsmen, healthy eaters, Dutchmen, or babies, and then you know what type of milk to serve at your cinema to make them loyal, engaged cinema-goers.”

If you want to know what drives people to visit your site, there’s a bundle of methods called “user research” that’s been around for a couple of decades. (It usually involves actually talking with and listening to your users.) And if, during user research, you discover that your audience is motivated by something that games cater to as well, then that might be something worth looking into. But to presuppose that there is always value in categorizing users of a non-game product into a misunderstood, obsolete typology of Multi-User-Dungeon players is an exercise in plain voodoo. Also, I don’t know where Zichermann gets his numbers that “the vast majority of people—as much as 75%—are probably socializers… Explorers and achievers each make up about 10% of the population, and killers account for 5%” (p. 23). He gives no source, and I know of no study done on this.

The following section, “Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation”, displays in full how little the author knows of psychology. Zichermann begins by claiming that “Intrinsic motivations are those that derive from our core self and are not necessarily based on the world around us. Conversely, extrinsic motivations are driven mostly by the world around us, such as the desire to make money or win a spelling bee.” (p. 26)

This is just wrong. Intrinsic/extrinsic has nothing to do with “inside of me” versus “outside of me”. Rather, it refers to whether the motivation to do something is inherent in the activity itself, or whether we do something for a reason outside the activity. Intrinsically motivated are those activities we do for their own sake – dancing, cooking, playing, satisfying work, etc., whereas extrinsically motivated activities are those that we do for something else – to get paid, to avoid punishment or social pressure, to gain status, etc.

For instance, the “desire to win a spelling bee” can very well be intrinsic if you enjoy mastering spelling challenges – that is, if it satisfies your intrinsic need for experiences of competence and mastery, as already mentioned above. Zichermann also misrepresents this. The only time he actually explains (rather than merely uses) the term “mastery”, this is what he says: “One well-accepted theory is that players in any experience are seeking mastery. Why do people go to Weight Watchers meetings? It’s safe to assume it’s probably not for the free coffee, but rather to master their weight and health.” (p. 29) Attending a Weight Watchers meeting because you want to lose weight is an outer purpose, no pleasure inherent in the activity. Mastery would be if you would enjoy moderating the meeting – and getting better at it – for its own sake. Mastery would be if you discover and enjoy your growing ability to control and change your diet while doing so.

Similarly, Zichermann recommends making levels progressively more difficult, but is at a loss why one should do so – apart from the reason that mastering them againg conveys social status. Yet self-determination theory and flow theory would give him a ready answer: As people get better over time, things have to get more difficult to continue being interesting challenges that give rise to experiences of mastery if overcome (p. 47).

But Zichermann nowhere adresses these notions. Instead, he reduces Daniel Pink’s book Drive (which summarizes the research on intrinsic motivation for a business audience) to “cash is a weak reward for getting players to complete complex tasks”, to then falsely claim that “other extrinsic rewards can be astoundingly motivational … For example, long-term social status rewards can be particularly effective at nurturing creativity and play.” (p. 27) This is in flat contradiction to numerous psychological studies done by researchers such Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile, referenced by Pink, which demonstrate just the contrary. For instance, merely prompting an artist to think about the fame and reputation to be gained by his writing instead of the inherent enjoyment of it subsequently leads to less creative, lower quality writing.

In the same vein, Zichermann completely misrepresents the research on the “hidden costs of extrinsic rewards”: Dozens of empirical studies and several meta-reviews have conclusively shown that offering an expected tangible extrinsic reward (not necessarily monetary) for an activity diminishes intrinsic motivation to engage in that activity. Zichermann translates this into the following: If a child plays piano for the inherent joy of doing so, then “begins to win competitions, then subsequently loses, she will stop playing piano. That is, extrinsic rewards crush intrinsic motivation, which never returns.” (p. 27)

Again, this is false. Expected tangible extrinsic rewards tend to diminish intrinsic motivation since they are perceived as controlling. That is, your parents telling you “if you play this piece without errors, then you will get the dessert you like so much” thwarts your experience of autonomy in the activity – another core component of intrinsic motivation –, and that is what makes it less motivating. Losing at a competition does not reduce intrinsic motivation – feeling controlled by others is. Also, no study shows that this is a fatal ‘once lost, gone forever’ effect. It’s just convenient for Zichermann to say so because it allows him to argue that gamification (in the sense of giving rewards) is inevitable: “once you start giving someone a reward, you have to keep her in that reward loop forever” (p. 27).

This complete misunderstanding/misrepresentation allows Zichermann to contrast three “Old Beliefs” (old in comparison to what, defined by whom, in light of what new research, he does not say) with his own “new beliefs”:

1. “Intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic rewards.” (p. 28) No researcher on intrinsic motivation to my knowledge says that extrinsic rewards are always and unilaterally bad and to be avoided. In fact, in Drive, Dan Pink devotes a whole chapter to this, summarizing the research into a handy flowchart for business people to determine the circumstances under which they are appropriate to use – unmissable if you actually read the book.

Furthermore, Zichermann claims that caring about intrinsic motivation equals ‘hoping-and-praying’ that persons change from within, whereas using extrinsic rewards means taking on the responsibility to actually change things. Again, this is false: Researchers of intrinsic motivation have meticulously laid out the many ways in which schools, workplaces etc. can be changed to facilitate intrinsic motivation, and how tasks can be restructured to be more inherently enjoyable (see the papers collected here). It confuses intention (“I plan to do X”) with intrinsic motivation (“I enjoy doing X”).

2. “Intrinsic motivators create greatness, while extrinsic motivators are nothing more than pellets dropped for rats in a cage.” (p. 28) Against this stands the “new belief … that we are helping people, to some extent, reach a higher potential — and to discover things about themselves that they didn’t already know.” Again, creating a careful scaffolding of first experiences of success to build confidence in one’s personal capacity, and discover that one actually enjoys exercise (the example Zichermann gives) is just what researchers on intrinsic motivation recommend.

3. “The best designs are intrinsic: take, for instance, Priority Boarding.” (p. 29) What priority boarding has to do with intrinsic motivation? Here’s the explanation: “Today, the red-carpet boarding design feels normal. In fact, it feels intrinsic, like it’s always been there.” I know of nobody holding this ridiculous “old belief” because I know of nobody who confuses something being perceived as “normal” with something being inherently enjoyable – nobody except the author of this book, apparently. This is a beautiful if badly executed attempt of ‘some critics say’ sock puppetry.

Chapter 3 & 4: Game Mechanics: Designing for Engagement

These chapters begin with introducing Marc LeBlanc’s Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework for game design, to then discuss points, levels, leaderboards, badges, onboarding, challenges, “social engagement loops” and customization as “core game mechanics”.

Why the MDA framework is presented – apart from the fact that it features prominently in Amy Jo Kim’s gamification presentations – is unclear, because it is both misunderstood and not used. “Mechanics”, to quote LeBlanc, stand for “the various actions, behaviors and control mechanisms afforded to the player within a game context”, like betting or drawing a card in Poker. Dynamics is the run-time behavior of inputs and outputs between player and game, whereas aesthetics denotes emotional responses evoked by those dynamics. The relation between mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics is far from predictable or deterministic. There’s a probability that certain mechanics will lead to certain dynamics which might give rise to certain experiences in the player, but that is all.

Contrarily (and conveniently), Zichermann claims that mechanics “allow a designer ultimate control over the levers of the game, giving her the ability to guide player actions” (p. 36). Also, points, levels, badges, challenges, onboarding and engagement loops are not game mechanics. They are interface elements used to provide feedback to the user, or components of a game’s design, not game mechanics. Finally, aesthetics are never discussed in the book, and although the word “dynamics” is reintroduced at the beginning of chapter 5, what gets discussed there are ‘mechanics’ (more or less) and things people like about games.

The discussion of points, levels, leaderboards and badges is unexciting apart from the fact that (a) large chunks of the content are taken without credit from Amy Jo Kim’s gamification presentations, and (b) despite frequent claims to the contrary (“gamification is not merely about slapping some badges on your website”, p. xviii), when it comes down to it, the author displays his inability to think beyond points, badges, and leaderboards. The most valuable bit to be gained from this chapter is the suggestion to use relative scores of a person’s progress rather than absolute ones when doing public comparison leaderboards of people with vastly different starting values.

The section on onboarding discusses nothing game-specific or new to the user experience design community (hint: use progressive disclosure, facilitate immediate use and investment, defer sign-up, and gather implicit input to instantly personalize the experience).

Challenges and quests are presented as ‘always give your user specific instructions on something to do next’ (p. 64), which misses the crucial component that those things should be interesting (as in novel), meaningful (as in relevant to the user’s goals and values), and most of all, well, challenging (as in neither boring nor frustratingly hard).

“Social engagement loops” again manages to both rip-without-credit and misrepresent a model introduced by Amy Jo Kim in her 2010 gamification workshop (slide 140). According to the model, a social call to action (e.g. a button, link, email, etc. inviting you to do something) gets you to re-engage with a system (click that button), which responds with some visible progress or reward, which gives rise to a motivating emotion that makes it more likely that you act on the next call-to-action. Zichermann misunderstands the model because he gets the order of re-engagement and call to action wrong, thus making nonsensical statements such as ‘seeing an @mention of yourself on twitter constitutes an act of re-engagement’ (rather than a call to action), and vice versa (p. 68).

The section on customization shows the author’s puzzlement on human motivation beyond rewards and status: “Most designers believe that customization is a powerful tool for inciting commitment and engagement”, but why that is, he is unable to say (p. 71), so recommends not to overwhelm users with options and offer customization as a cheap “way to redeem currency without hard-dollar cost”.

The final sections discuss gaming the system (the advice being ‘police and don’t overthink’), agile development (start with a point system, then iterate and refine), Foursquare (it solved the problem of a social network without people by offering an interesting standalone experience with game elements), and dashboards (it’s good to monitor what your users are doing). It doesn’t get much more detailed than that.

Chapter 5: Game Mechanics and Dynamics in Greater Depth

This chapter essentially excerpts (this time surprisingly with credit) the section “42 Things That Customers Think Are Fun” from Jon Radoff’s book Game On into a table of 12 “Things People Like”, even copying Radoff’s idea to roll a dice on the table to get a random inspiration. It remains unclear, however, how rolling “a normal pair of dice” (i.e. six-sided dice?), as suggested by Zichermann, would ever result in a “1” on a table numbered 1-12, let alone a uniform random distribution of results. Maybe he should have asked a game designer.

Apart from such minor glitches, the chapter again piles on dangerous half-knowledge. It mixes up heroism with reciprocity, confuses nurturing and loss aversion (“points that expire” appealing to the latter, not the former), and so on. Markedly, it claims that “collecting is one of the most powerful instincts among humans”, yet “few rigorous studies have been done to identify the motivations behind collection”, wherefore it refers to “James Halpern, the noted futurist, author, and auctioneer” (p. 83). Disregarding that this disregards the sizeable body of existing research on collecting, and that “instincts” have fallen in disregard in psychology, what Zichermann copies verbatim (but fails to flag as a verbatim quote) is a bullet point list from a singular 700 word blog post by James L. Halperin on the website of Heritage Auctioneeers.

Chapter 6: Gamification Case Studies

Nike+, Yahoo! Answers, Quora and Health Month are presented mostly descriptively as case studies – do not expect stats, background, or insight into the design process. Indeed, it is sad that the chapter neither takes note of nor references the excellent, extensive public documentation by Randy Farmer, Bryce Glass and others on some of the design process behind Yahoo! Answers. (On this note, if you’re at all interested in  anything remotely points- or leaderboards-like, you owe it to yourself to read the excellent, in-depth 2010 book Building Web Reputation Systems, freely available online as a wiki plus blog, and to take Randy Farmer’s advice to heart that “if your incentive system is your users’ only incentive, you’re screwed”.) The most instructive piece here is a box insert on gaming the system in Health Month.

Finally, the section on Quora is an unintentionally good case of another endemic issue of the book: Quora allows users to vote answers up and down, flag them, and suggest edits, with answers being ranked in the order of votes, rather than chronologically. In addition, Quora only displays comment threads underneath answers after clicking a respective link under the answer. And Quora discourages question duplicates with an auto-suggest of already-asked questions upon entry of a new question. All of these interaction design details are presented and discussed as “game mechanics”, although it remains perfectly unclear what precisely makes them “gamy”. Arguably, game designers would only recognize “voting” as a game mechanic – if and only if distributing scarce votes would be an interesting choice to be made to approach a game goal. Otherwise, it is an interaction design pattern no less universal and non-“gamy” than any other discussed.

Chapter 7 and 8: Tutorials

The last two chapters fill up the remaining 58 pages with two code snippet- and screenshot-filled tutorials walking the reader through setting up a home-made Ruby-on-Rails points-badges-leaderboards-profile package, as well as a chapter on implementing the same using the gamification SaaS platform Badgeville, sponsored (sic) by Badgeville. These chapters are instructive only inasmuch as they confirm that in the end, “gamification” as presented in this book does boil down to points, badges, and leaderboards, and to mistaking the motivational pull of video games for rewards, quote: “The overarching premise is simple: you define the important interactions on your site, and then reward players when they participate or compete to perform those actions.” (p. 142)


Just to make sure: The preceding paragraphs did not intend to argue against drawing inspiration and learnings from game design for other products, services, or marketing efforts. As I have repeatedly stated, I do believe that there is value in that, if done well. I also believe that there is potential in building serious games or big games, and that there may well be instances where making your product playful (or even gameful) is the best or even the most cost-benefit efficient solution to a design problem or business need.

But Gamification by Design will not help you find out whether that is the case for you or not, nor what to do next. For although the book carries the word “design” in its title, the issue of design is constantly ducked. For instance, the book advises the reader that due to the prevalence of “socializers” among users, “one of the most common needs is to combine game mechanics with social interactions”. How to do that? Well, the book suggests to “consider how to make each mechanic more social.” (p. 79) Aha. And how to choose the right mechanics for your product? Well, throw two dice on a table. And if the result doesn’t fit, “leverage that creative dissonance to your benefit and try to come up with a truly interesting way to work that idea into your experience.” (p. 79) Beyond that, the only ‘design’ recommendation of the book is “testing loops” (p. 73).

Now there’s nothing to be said against marrying analytics and design, if done well. But where is a coherent framework of design goals and components? Where are the design principles and patterns? Where are the methods, the deliverables, where is the process – apart from the exercise slides largely nicked from Amy Jo Kim, sufficient for a one-day introductory workshop, but certainly not for a full design? Where is the acknowledgement that design remains a risky open process, necessarily involving intution, creativity, craft – the stuff so vital yet bound up in the body and mind of a good experienced designer, impossible to put in a “workbook” or turn-key technology solution?

There are numerous books both old and recent that provide better guidance on the design of leaderboards and point systems, and on design that motivates, engages, and seduces, like the aforementioned Building Web Reputation Systems, the excellent Designing Social Interfaces (both from O’Reilly), Joshua Porter’s Designing for the Social Web, or Stephen Anderson’s recent Seductive Interaction Design. I advise any person interested in “gamification” to take a look there, since Gamification by Design itself – a final annoying quality – goes out of its way to evade any referencing (god forbid linking!) to material by other authors beyond some book titles, even if that material is explicitly used or mentioned, even if it lives freely available online. Instead, the discerning reader is informed of the existence of GamificationU.com by no less than 17 “notes” (read: adverts) of the following kind:

One has to admire the chutzpah to have this actually printed as a book – and to lament that a respectable publishing house like O’Reilly somehow got cajoled into it. It is all the more saddening since the books’ exploitive philosophy and unashamed self-promotion fly in the face of O’Reilly’s own motto “create more value than you capture“, and his strong stance against the “degradation of the web” that is self-linking.

So what remains in the end? A hundred-or-so pages of other peoples’ ideas hastily copied together, incoherent, often contradictory, and riddled with errors (as happens in hasty copying); lacking due credit to an extent that borders on plagiarism; mixed with claims that are boasting, unfounded, false, even positively dangerous; misunderstanding games and their appeal; promoting a flawed and unsustainable “loyalty-for-cheap” philosophy; artificially pumped up with a long advert (read: sponsored tutorial), and littered with further ego-adverts to go and visit GamificationU.com, “The #1 expert resource online for gamification best practices and methodologies.”

Indeed, please do go there and have a look yourself, because the site says more than the above words ever could about the nature and quality of the thinking presented in Gamification by Design:

The first GamificationU "challenge": Fill out this web form so that we can spam you

GamificationU challenge result screen

You see, just calling a web form a “challenge” doesn’t make it a fun, interesting challenge. Neither does urging users to follow you on twitter with a promise to “unlock awesome videos”. For something to be a fun, interesting challenge, it has to be, you know, interesting. And fun. And a challenge. Like the ones you might find in a well-designed video game.

When game scholar and designer Ian Bogost recently stated at the Wharton Gamification Symposium that “gamification is bullshit“, Zichermann challenged Bogost to point out specific cases and provide evidence. With the publication of Gamification By Design, Zichermann has kindly relieved Bogost from that task. For he has proven perfectly capable of doing it himself.

72 thoughts on “A Quick Buck by Copy and Paste

  1. (Aaaaaaand just like that, the word “challenge” lands on the tragic list of Words Wrecked by Gamification Gurus.)

    Thank-you Sebastian, for taking the time to research and link to so many wonderful, useful resources. The issues are complex, subtle, and deeply important in the areas that matter most for sustainability of everything from education to start-ups to the planet itself.

  2. Thanks for writing this review and settling the question of whether there was any reason at all for me to get the book.

  3. Many thanks for posting this and including all the citations that Zichermann apparently forgot. On a personal note I’m beginning the second year of my graduate studies, and have found this article inspirational. Thanks again for posting it, I expect to reference it several times in the future. I have my literature review cut out for me.

  4. Just wanted to add that while some have questioned whether the book itself “deserves” this level of criticism, I think the world’s leading “expert” and official spokesperson for any field should expect to be held to a much higher standard than just “someone who wrote a book on topic x”. Gabe’s own official bio labels him not as simply “an” expert or thought leader in this domain, but THE leader. He describes hs work as based entirely on science, so it seems reasonable to expect scientific backing, beyond vendor surveys and anecdotal “engagement went through the roof” as evidence.

    And while we are questioning the validity of the book’s claims, I would consider this as a data point: nowhere does the author appear to actually *use* what he describes in the book as a formula for creating engagement. The engagement levels on his own websites are quite low, the gamification campaign introduced for his book on O’Reilly’s Facebook page generated about four retweets and a handful of “likes”, and his previous book sales were also low. In the tech industry, we are constantly challenged to “eat our own dog food”, and I am extremely skeptical of anyone selling a solution they themselves seem completely unable to actually implement to produce meaningful engagement.

  5. This is an excellent review which demonstrates the scholarship that is so sadly absent from the book. Gamification has the potential to be a useful tool, but only if it is approached with intellectual honesty and clear linkages to both research and researchers working in the field. It is a shame that so much of that is missing in this book. Thanks for the review

  6. What I love about Sebastian’s work is that he doesn’t proclaim expertise – he demonstrates it. And impeccably well too. He is consitantly the strong voice of reason in amongst the hype and noise to surround gamification. Major hat tips in your direction.

  7. Brilliant analysis – an expert example of how to present educated, well-supported arguments! Could you write a book please – I would buy it. Many thanks for including so many useful links and references to books and research papers.

  8. Sebastian,

    Thanks for such a thorough review, I’m working through Gabe’s book myself.  I’m still going to give it a fair shake, but I have what might be an interesting perspective…

    I saw both Gabe’s and Buster’s presentations at the Web 2.0 conference in SF this year.  As one of the few higher-ed folks in attendance, it was interesting to note the differences in audience size and composition.  Gabe’s presentation was in a bigger room and had loads of marketing folks in attendance, and his presentation clearly resonated with a lot of them.  His style is engaging and he sprinkles in just enough references to make it sound like it’s all backed up by hard science.  Gamification is the new hotness for some (lazy?) marketers;  Gabe is quite clearly selling to this audience.  I walked away from his presentation with a nagging feeling I couldn’t exactly define at the time, but I knew I’d felt it before.  Tim O’Reilly hit the nail on the head when he talked about how the term “Web 2.0” got hijacked by marketers…gamification as a term has been similarly hijacked.

    In contrast, Buster Benson’s presentation was understated, and there were fewer people in attendance.  He provided a balanced, hype-free overview of gamification, and how it can be used for good or evil…very meaty stuff.  I was impressed and afterwards commented to him that Gabe’s presentation had flash, but his had substance.  Perhaps not the fairest thing in the world to say about Gabe (he IS raising awareness of the concept, after all), but it was an accurate reflection of how I felt.  Despite the hype, I believe gamification – both the term and the practice – has value.

    So why do I care about this?

    For the last few years, I’ve been struggling with how to better engage students in higher ed using game-like constructs in what are otherwise rather dull administrative web applications.  My team has talked a lot about, and even built some activities that are (VERY) superficially game-like.  What we’ve done excites my colleagues and provides a jumping-off point for further conversation and development, but it’s FAR from anything approaching a coherent game-like or (dare I say it?) gamified system.  I MAY be one of the youngest senior administrators in my institution, and I MAY have grown up playing Pong and an Atari 2600 (and have a PS3, XBox, Wii, etc…), and I MAY build web applications, and I MAY have read books on motivation, but that does NOT qualify me as an expert in the application of game concepts to web applications.  The good news is that all my colleagues realize that there’s something to all this…gamification may contain a kernel of usefulness for what we’re doing.

    Everyone knows that big change is coming to education.  I believe that many concepts from gaming will play a role in this, especially as applied to web and mobile applications.  This conversation provides great perspective, and has prompted me to take a deeper dive into the topic.  Thanks again for your work.

  9. As someone with no dog in this hunt, but a strong interest in the application of game dynamics in non-game contexts:

    Mr. Deterding’s criticisms here remind me of the aphorism about the scale of academic political intrigues being inversely correlated with what’s at stake. Ok, so Zichermann wrote a book for a more generalist audience, designed to bring people into the fold… so, he didn’t answer every jot and tittle of theory… that’s hardly the point of his book.
    This is exactly the kind of tempest-in-a-teacup review, full of personal vitriol, that I would expect from a grad student. It’s purpose seems less to prove Zichermanm wrong, or to improve the thinking, than to prove that, nahnahbooboo, Deterding is smarter than you you. It smacks of someone in a self-important academic clique desperately seeking to hold on to their self-appointed role. That, more than anything else, is what seems to underwrite his horrible verbal diarrhea — he just goes ON and ON and ON… 

    So, where does this torrent of self-importance lead us? Sure, there are many motivations for why people play games. Some are the ones Zichermann wrote about. There are some others, too. Ok. Gotcha. Some of these motivations can be ‘monetized’, others cannot. Ok. Gotcha again. Some advice: next time say it in 3 paragraphs of tight prose, in a respectful tone, and you might advance the discussion.

    1. Did you read the same article as the rest of us?  Nearly the entire content of the post was used to prove Zichermanm wrong and links to reels of research to improve the thinking on this subject.  Are you related to Zichermanm or work for him or just didn’t read the article?

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  11. i wrote my thesis about Gamification-concepts and made a phoneGap-Prototype. (Used the six Ds of Werbach – but not only 😉 )… Werbach recommended in his online-courses Zicherman’ s Book- This Book made me mad when i tried to write about mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics… my Boss was very upset becouse of this regression…

    Thank God i found an article of Michael Herzig at the magazine iX where he mentioned that there is no way to classify them propper at the moment…

    thanks for this book review… you helped me very much… i mentioned this site and of course you too in my thesis

  12. […] Gabe en replaçant  les limites de recettes trop simplistes. Ils ont polémiqué ensemble là et là de façon transparente, et c’est tout à leur honneur étant donné l’importance de leurs […].

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