Thursday 28 July 2011

Gamification Beware, People Are Awful

Marketing people speak funny

The kind of gamification that marketing people get excited about, the kind that you can actually get paid to do, is very much about achieving specific, demonstrable results. Marketing folk call these results ‘engagement’, because they are terrible people, but what they mean by this indistinct wisp of a word are definite, trackable metrics; more viewers, more clicks, a bigger spend, longer dwell time. These things are worth money to companies so that’s why they’re willing to pay for them.

This means that while it’s very interesting to wonder how you’d gamify the analogue world - I long for a game tracking my exemplary record at getting sweet seats on the tube at the expense of the elderly and infirm - in reality, the paid gamification projects out there are going to need to be reliably measurable and thus digital.


This requirement for reliable, verifiable information is especially important given these two juicy facts - a) the incentives gamification provides to ‘engage’ are also great incentives to cheat and b) people are completely awful.

Gamers are complete psychopaths

Game designers have known for years that a certain subset of their players will delight in finding the easiest ways of getting the most reward out of their games. These players, often lying somewhere in the Killer/Achiever half of the Bartle spectrum, are motivated by either a desire to beat the game or a desire to beat other players by beating the game.

MMO developers particularly have to spend a very long time ensuring that the ‘path of least resistance’ when it comes to gaining experience points, money or items is also the path the designer wants the player to take. There’s no point in stuffing your game full of wonderful quests replete with set-pieces and deep back-story if your players are going to spend their entire time in the same cave murdering the same bears over and over again because that’s the fastest way to level up.

Aww, look at all the ikkle experience points!

This is a particular problem in MMOs because of their highly social and public nature. Players have ample opportunity to show off their level, money or items, so the incentive to get their hands on as many of these things as possible, however possible, as quickly as possible, is huge. Hence, MMO developers are locked in an endless battle with this small percentage of their players to stop them making a mockery of the game and putting all the less horrible people off.

Actually, it’s worse than that

Of course there’s another area where people are publicly rewarded for their accumulation of points with leaderboard positions and badges and you know, stuff - gamification. If you’re tempting people into jumping through your carefully placed hoops in order to get all those wonderful rewards and that social recognition, some of those people aren’t going to bother jumping through the hoops and will instead set fire to the hoops and then smash them up with a hammer.

Just to make things worse, the better your gamification solution is at motivating people to use it, the better it is at motivating some of your players to behave like assholes in order to shortcut the engagement bit and skip straight to the rewards. The more publicly you trumpet the achievements of your players, the greater the temptation to cheat their way to the top of the leader boards and revel in their ill-earned glory.

Every single one of these people is cheating

If you think this is bad, imagine you’re not just handing out virtual goods and are actually offering things of tangible value, which, of course, you may well be doing. Then the incentive to find the cracks in the design and ruthlessly exploit them become even greater still. If you’re offering any kind of financial reward for success in your gamification project, you are almost certain to experience cheating.

There is a small light at the end of this tunnel of human misery. Look at your leader boards, look at how your top players got where they are and you can work out which are legitimate and which are terrible, lying bastards. Not only that, but you’ll also be able to work out how they did it and adjust your rules to prevent that particular strand of maliciousness in the future. Of course the rest of your users will complain about you moving the goalposts, ever, in any way whatsoever, for any reason at all, but hey, like I said - people are awful.


  1. Nice!

    Social games have the capacity to introduce social shame - this is perhaps counter-productive and maybe even a barrier to entry (not to mention exploitable by the bastards, as in the chinese MMO with the 'pariah' mark and ganking groups holding individuals to ransom by threatening such a mark), but I think there's a solution to be found against cheating and exploiting through social shame mechanics.

  2. There could be, but I'd be wary that those exact same mechanics would then be used by the horrible people against the nice ones. Exactly the way they are in the example you give.

    Also, generally, gamification doesn't allow for losing, or indeed any real negative feedback. Every action is usually rewarded, just at differing levels. I think the social positivism and strong link to brand image in most gamification projects means we'll see losing appear before we see shame.

    Doesn't stop it being all kinds of interesting to consider though.

  3. Is it possible to murder a bear?

  4. If it were a charming enough bear, like say, Yogi, then yeah, I think it is.

  5. Nice article. Confirms that we are all as evil as we can get away with being ;o)

    One nice aspect of "corporate gamification" exercises is that they show people for what they are in their working environment, so provide you with something of a "360 assessment" for free...

  6. They do if they're well designed, certainly. But some of the point here is that a reasonable percentage of people will seek the efficient path to rewards, so if the best way to the rewards and the behaviour intended to get to the rewards aren't the same then everything goes to shit.