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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]

Notice that the first word of this post is red. Point your mouse cursor at the words as you read them, and each subsequent word will turn red as you read. You are now being graded on how quickly you read these words. And there’s a little visual reward in store for anyone who reads the first paragraph quickly. Now look to the right of this post, where it says ‘Top Posts’. One of the reasons we have that is to help readers to find the most popular posts on the blog. But another reason we have it is so that our contributors will be motivated to write more interesting and thought-provoking commentaries for the site. It is a high score table, and the winner is the philosopher with the most interesting post.

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?

Whose reasons?

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.

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13 Comment on this post

  1. Good post, but I don't see the ethical problem here. Is there some kind of implicit premise that games and "gamification" are addictive and somehow circumvent our rational decision-making processes. Can't we just choose to ignore these so-called incentives (especially if we don't consider them to be of value)? Also: how should the bus stop be if I am to consider the lateness of the bus in an "appropriate" way, whatever that might mean? Should it be a urine-soaked, rubbish-strewn dark corner without seats? Should it be "average"? Should I then object to the bus company adding a pretty flower bed and comfortable seat, as you suggest objecting to the addition of a games screen?

  2. I suppose whether or not we can ignore an incentive depends on what it is. You may be right about the bus stop, but what if I can't ignore visual rewards like the animated progress bars that fill up on or on the Starbucks website? What if these little rewards make me want to spend more money at their respective businesses? It may be that I'm quite unaware that these rewards are influencing my decisions.

  3. I can get my Nike+ sensor to update to facebook? I did not know that, but am off to look it up. In the main I like things like this – they help to motivate me to do things that I know I ought to do, but cannot make myself do. In the case of running, I can see that the social pressure to meet my goals via facebook might be helpful. Nonetheless, I see the point you are making regarding influences on decision-making. Is this, however, really just about people being aware of how companies try to influence behaviour? Is there a difference, for example, between Starbucks using rewards to try and make you buy their coffee and the local supermarket piping the smell of fresh bread around the store (a tactic apparently) or setting out their shelves in a particular manner. Knowledge about such measures can help individuals to analyse their own buying motivations a little better.

  4. We used to call it manipulation, which means "bad" influencing another to do particular things. What makes it "bad" seems to relate to (1) that its purpose is to make the influenced person to things for the good of the influencer (objectifying; using a person merely as a means) and (2) that the influence will work, circumventing the defenses of the object-person's "autonomy" of choice. Compare "nudging". Gamafication can have good purposes. Weight loss clinics and Alcoholics Anonymous do it, using praise from a large number of people as the prize. Is the ethics of gaming, then, strictly Kantian — whether the purpose includes furthering the good of the gamee?

    There seems to be an additional objection to gamification, having to do with a person's mis-valuing the time being spent in the game or by distorting or mis-assigning the meaning of the activity. To me, the search for "meaning" outside oneself is like the search for the edge of the world. If exercise is a waste of time for the person, but gaining points for exceeding the last level of exercise gives pleasure, I don't see what's wrong with it, except insofar as the self-gaming may lead to excess exertion followed by physical problems, e.g. overtaxing the heart, or harming muscles. But all gaming can lead to excess and wasteful (high opportunity cost, low benfit) activity. Excess coffee drinking or eating too often at mediocre restaurants rather than good ones, because of a loyalty card. Is this a problem of ethics? Then all gamification is unethical because it risks immoderation (is that a word?).

  5. I think there are issues with gamification of learning, which I have seen promoted in a TED talk. If learning becomes entirely about rewards for effort (yay! You read the whole article!) rather than on understanding or thought, which may be harder to "gamify", then education is about checkboxes, instead of mastering material. It's already a problem, as far as I can see, with students who complain that they "went to every class" but didn't get an A.

    Some things require sustained effort and don't have identifiable stages of achievement. I would be concerned about the idea that game-training will become the "only" way to get people to do things that are challenging.

  6. On the issue of whether games circumvent our rational decision-making processes: what exactly *is* a rational decision-making process? How do we distinguish it from an "irrational", or perhaps a-rational, one? I certainly think that this issue (of "ramification") is worth looking into, but I would suggest more from an empirical/practical point of view than a philosophical/"ethical" one. What effect is this trend having? Where might it lead? Clearly the phenomenon itself is not new, but are we approaching some kind tipping point that could have irreversible and possibly undesirable consequences? How do we *feel* about the world we are creating in this way? These are the kind of questions I think we should be asking.

  7. Pity that gamification hasn't hit Egypt yet. It would no doubt have stopped hundreds of thousands of people from worrying about liberty, democracy and corruption…. Why on earth didn't the organisers of the Gamification Summit manage to persuade Mubarak think of putting video games in Cairo bus-shelters?
    Ps : of course this has nothing to do with ethics

    1. Of course, but then nothing that happens in the first world really has any moral significance compared to the suffering of the people in Egypt or Zimbabwe or V391 Pegasi b. That is certainly true of the great majority of the problems we write about in reproductive ethics, clinical ethics, and every other branch of moral philosophy. No doubt we should all just forget about our feckless first-world lives and join Medicins Sans Frontiers.

      On the other hand, this post is about subtle erosion of personal autonomy and corporate manipulation of the population. However trivial these concerns may be in the eyes of an Egyptian, I think it has something to do with ethics after all.

  8. Nice post. It got me thinking.

    I agree with Dennis that, on the surface, it doesn't seem to matter much whether you enjoy jogging because of the health benefits etc. or the Facebook bragging rights. What matters is that you're jogging. And enjoying it!

    Unfortunately, I think some degree of corporate manipulation may be inevitable. Companies have been "exploiting the fundamental nature of [one's] psychology" for quite a while. (Any guesses on the percentage of Super Bowl ads this year that will?)

    Also, I feel like the games at a bus stop isn't really gamification (any more than I gamified my living room with an Xbox). I'd think some reward/ranking would have to be more associated with riding the bus.

    @Robyn I agree with you. I think the essence of that problem though is mostly that learning is particularly hard to measure accurately, or at least more so that the examples mentioned in the post. To some degree the same issue might manifest though. E.g., the gamification got you to jog but not with good form.

    P.S. I certainly wouldn't appreciate reading becoming more gamified. Reading the first paragraph with the mouse was a drag.

  9. Must rein in the temptation to use irony.
    I was trying to make the point that I agree completely with you, Bennett. Gamification is part of the dumbing-down process – the subtle erosion of personal autonomy and manipulation of the population, as you put it.

    1. gamification dumbs down
    2. Egyptians are not dumbed down
    3. therefore gamification has not reached Egypt (Modus Tollendo Tollens)
    & 4. thank goodness (personal reaction)

  10. No problem – what is well conceived should be clearly expressed, as my French homonym said. Mea culpa.

    By the way, what happened to the people on V391 Pegasi b ? What can I do to alleviate their suffering ?

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