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What We Would Gain by Losing the Word ‘Gamification’

The word that everybody loves to hate is doing an interesting conversation harm. In this article, we see what might happen if we did the right thing and did away with it. Some interesting and unexpected results occur.

Before we begin, I want to quickly propose two notions to introduce what I hope is a interesting idea: 

Proposal 1: The gamification hype train is now too big to stop. Too many consultants have had their say and pushed the notion and awareness is now massively widespread in business communities. The clients of these consultants are forming strategies in all sorts of industries about how to gamify their products and services. The term isn’t going away. The process isn’t going away. Both are just beginning their long stay.  More importantly, what gamification describes is a smaller set of what has been happening more broadly as people confused ‘game mechanics’ for all sorts of systems of social control.

Proposal 2: Gamification is mutating very quickly. Initially dumbstruck by how moronic the term is, many long-term games industry folk and experienced commentators rushed to the obvious attacks on gamification. That it was a pointless tech culture cash-in. That it was highly precarious. That humans have separated work and play for a reason. That game mechanics simply ‘don’t transfer like that’. But quickly, many people have realized there’s lots to talk about, some understood as gamification proper, and a lot else besides that doesn’t have a name. Gamification is quickly, if it hasn’t already, going to slip out of the hands of the consultants completely.

A recap. Businesses are adding point systems to their online stores. Schools are using RPG mechanics to encourage retention of class material. Social games are morphing quickly into systems for turning real relationships into one form of capital or another. As is obvious by now, games are also subject to gamification, despite what we first assumed. When considered together with the above, the DLC explosion of the last few years, and the fragmentation of games intellectual property situates AAA game development squarely in the centre of the phenomena. Soon, it will be rare to think of a game as a singular object – if it isn’t rare already. If we didn’t have the word to collect our thoughts on how this weird broad range of phenomena were taking place, what would we gain.

While I have previously blamed consultants from everything from the Hindenburg to the development of hantaviruses, I want to give you a little bit of context. I briefly worked developing NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and management consultancy silliness in my youth and having dipped my toe into that world, my scorn for the people involved is limitless, a scorn that makes me peaceful and sure.  I was wearing heavy-metal t-shirts and had greasy hair, writing management modules for rich men who were very happy with the service. It was an experience in mechanized fraudulence. Now, the very basic elements of NLP are easy enough that anybody can grasp them – and the current gamification madness will remind those with long memories of the hype around NLP. But more importantly, gamification represents what is called a ‘natural value’ term. That’s not to say the word has natural value, but that it certainly seems like it does. It connotes a scientific process and produces an almost physical response in its communication. To anything-ify a product or service would connote the same thing, that’s obvious enough. But with games peaking culturally and colliding with a tech culture that needs to develop massive content cultures, the word is in the right place at the right time. The process is actually less interesting in many ways that the connotations of the word.

 Another way to look at this is proposed by Ian Bogost, who called it at GDC “the easiest way to talk to marketers about videogames.” No kidding. But he went on to say that “Words really do matter. The frames we build around them are not merely conveniences,” he said. “When we talk about climate change, we’re making political and ethical statements. ‘Gamification’ is easy. You can strap it on.”

So, two things: First, words work not just by meaning things, but also by connoting things. By hinting at things. Two, words change what we do and how we think. 

Lets see what happens when we don’t use it. Because we wouldn’t be able to talk about gamification as one amorphous mass, we would be allowed to talk about the truth.  The truth looks roughly like this:

1. There’s lots of things happening at once. Some are natural, some are fabricated. Most importantly, commercial games are being ‘gamified’, in that the same mechanics that usually drive us forward through games are being rerouted through more and more gates of payment, delivery and expectation. But also, the huge impact of the App model of delivery is morphing our understanding of software at a very basic level.

2. The process of gamification doesn’t need consultants because it already has those experts. They are called game designers. The word is designed to hint at a process that needs to take place. The word, being new, has its champions and performers. Invariably, these people are harlequins working the crowd. Some are genuinely great designers who are interested in making the world a richer place. (the same, incidentally was thought of NLP devotees who saw altering language patterns as a way to solve political problems, make workplaces more satisfying, make schools retain students – sound familiar?) However, some of these gamification consultants are tourists in a safari that’s more Jeep than lion. The people who turn patterns of behavior into patterns of play and manipulate people with them are called game designers and their skill has ossified over decades and is a specialist skill set that is not replicable through any number of brainstorming vision sessions.

3. We could talk about how games sometimes make the world a poorer, not richer place to be. With the confidence returned to us by the absence of the word, we could begin to make statements of value again. Remember those? It used to be allowable to say that some things were good and others bad, and sometimes these judgments allowed us to comprehend and debate the nature of things.  We wouldn’t want to turn the world into a game because some games do harm to us. Some are commercial games with stereotypes that demean people. This is obvious. But also, whats been happening is that some games that do harm to us are social games or ARGs, or ones designed with the best of intentions. For example, some promote unconscionable and viciously cruel concepts such as Urgent Evoke bizarrely and ahistorically promoting microfinance as a solution to poverty in Africa, as if picking yourself up by the bootstraps will be enough to undo the massive capital horrors visited upon the continent by the game’s sponsor, the World Bank. We could have real debates about these things once we stopped thinking of games as a process.

4. We could get our history back, and realize that the process of turning useful systems into dense meaningful games is a part of human culture going back thousands of years. Buckminster Fuller has a whole section of a book written fifty years ago that specifically covers gamification by another name. But people with more research fingers than I could find a dozen other names throughout history who devoted their careers to describing the processes that we suddenly think are so new.

5. We’d be able to stop bad games and bad products from getting to us. This is more personal, but I consider this almost transcendent in its obviousness.

6. We’d make more specific words to fill the gap. We’d be able to separate things that were actually games and allow them to have the fun of a separate entity. We’d be able to call system that roughly use points systems or reward feedback loops what they actually are. We’d be able to reclaim the fundamental notion that games function as fiction. We’d be able to not only describe, but also make more interesting things as a result. We lose power by storing all these phenomena together and raising the hopes of clueless people who see an easy win by adding something cool to their tired offering to the world.

7. We would be able to better explain that the game mechanics that gamification claims to bring in are often not digital-specific. What would actually have a greater effect is digital game design and mechanics. Because although its hard to admit sometimes, people use tech to play games and play games to use tech. And that’s what is compelling. Not basic gameplay mechanics. They motivate and change us far less, out of the context of deep game worlds and satisfying delivery of art, animation, visual design, audio and music, and so on.


Although many people have pointed out that in 1940, the publishing industry paid through the nose for ‘cinema experts’ to come in and make fiction offerings more cinematic and thus paid for total nobodies to make pulp novels, the current situation is unique in that we have a conversation where the best skill sets are being ignored at the moment. The best possible outcome of the gamification madness is that game designers are giving a range of new work to do outside of game production – which can only enrich the working process and deliver some degree of autonomy to those who possess the skillset. The worst possible outcomes of the gamification madness is that its used to excuse another round of mediocre product delivery, to forestall genuine changes in workplaces and to induce infantilizing and distracting overhauls of previously useful things. 

Also, the word is just plain annoying. 

Follow me on Twitter as PlayStayXian.

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