Gamification Is Not Entirely Bullshit

This post was inspired by Jared Brown’s recent gamification comic and reading the temporarily popular Gamification is Bullshit article, and my recent startup experience.


At the startup that I just worked at (RewardSnap), we decided to create a game to encourage people to do crowdsourcing of deal ratings. Instead of just crafting a game from scratch, I decided to do a bit of research into the mechanics of modern games. I figured there were companies like Zynga out there that were doing cutting-edge work on viral loops and making games engaging to people. Why not learn from others before setting off on a path that I had little knowledge about?

As I researched, I stumbled over Game-Based Marketing. It was an interesting look into the psychology and history of games for business purposes. Throughout history games and gimmicks have been used to sell merchandise and reward loyal customers. Everything from buy ten get one free, to loyalty cards, to frequent flier programs, to more modern alternatives like Foursquare. Frequent flier programs, in particular, are driven by status more than economic matters. People will literally go out of their way to take flights that earn them extra miles, in an effort to get a higher ranking in the program. If you’ve seen the movie Up In The Air with George Clooney, you might have an idea what this is like.

There was a discussion of Bartle’s player types (Achiever, Explorer, Socializer, Killer). Different people play games for different reasons. However, these archetypes are not evenly distributed in the general population. Many more people play games to socialize than to, say, kill others. In addition, people generally play games for status first, then access, then power, and lastly, stuff. It’s unfortunate this acronym is SAPS… So instead of motivating people by giving away a television, it would be far better to motivate them by giving them in-game, or real-life, power (and so forth). As a slight extrapolation, people want to be respected and able to have sex on demand more than they want more than getting material possessions.

Our Game

At RewardSnap, we set up a points-based game, where the maximum number of points for rating a deal was 100. There was a naive leaderboard that showed just the top ten overall, and all users were anonymous because we didn’t implement login until later on. We would just highlight your user id if you were on the leaderboard. To get on the leaderboard, some people scored tens of thousands of points, with a few people earning over hundreds of thousands of points. This means that people were rating thousands of deals for free to get on an anonymous leaderboard in a small game universe. Tweet

One person would rate a bunch of deals, and then the next day someone else would try to catch up and beat them. To me, the results were surprising. Rating a bunch of deals in a game was not something that I think I personally would have done. However, I’m sure there are a bunch of games that I played way too much for reason alone to make sense. It felt like we were hacking human motivation, and it was really strange to see the results. I think that there is a lot of deep behavioral psychology, intricate social , and motivational hacks at work in gamification. It felt spooky because we were playing with dark magics, things that we have yet to fully understand and that have great potential power.

One key takeaway was making sure that the incentives in the game corresponded to the business purpose that you wanted to achieve. We got a lot more action than I thought we would through just a simple leaderboard mechanism, although the incentives ended up being poorly aligned. The first rater of a deal would get a bunch of points regardless of their rating of a deal, and so their rating didn’t matter. They would just spam (in the gamer-speak sense) the “10” rating since it was closest to the next deal button, and do this hundreds of times without looking at the deal at all. Future voters would get points based on the crowd average, so the first voter would skew the points rating all of the deals in one sitting. It ended up that the ratings on the deals were not really accurate, thus undermining the crowdsourcing of the deals and thwarting our business goals. However, this example was more of an implementation failure than a failure of gamification in general.


While it’s a bit nefarious to use game motivations to get people to buy stuff, why not use the principles to try to get people to do things that are in their best interests? Cue the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” quote. Modern businesses like Health Month are trying approaches along these lines. Straightforward extensions include using games to motivate yourself to work on personal projects, clean the house, improve your community, and other useful activities.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s easier and more fun in the short term to play Farmville for an hour than it is to contribute meaningful significant work in an hour. Why work hard now when I can just slack off and play word games with friends online? But in the long run, it’s sad to see so much potential be wasted. Everyone needs downtime, but maybe we can do more with these motivational hacks. Why shouldn’t mind-numbing work be gamified to make it more interesting to those who are participating in it? Can we make seemingly difficult work like writing books or starting businesses be more like a game by providing smaller milestones and more effective feedback? Dan Pink in Drive has the workplace in mind when considering motivation. Interesting ideas to consider.

Have you had any experiences with gamification? What are the most addicting game mechanics, and how might you use them to better your life? Have you used Health Month or a similar social/motivational game? Post a comment below!

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