Jared E. Bendis

The Dark Side of Gamification – A Response

I was sent the article The Dark Side of Gamification by Ryan Tracey.  It is a good read – and while it asks interesting questions – I think the causal arguments are inherently flawed.

The article started with an example of the gamification of the chopping of a cucumber and how in this example the scoring and accuracy irked the author and was in his opinion a step too far.  What I find funny is that his “opinion”, while valid, is just that – an opinion.  Which means I agree that for HIM the accuracy of slicing cucumbers is silly but for others it might not be so.

He breaks his argument down into 5 points.

1. Life is not a game.

Yes – yes it is.  I just had my annual review where they both scored me and gave me a percentage raise.  Why do both?  Simple – because the badging of the score helps take the sting out of the financial percentage.  It also helps to abstract and create achievable goals that translate later into currency.  We are surrounded by scoring systems that act as both internal and external currencies for the various systems of our life.  The reason that Pac Man is the number one arcade game of all time is the same reason we get excited about frequent flyer miles. Do the math – sometimes that Best Buy reward zone card keeps you from being a smarter shopper.

The author goes on to talk about combat games.  First – gamification is not GAMES – so are which argument is the author trying to make?  And war games aren’t usually games at all but under the category of simulation where there is 1 to 1 corresponding idea in the real world.  Pac Man costs quarters – war costs lives.  From a big picture approach they are very similar.  But only if you are a General.

2. Games can trivialize serious issues.

His next argument talked about a slave simulation and how poorly it was received.  Again – simulation.  It really is a different category.  One of the big issues here is that generally games are only good at teaching process NOT content – so these things rarely work as planned in an education setting.  Also, and an argument that will come up again, is that unless you WANT to play it – it isn’t a game.  Its a chore of some sort.  Think about the difference between reading a book in high school vs reading a book for fun.  The experiences are vastly different.  Selective immersion in a simulation can be very powerful but only if you want to be there.  I won’t cry in a sad movie if I don’t go!  What trivializes serious situations is thinking that you can force empathy onto others.

3. Games may reinforce the wrong mindset.

At least here he used the word MAY.  His example is Grand Theft Auto.  But over and over we have learned that violent video games are no more harmful to the psyche than violent movies.  In other words it is the photo-realistic imagery that we should be wary of not the game play itself.  I mean the same argument can be said of songs, books, and movies.  So to say that bad video games are as bad as every other bad medium isn’t just redundant – it almost goes without saying.

4. Games can contaminate motivation.

His argument is that the if you gamify cucumbers then he will avoid chopping cucumbers.  This is true.  Which is why his cucumbers will never be pretty ! He will never learn to chop pretty cucumbers because he doesn’t want pretty cucumbers!  You won’t get the output if you don’t want the process.  This is a win-win situation though. Don’t play a game you that you don’t want to play!  Why is this even a question?  If I don’t practice I won’t get good – this is in every discipline!  If anything a game can demonstrate what results can be – which can motivate those who have a goal.  But games themselves aren’t goal setting – they only allow those who want to succeed to learn to set their own goals.  I don’t think the cucumber slicing game contaminated his motivation instead it was a mirror on what he didn’t want to do.  And again going back to free will – if he doesn’t want to do it – it is a chore not a game.

5. Games will be gamed.

This I agree with! Hell yeah! Amen! 100% I am the king of gaming the game.  They are designed to be.  And if the system is broken – then shame on them for not making a good one. Life – a video game whatever – All hail the pudding man and his millions of frequent flyer miles!  The argument that we focus on winning instead of learning is skewed.  We are learning – learning how to win!  All games have two levels of learning.  You learn the rules to play – you learn the strategy to win.  As a game designer – and as a curricular designer I need to make sure that MY goals are the only way to reach the achievements by those who are playing the game. Kid wants an A – then I need to make sure that learning is the ONLY way to get there.  Anything else is naive – because that’s the world we live in!

Ryan – I loved your article – but not your generalization and use of language.  I think you flipped back and forth between games and simulation and gamification – between games and so called “educational games” and also in their application.  I myself agree and have spoken on this topic.  My talk is entitled “It walks like a duck and talks like a duck… Why educational games are neither educational nor games.”

As I teach (all ages) I feel that the more we reveal the fact that life is indeed a game the better off we are at controlling it instead of being controlled by it.  That we can embrace the game, puzzle, and simulation elements of life – view the transactions for what they are and become better players and designers.

So as Nolan Bushnell once advised my students “Just keep dropping them quarters…”

A quick post-script: My passion here is in no way against Ryan. I truly enjoyed what he wrote – I just love a good discussion and especially on this topic. So I don’t want what I wrote to come off negative – instead view it as if we were sitting at dinner and having a rousing good time!