The Ethics of Gamification: Little Rewards for Everything
[note: the original version of this post contained some interactive code, which has been removed from the archives]
These things are examples of ‘gamification’, the use of video-game mechanics and incentive structures in non-game situations. Whether you know it or not, gamification is gradually becoming a part of everything we do in every area of life. Everything is being gamified.
It is at its most obvious on the Internet. Foursquare, a popular social networking website, awards you points and virtual ‘badges’ for notifying your friends of your location as you move around town. Twitter makes a score out of the number of people who ‘follow’ your tweets. Gamification is also used in a variety of computer applications for motivating desired behaviours. Microsoft has made ‘Ribbon Hero’ a training application for Microsoft Office that awards points for learning new techniques. Google’s Image labeler makes a game out of getting people to label the content in photographs—a task that is too difficult for computers to do, but too boring for people to do without special incentives.
But the real world is rapidly being gamified too. Starbucks loyalty cards chart your progress to free drinks with an online progress bar. Ski passes from Vail Resorts track your use of ski lifts, and post your daily haul of ‘points’ to facebook or twitter automatically for your family and friends to admire. This kind of corporate gamification is most often used to improve customer loyalty and sales, but increasingly it is used to mitigate unwanted behaviours or experiences as well. In San Francisco, bus stops were recently outfitted with touch-screen games that people could play while they waited for the bus.
The corporate world is extremely excited about the wide-ranging implications of gamifying everything. But how should we feel about it as consumers, and as human beings?
Up until now, if I took up jogging, there were a number of reasons for me to jog on any given day. Jogging promotes cardiovascular health, it reduces depression, burns fat, and it is (for some, anyway) an intrinsically enjoyable activity. In a gamified world, the incentives shift and change. My Nike pedometers charts how far I run and posts gloating updates for my facebook friends. If I run a little further, Nike corporation will email me a congratulatory message as I rise from the lowly yellow level to the elite black, like a karate champion. In addition to the intrinsic rewards of running, I now orient to these artificial rewards: social positioning, the collection of virtual trophies, and the acquisition of abstract ‘levels’ and ‘points’.
Some people will surely argue that a jogger who is jogging for electronic trophies is missing the entire point of the endeavour. Rex Crowle thinks that there is a risk of becoming too focused on meaningless rewards. But it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to argue that there is no value in spending our lives pursuing abstract points in games. I think there is a deep kind of enjoyment and value in defeating our rivals and improving our skills, even when the underlying activities are fundamentally unproductive and arbitrary. That is the nature of sport, and it is the nature of play.
Yet it is a different thing entirely when my actions are yoked to the interests of a corporation. Perhaps, if the bus runs late, it is appropriate that I feel bored and annoyed at the bus company, since they are wasting my time. If I feel engaged and entertained because the bus stop has a built-in electronic diversion, it seems as though I have been pacified. Or if I am putting money in a savings account in order to increase my ‘total financial score’, it seems as though the company is exploiting the fundamental nature of my psychology, which is so attracted to play and to arbitrary, abstract rewards. Even when these games aim at protecting my financial or health interests, they fail to respect my capacity for autonomy, my ability to act for reasons which are my own.
The dividing line between ethical and unethical gamification will often be hard to detect. It will depend on the psychological mechanisms harnessed by the games, and reasons I have for playing the game, and the interests that are promoted by my playing the game. There will be cases, though, where we should refuse to play along.