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Social Games & Gamification: The McDonaldization of Gaming?

Trending criticisms of social games and gamification, particularly from designers, appear to largely coincide. Together, they may point towards the "McDonaldization" of gaming experiences, which emphasizes "successful" results over quality innovation.

Jim Cummings, Blogger

April 13, 2011

7 Min Read


This and other posts can be found at the blog Motivate. Play.

If someone asked me what the two hottest topics in gaming have been over the last twelve months, I’d likely point to 1) social games and 2) gamification.  Each of these topics has increasingly been on the minds and lips of players, designers, academic researchers and even those outside of the gaming community, with both taking up more than their fair share of blog space and conference panels.  Part of this focus has of course been due to the massive hype machines each topic has created.  For instance, many reputable news sources have reported in bewildered tones the sheer numbers (in audience size and revenue) associated with Farmville, or have covered (as if still novel) the notion that “gaming” your workplace can lead to increases in worker productivity and, in turn, big dividends.  Indeed, the mainstream infiltration of both social gaming and gamification has grown so pervasive that it's now reaching levels of parody and satire.

But beyond even parody we are now seeing more blatantly negative, or at least critical, attitudes appear (as is always part of the hype cycle, whether deservingly or not).  The general criticisms that I’ve seen trending in the past few months regarding social games and gamification basically boil down to the following:

(Disclaimer: The following do not necessarily reflect my own views; again, they are criticisms that I think are becoming increasingly prevalent when discussing these topics.)


1) Social games are hollow play experiences. Social games substitute substantive, meaningful gameplay with treadmills of cheap thrills.  Social game designs are thought to disregard the potential for meaning or artistic expression inherent to this dynamic medium and to instead focus on revenue-minded mechanics.

2) Social games financially succeed due to player ensnarement, not player engagement. That is, eventually, the reason players are coming back is not to experience pleasure but to avoid pain.  From this perspective, the success of the pay-as-you-play model frequently driving the design of social games is not due to the value-added in forking over a few bucks, but rather, the loss avoided (even if only psychological).  Players who have invested a significant amount of time and energy to their game progress can devote money, rather than more time, so as to avoid this psychological distress.

3) Gamification codifies and trivializes real world activity. Gamification translates rich social interactions into hollow objectives.  Subjective meaning is commodified, packaged, in order to standardize the value of actions and choices.

4) Gamification is often just “pointification” behavior-reinforcement. Many people seeking to employ gamification simply focus on the external reinforcers of points, badges, and leaderboard standings rather than cultivate an internalized value for the target behaviors.  From this perspective, gamification is a cheap effects-focused tool, motivating people through parlor trick-like mechanics rather than substantive deliberation and choice.

As I see it, the major criticisms of social games and gamification therefore largely coincide.  First, for both there is a mounting concern about sacrificing substance in order to more readily induce or persuade players towards particular behaviors.  In the case of social games these behaviors include playing long enough to become invested in your progress and in turn committed to not losing it, thereby incentivizing players to either pay cash and/or recruit new friends to the game.  In the case of gamification, as the hype has entered the mainstream, much of the discussion have focused on its capacity to motivate employees to be more productive by attaching external rewards to work performance.  Therefore, for both social games and gamification, results other than player enjoyment or artistic integrity are said to dictate design (that is, more so than is the case for traditional console and PC gaming experiences).

Second, in both criticisms of social games and of gamification there is a disgruntled notion that these phenomena employ designs that unfairly leverage psychological functioning so as to induce desired behavior.  In the case of gamification, such persuasive power is explicitly emphasized, and thus usually not demonized unless one contends that mere deliberative persuasion is actually manipulative conditioning.  That is, some critics have suggested that, given a strong enough external reward, game-minded min-max’ers may be enticed into a real world behavior or choice that they would not have enacted otherwise.  (Though, interestingly, many critics only seem to voice this concern if said manipulation is patently exploitative [buy my product] rather than prosocial [recycle those bottles and cans]).  In contrast, similar criticisms of social games have characterized their designs as more regularly and intentionally exploitative (as discussed previously on another blog I run with colleagues – see here and here).  These games are thought to be designed in a manner that directly taps into the hardwired preferences and functioning of the human brain, including its evolutionarily-ingrained predilection to be motivated by gathering and accumulating items, pattern matching, bouts of physiological arousal and relief, and social comparisons and/or memberships.

Together, these two general categories of criticism (again, placing emphasis on results rather than substance, and leveraging human nature to hook players) point towards what might be considered the McDonaldization of the gaming experience.  McDonaldization, according to Ritzer, is the process by which discourse is explicitly designed so as to optimize efficiency, predictability, and control while allowing for transactions to be quantified and therefore objectively rather than subjectively evaluated.  It is the best-practices, cookie-cutter approach to production and exchange, implementing tactics that improve one’s bottom line.

Arguably, this is exactly what critics of social games and gamification are identifying – a shift in emphasis that produces game experiences that focus less on the novelty of a given gameplay experience or envelope-pushing artistic designs, and instead seek to apply standardized sets of mechanics for “successful” games.  The extent to which the designs of social games and gamified real world experiences offer anything new and interesting, according to the critics, is based on the extent to which discovering new mechanics assists in improving revenue or behavior compliance.  Rather, from the perspective of the critics, these packages of gameplay are essentially gaming equivalents to fast food combo meals, which, packed with unhealthy “galories” (that is, high in empty gaming achievements), might sell well even if they are less than nutritious.

Further, the more ethical concerns of social games and gamification noted above (that is, tapping psychological functioning hardwired into players) further maps onto the metaphor of McDonaldization. Indeed, from the perspective of their critics, social game designers and gamification consultants are exploiting evolved drives for play, gathering tokens, social prestige, etc. in a manner akin to how fast food companies exploit an evolved preference for sugars and fats.

Of course, the gaming industry in general is commercially driven.  Yet , again, social games and gamification produce streamlined designs with the particular intent of maximizing results.  Part of this includes employing designs expressly devised to appeal to a market that extends beyond the traditional game-playing crowd.  Indeed, considering their respective domains (social networks sites and “serious” non-play environments) social game designers (particularly in the U.S.) and gamification consultants are often attempting to attract the attention and/or time and/or money of people who are often demographically different than the “average” console or PC gamer.  The McDonaldization of their product helps them to cast the widest net when attempting to sell would-be users on a cognitively delicious gaming equivalent of a Big Mac (with the option to “super-size” for those players electing to pay for it).

Again, as noted above, the best-practices for creating a commercially successful game design don’t always coincide with best practices for advancing innovation or artistry in the medium.  Perhaps this is why many of the most outspoken critics of the approaches common to social games and gamification have not been players, but designers.  And indeed, these individuals (see the previous in-text links) often fault social games and efforts to transform reality into a structured gameplay experience on the grounds of creative merit and artistic integrity.  However, if we consider such games to be driven by results-oriented motives, such criticisms – filled with calls for game designs that are not only tasty but also good for you – may be irrelevant.

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