Gamification by Design: Response to O’Reilly

In response to my review of Gabe Zichermann’s book Gamification by Design, Tim O’Reilly has posted a reaction on Google+. The upshot of his reaction is puzzlement at the amount of “scorn” and “vitriol” aimed at the book, given that “there is a there there” with gamification, and a kind, understanding attempt at explaining my strong reaction to himself: He wondered whether my review was driven by the same kind of disappointment he felt at the way the term “Web 2.0” was “hijacked by marketers to mean something far more shallow, far less interesting” (please read his response in full).

To better understand why I wrote the review in the way I did, and to address some of the issues raised in the comments to O’Reilly’s post, I thought it helpful to provide some context in return, and wrote a response in the comments, which I repost here:

1. Foursquare/”There is a there there” with gamification.

Yes, there definitely is. Foursquare initially worked for me as well, Health Month is working for me. As I stressed in the conclusion and anywhere I speak on the topic, one should distinguish between the idea and its implementations, and I do see potential in the idea of using game design outside of games. Also, there are people and companies in the space that I highly respect and are doing good work, and implementations I consider successful.

I usually painfully try to avoid naming names and pinpointing individual people because that is often taken as ad hominem even if aimed at the argument, not the person – which only stirs unnecessary emotion counterproductive to reasoned debate.

But I found it increasingly hard to speak up for that potential without implicitly also endorsing – or being instrumentalized as support for – the claims, practices and purposes of some people connected to the word “gamification” that I disagree with, since they are currently in the majority, at least when it comes to public perception. There is a politics and rhetorics to merely using the term, as Ian Bogost has pointed out in his critiques.

So to be able to speak up for the potential in “gamification” without furthering the ends of those I disagree with, I saw no other way but to single them out, Gabe Zichermann in specific. The review is targeted specifically and exclusively at the claims made by Gabe Zichermann in his book, not at the idea of “gamification” at large.

2. Vitriol and scorn.

Throughout the review, I have carefully tried to remain concrete and argumentative, founding each claim with specific references and quotes from the book and specific pointers to evidence. The review is detailed – to the point of being repetitive – not out of snide or a desire to rant, but because the book represents the best summative account of Gabe’s statements (thus allowing a summative response), and because the best way to provide evidence for some of its issues was to point these out whereever they occured. Details are telling. If you already make a mistake in something as simple as how to throw dice to get a random selection from a table, I think that qualifies your ability to ‘distill the best insights of game design for business’, and I think readers benefit from being made aware of it.

There may be one sentence where I overstepped the line to becoming personal (“It would be cheap to psychologize about …”), and for that I apologize. As for the rest of my statements, I stand behind them.

3. Reasons for my review.

I have no issue with my ‘work’ being hijacked or bastardized. What little I have put out in the world as thoughts on the topic has by-and-large not been incorporated by Gabe, and where I have seen it being incorporated by others, I was happy and humbled to find I produced something of apparent value to others. My reasons were:

a. If you invoke science, you better get your science right.

If someone with public impact makes a false claim and purports it’s backed up by science, I understand it as the responsibility of researchers to call that out in public as well, so that the public may make more informed decisions. Gabe Zichermann’s book and public communications contain many such false statements, purporting to be scientifically founded.

I get many emails from students currently writing their MA or BA theses on gamification asking me for an “expert interview”. And in the course of those interviews, they refer to Zichermann’s statements as if they were the publically accepted, received wisdom on the issue – because so little has been published by other people using the word “gamification” in the title, and because these students usually come from fields where they don’t get in contact with the existing research on motivational psychology or games. Without a public challenge to his statements, I see the danger of them becoming entrenched, and many students wasting their time and intellect in that course.

b. Burning people and money …

Like other people, I see another danger that the kinds of implementations that flow from Gabe Zichermann’s recommendations create transient-but-unsustained novelty effects of engagement for first movers, little to no effects for late comers (as the novelty has worn off), and many unintended side effects. Combine that with promises of “unprecedented” effects, and businesses might spend their always scarce resources on something with little to negative effect and get disappointed.

I am even more concerned that Gabe Zichermann’s statements – as a publically unchallenged ‘thought leader in gamification’, combined with the luster of ‘innovation’ the term has acquired, and the reputation of O’Reilly as a publisher – may lead to public investments in implementations where research has shown that they tend to be positively harmful – specifically in the field of education. I am all for private and public institutions assigning some resources to exploring the use of game design beyond games. What I’m against is for them to do so guided by false claims rather than existing research and practice.

c. … and burning the field in the course.

I already see many game designers, game researchers, learning scientists, media psychologists etc. instantly repelled by “gamification” because of the way it has been captured by the superficial and flawed framing of Gabe Zichermann and others. Intelligent people who would have much to contribute to realize the potential of game design beyond games see no point in ‘wasting’ their time and energy on something they perceive as a mere ‘marketing fraud’.

Finally, I fear that the disappointment created by flawed implementations and overselling promises will make it that much harder to convince people and institutions thus ‘burned’ to explore the actual potential afterwards. But I’m happy to concur that this fear might be due to my lacking experience in riding out (and accepting) a hype curve with its necessary ups and downs, good and bad.

4. Rewards.

One recurring counter-argument to my review was that “rewards” are essential to games – for instance, that receiving points for words in the game of Scrabble is a core component of that game.

Indeed, games are full of points, scores, tokens, and so on, and digital games are full of virtual currency and items that players can gain in the course of play. My point is that the “fun”, the pleasure of these elements does not come from some extrinsic reward value of those elements, but chiefly from the experience of competence they give rise to.

This is a subtle but important issue, and Scrabble is a good example to clarify it. The goal of the game is to score the most points; thus scorekeeping is an essential part of it. The points you get for laying out a word are a part of tracking the current state of the game (who stands where?); also, they provide players with immediate and long-term goals for the game session, and means to judge different choices (try to maximize points in this move, as well as in future terms, e.g. by saving up letters for an even better move); finally, they provide feedback on how well a move a player has just made.

Now, where does the fun, pleasure, enjoyment come from in laying a word that scores a lot of points? The answer, according to the existing psychological theories and empirical studies on the subject, is not ‘because the points are a reward’. They have no direct nor indirect rewarding value: They are not immediately pleasurable like food or a good backrub; neither do they have any exchange value (like a monetary reward) you could transfer into some other, immediate satisfaction. They’re just a number jotted down on a piece of paper. The pleasure comes from your realization (at the moment you count the points together) that you did a very good move, that you mastered a challenge in the game of Scrabble. The fact that the feedback (points) gives rise to that realization can lead to the misattribution that it’s the points themselves that create the fun, not the overcome challenge.

Here’s a simple thought experiment to demonstrate this: If the fun, enjoyment, pleasure came from the points themselves (their reward value), then (a) more points should, everything else being equal, also mean more fun, and (b) it should be irrelevant for that fun if you had to overcome some challenge to get those points or not.

Imagine we would redefine the rules of Scrabble so that each word combination counts ten times as many points as it would normally – just add a “0” at the end of each score. Would the game be ten times more fun? Even two times? No. Contrarily, if in a regular game of Scrabble you would be able to lay out an incredibly complicated word which required both very big luck and very smart thinking, and it would therefore score ten times the points you would usually make with a single move, would that be ten times (or two times) more enjoyable for you than a usual move? It would.

Now you might say it’s the relative value of the points that makes the fun. So imagine we would redefine the rules so that each word combination you make counts ten times as many points as it would normally, whereas the points of the other players are calculated regularly. Would your laying the same word combination be ten times more fun in this constellation as it would in a regular game? No – likely it would be neither fun for you nor for the other players. You would feel there’s ‘no challenge’ in winning the game, the others would find it ‘impossibly hard’, and all of you would agree that it’s not fun because ‘it’s not fair’.

Finally, imagine during the course of the game, the other players would agree to give you 100 points ‘just so’, for nothing. Would that be fun? Enjoyable? Pleasurable? No. There’s no fun in points without a mastered challenge behind them. Yet if I would give you 100 Mars bars to eat or 100$ to spend, ‘just so’, would that be a nice experience? Very likely. Would it be fun, the kind of fun that laying a smart word combination in Scrabble gives you? Again, no.

Maybe, if you had fallen behind in the game so much that you would have no chance of winning anymore, but the game would likely continue for another 30 minutes, to make the experience more pleasurable for everyone involved, the players collectively decide to give you a little point bump; thus, the players restore a fair chance of winning for you, and with that, both your engagement in the game (you still have a chance to win) and an engaging tension for everyone else (they might still be beaten by you). That would be a pleasant experience as well. Not fun like making a good move, more composed of a sense of community, gratitude and grace – but still not the kind of experience you would get from being given a chocolate bar or some money.

The same holds for video games like World of Warcraft that deal out a lot of virtual gold and ‘loot’ in response to player activities. Imagine I gave you a cheat code such that you could immediately unlock an endless amount of gold and all epic loot there is to equip your character with. If the fun were in the reward value of those items, then that should be the funnest moment in playing the game. But I think you will agree that it wouldn’t. And I think you will agree that it also wouldn’t convey any social status in the player community, if they knew you hadn’t acquired all that stuff through skill and determined time investment. (Just check any player forum for discussions on goldfarming and virtual item selling).

I don’t say there aren’t other fun things in games as well. I also don’t say that extrinsic rewards are ineffective, or that you shouldn’t use them. I only want to point out that it’s a grave misrepresentation to paint them as “the core psychology of what makes games engaging”.

Update, September 19, 2011: Vili Lehdonvirta pointed out an important qualification to my last paragraph: Virtual items in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft do have both a utility and an exchange value: Winning and equipping a stronger sword in WoW bumps your stats, which makes it likelier that you beat the next monster crossing your way. I am undecided whether this represents a true utility value (apart from professional goldfarmers, see below), since the only utility there is to overcome even harder unnecessary obstacles. Maybe if you frame the utility as ‘allows access to more entertaining gameplay’. Otherwise, I see his point as concurring with mine: Understood from a Self-Determination-Theory perspective (and supported by some empirical research), the enjoyment of the stronger sword comes from it supporting my ability to satify my need for competence. In that sense, the enjoyment of ‘useful’ loot is again tied to competence.

However, because these items are artificially scarce and require sometimes serious investments of time and effort to acquire, there is a big real-money market for virtual items as well – so they also have an exchange value. In fact, as Vili’s own research shows (I recommend you read it: slides, PDF), there are many reasons why people buy such virtual items beyond the improved game statistics they provide. I would argue, however, that this monetary/exchange value only becomes a relevant motivator when you’re not ‘in it for the fun’ anymore, but for professional, instrumental reasons, like goldfarming.

14 thoughts on “Gamification by Design: Response to O’Reilly

  1. Your thought experiment about the motivational impact of other players deciding to give one player a 100-point bump is spot on.

    Although focused on another dimension of the tension between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, I was reminded of one of Yochai Benkler’s motivational thought experiment in The Wealth of Networks. In a section on motivation, he notes that “If you leave a fifty-dollar check on the table at the end of a dinner
    party at a friend’s house, you do not increase the probability that you
    will be invited again.”

    Applying this notion of “crowding out” to the thought experiment you describe here, I was thinking how being able to buy a vowel (or consonant) in Scrabble would, in my opinion, significantly dilute the fun.

  2. Hi Sebastian,

    I really enjoyed your original review of GBD, and I learned something from it. In my view, anyone who takes the time to make a detailed reading all the way thru such a book deserves credit for charity. I’m glad you spent the additional time to present alternatives and link to concrete examples, not only of what Gabe missed or didn’t understand, but how he could make it better. The only criticism I have, to some extent, is the tone you adopted. I thought you could have done more to sympathize with Gabe, who I’m sure is doing the best he can. Did you make an honest effort to see the world through his eyes? You weren’t born in Zaire, were you?

    That said, I enjoyed the almost clinical approach of your critique, demonstrating how Gabe’s misunderstanding of principles of motivation and game design could be understood as representing deeper personality traits in the author. This needs to be done with genuine empathy, but I don’t believe art is removed from life, and one of the underlying themes of this discussion is how art/games connect to/reflect actual life. There could have been more genuine empathy, but hopefully Mr. Zichermann now has some of the tools he needs to make the life changes necessary to write better books and have more imagination, if he so desires.

    1. Dear Big Blue Bubba,

      your points are well-taken. My review was not aimed at Gabe personally – he is an incredibly charming, kind, fun-to-be-around person, as anyone who has met him will testify. It is aimed at what he says, and as I said, if it did get personal at one point or was perceived as such, I apologize for that. I have tried to see the world through his eyes in teasing out what I perceived as the coherent mental model behind his different publications, and address that model.

      However, because I know that many people have made honest attempts to point out the issues in his arguments, including myself – especially as regards intrinsic motivation –, I did not see why I shouldn’t be insistent and unrelenting on those points.

  3. Your pointer to Benkler opens another – though, as you said, different – important issue. Namely, the issue of social norms and contextual appropriateness. It’s not appropriate to pay friends for a nice dinner because there is a social convention that says hospitality (among friends and strangers) is not a commercial relation, but a reciprocal one: It would be perfectly appropriate to bring a $50 wine bottle as well, because with that you contributed to the shared event and reciprocated ‘in kind’.

    Buying a vowel could be an interesting addition – if the initial convention was set up that you play for monay (as in e.g. Poker), and that people have a predefined pot of money they may use to buy vowels. Then it becomes a fair game again, because deciding whether to buy a vowel or not would be a game move equally open to all players.

  4. Sebastian, as I have just said elsewhere, I consider your review of Gabe’s latest book “just great” because it is a fine summary of what is wrong with the use of the term gamification and many applications (and attempts to apply) game mechanics outside of games. 

    I am not surprised, that Tim O’Reilly reacted as he did, though 🙂 And, to be honest, when I followed your link and read his comments, I found them rather mild and understanding. He did not even target the words “scorn” and “vitriol” against your review, if my understanding of his words isn’t completely wrong, but used them in the general direction of Gabe’ critics.

    I have to admit that I found your review atypically (for you) angry, too. You took great care to keep your points substantial and you explained your critique in great detail, of course. It was not an emotional text (like Ian Bogust would probably have written it :), but there was a rather angry undertone. I am not sure, if I would call that “scornful” or “vitriolic” – my mastery of the English language does not qualify me for a judgement on this question – but I am not surprised that others used these words. I would phrase it more like “your anger showed through” 🙂 But that’s not necessarily a fault in a book review. Additionally, you explained the reason for your anger in detail, too – in the original review and in this additional post.

    1. Hi Markus. I agree: O’Reilly was kind and absolutely reasoned – I don’t disagree with anything he said one bit. Precisely because the core of his response was an honest desire to *understand why* I reacted so ‘strongly’ as I did – at least as I read it –, I thought it helpful to provide the reasons why, as you said.

  5. This entire discussion is very insightful and educative – thanks a lot. Much more than a review of a better-written book. It reminds me of a thought I had about ‘bad teachers’, who can more or less force students to think about learning, to think for themselves.

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