God Mode: Gaming the system

April 12, 2012

I have a quest I need to complete. It’s a bit of a grind, but if I finish it I’ll get enough experience points to level up. All I have to do is run two miles, do 40 push-ups, and then complete 100 crunches. In real life.

This isn’t for some bizarre Final Fantasy/Wii Fit crossover. My quest doesn’t come from a video game at all. I got it from Fitocracy, a social network/workout log that uses gaming principles to motivate you to exercise.

Unholy union of video games and physical activity aside, Fitocracy isn’t all that unique. Bolting game-like mechanics onto everyday activities and services is all the rage these days. It’s even got a name—gamification. It’s the corporate buzzword that launched a thousand start-ups, with companies looking to get users to experience the same compulsions that make World of Warcraft players neglect their hygiene and inspire gamers to keep playing “just one more round” of Call of Duty.

Even if you’ve never heard of gamification, you’ve undoubtedly experienced it. Most products and services are a little more subtle with their implementation of it than Fitocracy, with its explicit quests and levels. Foursquare gets people to divulge their location to the entire world in exchange for badges and mayorships, rewards no different than the high score on an arcade game. Personal finance site Mint awards you points for fiscal responsibility. Twitter keeps track of your progress—how often you tweet, how many followers you have—and always makes sure you see that scoreboard when you log in.

It’s a strategy that makes sense. People who villainize video games as mind-warping, addictive time sucks aren’t entirely off base. With their transparent goals and regular positive reinforcement, most games are designed to draw players in and keep them stuck on a treadmill with the promise of clearly indicated progress. We are motivated by a sense of accomplishment, and games are particular adept at bombarding our minds with “rewards” like new levels, upgrades, and points. It’s no surprise that a company that wants customers to keep using their product would want to transfer those mechanics to the real world.

Of course, it’s not like businesses needed game designers to teach them how human psychology works. Frequent flyer programs and reward points existed long before anyone coined the term gamification. However, the difference now is that rather than develop their own psychological hooks to capture consumers, companies are consciously trying to ape the tools of games. And that’s where gamification misses the point.

The logic behind gamification is simple—people like to play games, so if a website or app is like a game, people will want to spend more time with it. It’s not a bad idea, especially when paired with a noble purpose like helping people lose weight or manage their money. The mistake most companies make though is that they’re copying the wrong aspect of games.

Games are supposed to be fun. That’s why people play them. But gamification ignores that purpose and focuses on the mechanics game designers use to create “fun.” And unfortunately, gamification seems to only pick out the most cynical and uninventive mechanics. The best games dangle a carrot in front of the player, yes, but they also let the player eventually claim their reward. Gamification just wants to take advantage of the compulsion for forward progress. Companies don’t ever want you to “beat” their products, they just need you to keep coming back.

But I don’t want to write off gamification entirely. If experience points can somehow make me choose exercise over the sloth and indulgence of second semester seniordom, gamification can’t all be bad. But I don’t want to start seeing a progress bar everywhere I go. I fear a future where every product and service I use is seemingly inspired by FarmVille.

If you really want me to use your product, just make it fun and useful. I play enough video games already.

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