Gamification Backlash Roundup

[Scroll to the comments to see the articles that I missed.]

Following the release of Reality is Broken and the appearance of dedicated gamification conferences and books, it is fair to say that the gamification backlash is in full swing. (Such is the natural order of the world.)


Long before anyone thought of the word gamification, Edward Deci published the paper “Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 18, no. 1 (1971), arguing that external monetary rewards decreases our intrinsic motivation for a task. (Note that this is slightly different from what Kohn argues later.)

“Results indicate that (a) when money was used as an external reward, intrinsic motivation tended to decrease; whereas (b) when verbal reinforcement and positive feedback were used, intrinsic motivation tended to increase.”


In a way, the most direct pre-gamification & anti-gamification argument comes from Alfie Kohn’s 1993 book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, which argues against the use of points, stars, and so on in companies.

“Kohn demonstrates that people actually do inferior work when they are enticed with money, grades, or other incentives. Programs that use rewards to change people’s behavior are similarly ineffective over the long run.”


Then came Jesse Schell’s 2010 DICE Talk.


A few people picked up on the question of motivation and external rewards:

I wrote about Kohn and a 1973 study, arguing that there is a problem with external rewards: Demotivated by External Rewards.

“Schell a.o. overlook that external rewards are also known to be strong demotivators. A famous 1973 experiment (“Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward“) showed that when nursery school children consistently received external rewards for drawing, they lost interest in drawing and began drawing less.”


Chris Hecker gave a very thorough talk, Achievements Considered Harmful?, at the 2010 Game Developers Conference.

“For interesting tasks,

  1. Tangible, expected, contingent rewards reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation, and
  2. Verbal, unexpected, informational feedback, increases free-choice and self-reported intrinsic motivation.”


I think the first multi-pronged, post-gamification & anti-gamification criticism I saw was Sebastian Deterding’s Pawned. Gamification and Its Discontents:

“Games are not fun because they are games, but when they are well-designed.”

My own comment was about The Dangers of Games in the Workplace:

“Much of the financial crisis was due to the application of game-like design principles to work, where employees were forced to work toward short-term goals that were detrimental to the health of their company and the economy at large.”


Steven Poole remains unconvinced of the motivations behind gamification:

“Does something in your life suck? Then turn it into a game! This is postmodernism’s infantile version of the consolatory techniques of stoic philosophy.”


Heather Chaplin doesn’t want to be a superhero:

“I believe whole-heartedly that wonderful things can happen when people play. But gamification advocates do not preach the beauty and power of play. Perhaps without knowing it, they’re selling a pernicious worldview that doesn’t give weight to literal truth. Instead, they are trafficking in fantasies that ignore the realities of day-to-day life. This isn’t fun and games—it’s a tactic most commonly employed by repressive, authoritarian regimes.”


There are three main threads to this criticism:

  1. Deci, Kohn and Hecker warn about the problems of extrinsic rewards as demotivators.
  2. Poole and Chaplin argue that gamification is a wrapping that either adds nothing or is a lie pure and simple.
  3. My own later take is that the player optimization and performance measurements that work great inside games have often proven to be disastrous outside games (when wrongly applied at least).

Deterding combines all three threads (as well as the argument that play has to be voluntary).

There surely is more to be written on the subject … (Am I missing any references? Let me know.)

43 thoughts on “Gamification Backlash Roundup”

  1. It’s chronologically out of order, but one precursor backlash that I haven’t seen connected much yet, but which might be interesting to explore, is the stuff in educational games attacking the idea of using game mechanics in a shallow way to just “sugar-coat” things like math or spelling drills. In today’s vocabulary we might call that the “gamification of education” approach to educational games.

  2. @Mark I think you are right that this criticism of educational games goes back much further than gamification. Isn’t this what Chaplin and Poole build on to some extent?

    @Cayden Thanks!

  3. @Mark

    The idea that “education should feel like a game” can be found as early as in Plato’s Republic. Have no idea though whether this view has been criticized by his contemporaries. There is a 1200-pages book on the term paidea by Werner Jaeger, written back in 1933 I think, and I know that it contains an overview of the paidea discussions that had been made by the ancients, but I haven’t had a chance to look into it in detail.

    The basic idea that Plato had was that the sciences that come before arithmetic, geometry and dialectics should be already teached to people when they are kids yet, and it should not feel like learning is forced onto them. One argument here goes that “Free people shouldn’t learn things as if they were slaves. Plato also says that knowledge that has been forced upon someone won’t remind long in the head.

  4. In my opinion, I think “gamification” has been basis of most social institutions, but what’s changed is that we are starting to recognize how game like and arbitrary these institutions are. What “gamification” refers to now is the process of trying to make boring, game like processes fun. What I mean is that gamification is a conceptual tool that can transform tedious, miserable games (school, work, etc) into fun games.

    When it comes to the implementation of gamification, I’m less enthusiastic because it can go horribly wrong in the wrong hands. The detriments of post-modern thought are most visible in people who seen Fightclub or Trainspotting one too many times.

    But anyway, Jesper, I’m a huge fan of your writing, and I was hoping you’d check out my analysis of Mass Effect. I would appreciate any feedback .

  5. Three comments:

    ‎1) If the game system is not aligned to the behavior you want to encourage there will be problems. Just like when organizations KPI systems measure and reward different behavior that is in the strategy.

    ‎2) Quantity is easier to measure (and reward) than quality.

    3) A game based approach is about more than just handing out points or tokens. Points and scores are just the part of games that are most easyly understood by non-game designers, and thus easier to built into systems that aren’t really games.

  6. About the myopic nature of (not well thought) goals:
    “Much of the financial crisis was due to the application of game-like design principles to work, where employees were forced to work toward short-term goals that were detrimental to the health of their company and the economy at large.” – Juul

    I think you dismiss the fact that goals can be misused in exactly the same way in games too. For example, take a multiplayer team-based FPS-shooter. In many of them the player only gets points for killing efficiently. This results in a situation where players do not have any regard for the team and consequently result in unwanted consequences from the perspective of the system designer. I realise that this was a crude example, but the situation is the same. It is difficult to calculate, which actions, carried out in which manner, contribute to what and how much.

    About gamification buzz (in marketing):
    I see that its not so much about applying “game mechanics” to other areas of life, but the mechanics have been there all the time. The gamification boom is mostly about the same marketing and loyalty tools that have been there for ages, but when the consultants put a sticker on them containing a word “game”, the buzz started. Why haven’t game designers been interested in discussing loyalty cards before? Or if they have, could someone point me to that discussion, please.

  7. @Altug Interesting point. At the same time, you could also argue that “learning as playing” can be antithetical to “learning as game”, since the latter has the potential to be an overly structured and not-too-playful activity if wrongly designed.

    @Alphabet1 That’s a very Huizinga-like point! Will check out the blog.

    @Anders Agreed. I think the challenge is that it’s difficult for an organization to accept that its performance indicators are no good. There is a risk that performance indicators are implemented regardless of their quality. (This happens *A LOT*.)

    @Juho I agree that the same thing can happen in game design, but game designers have freedom to change the performance indicators to tweak the game toward interesting gameplay, so it’s really the fault of the designer.

    @Christian Thanks!

  8. Hi Jesper,
    thanks for putting this together :).

    I think there are – at least – five additions:

    (1) Margaret Robertson’s influential “Can’t Play, Won’t Play” (, which grew out of here ‘down with gamification’ presentation at Playful 2010 and makes the argument that current ‘gameified’ applications (like many current games) are about points or “pointsification”, not games.

    (2) Ian Bogost’s “S(c)hell Games” ( in Gamasutra, arguing that
    (a) gameified systems “blackbox” or hide away the underlying ideology (basically the Paul Starr et al. “ideology in simulation” argument first made with regard to Sim City),
    (b) gamification undercuts moral agency (I don’t do it because I deliberately decided to, but because the system incented me to do it),
    (c) games are not about incentives, they are about processes (the procedural argument, of course).

    (3) Non-academic, but influential was Umair Haque’s HBR post “Unlocking the Mayor Badge of Meaninglessness” (, arguing
    (a) current applications are badly designed economically (no real market, if a market exists, it’s a zero sum game, scarcity is artificial instead of being tied to real scarcity),
    (b) morally, it’s used as an end, not a means to a (prosocial) end.

    (4) Again non-academic, designer Stephen Anderson’s presentation “Long After the Thrill: Sustaining Passionate Users” ( argues
    (a) gamification mistakes extrinsic rewards (rather than intrinsic motivation) for the power of games and hence offers only feedback, not goals & rules,
    (b) a long-term succesful product or service that’s not pure entertainment most go beyond delight/entertainment and be first & foremost useful.

    (5) Jane (McGonigal) herself, inher GDC talk “We don’t need no stinking badges” (, argued gamification confuses intrinsic/extrinsic motivation.

    (6) Raph Koster just states “Feedback does not equal game design” (

    So I would slice & order it roughly as such:
    When it comes to psychology and game design,
    1. confusing intrinsic/extrinsic motivation when it comes to why games are fun leads to
    1a. mistaking points/feedback (= rewards) to be game design, rather than rules/goals (= challenges).
    1b. overlooking the side effects of extrinsic rewards and quantitative performance measuring.

    When it comes to ethics and political economy,
    2. gamification can be used for “evil” purposes, specifically
    2a. making something “fun” can actually be a Huxleyan way of exploiting and abusing people even more fully and stealthily than coercion,
    2b. morally disenfranchising and dumbing down people.

    On a side note, I elaborated on some more potential side effects here: .

  9. @Jesper

    At one point Plato argues that kids should not allowed to “play” for too long, but should be directed to “games” to make sure they grow into “good citizens”. Which brings us to the point that “structured play” had been assigned a political function. The “playful” was regarded a threat in this case.

  10. @Sebastian Thanks. I’d read the Robertston, Bogost and Koster comments, but forgot about them when I made the list.

    What I also find interesting is that there isn’t actually consensus in the literature about whether symbolic rewards (such as badges) have a negative or positive effect (Deci says positive, Kohn and Lepper say negative).

    @Altug Interesting!

  11. @Jesper re: symbolic rewards. On the one hand, that comes very much down to the specific design of the symbolic rewards. Self-Determination Theory, basically a full-fledged motivation theory that grew out of Deci’s (and Ryan’s) early studies on the “undermining effect”, has done many empirical studies as well as theorizing about how and when “symbolic rewards” are not harmful. And the Deci of 2011 is not the Deci of 1971, and parts of the Kohn of 1993 are basically made obsolete by more recent research. When it comes to games, I’d agree with Hecker that no one (AFAIK) has actually done the empirical studies, so it’s an open issue.

  12. @Sebastian Agreed.
    Here is a more recent paper applying SDT to video games.
    Ryan, Richard M., C. Scott Rigby, and Andrew Przybylski. “The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach.” Motivation and Emotion 30, no. 4 (2006): 344-360.

    As for whether games are different than other activities here – that’s the interesting question!

  13. i got invited to talk about the lowdown on gamification at the LIFT conference in geneva in february 2011, slides are at

    because LIFT take their curating seriously, beforehand, nicolas nova, one of the organizers, and i found that a slide was needed that would compare the different approaches, or rhetorics, really, towards gamification – a gamificationization, if you wish. whimsy implied, next to extreme-comparative-tabling-disorder, an urge found amongst many academics, isn’t it.

    so i produced a graph (slide 32) to highlight the diverse and often strong held views in regard to gamification, and my friend paul coulton from lancaster university saw that graph & it seemed to him it quickly turning into a ‘battle’ to gain the high-ground on the subject through increasingly dramatic rhetoric, so paul created trading cards style graphics on one of those lazy afternoons. the guilds appeared a logical choice to ‘gamify’ this rhetoric and hopefully their whimsical nature will cause people to pause and smile and perhaps listen as well as speak.

    i eventually finetuned paul’s graphics and had them printed for real on trading cards just in time for GDC. we have put the cards online for you to cut them out and choose your own guild (4.2mb):

    in case you wonder, paul & i belong to the guild of whimsical ninjas. it is a special guild revealed to those who don’t take themselves too seriously. think of our guild as the easter egg in the gamification rhetoric wars, pointing at the metagame that is at stake beyond the gamification debate.

  14. @Steffen Hey, that’s a great set of slides rounding up the issues and positions. I like the table, both as an academic and as a human being.

    And great trading cards, though I guess they are meant more for a deadlocked position war than an actual discussion?

  15. the cards are certainly not as discussion evoking as the metagame, but they could be further developed to be:-). but then, they have been sparking some debate, you judge if this shows signs of deadlock:

    at GDC, i received a severe critique from someone who said that to associate california with the utmost utopian guild, the california sunshine guild – the card which suggests that all the worlds’ problems can be solved by playing games – was plain nonsense and spoke of my unqualified austral-european comprehending of US culture. i think the gentleman was a silicon valley entrepreneur. other than that, jesse schell said we had nailed his position quite nicely. note that i offered a choice of one card to draw to people i chatted with at GDC, and that the only people with a complete set apart from paul and myself are, as of today: jesse, jane mcgonigal and gabe zichermann (who blogged about them at now that’s sparse resources thus far! and that could be the deadlock?!

    interestingly, at GDC, most game scholars chose to belong to the magic circle guild, instead of the critical theory school, which i had thought would be their favorite. maybe these colleagues were afraid of being accused of being alcoholics if they had chosen that card publicly, because on the card, drinks are suggested to debate the topic ad infinitum. the opportunistic guild card went well, too. very few wanted the california sunshine guild card, though. only people from california :-)).

  16. I gave a talk at the Browsergames forum last year in which I disparaged the long-term future of gamification on the grounds players would grok it. Its main interest from my point of view is that it’s training non-gamers in the ways of games, and will lead them to want actual games further down the line.


    PS: My own first experience of what would now be called gamification was at school, when the teacher announced that the history test was going to be a game, and whoever got the highest marks would be “the winner”. It was just a regular history test, four of us got full marks and we were all “the winner”. I think he misunderstood the difference between a game and a competition.

  17. @Richard Ah, but yours is more specifically a targeted criticism of social games, isn’t it?

    (Reading it.) I am always skeptical of claims involving the speaker saying that people will first experience something that the speaker finds fake, derivative, shallow etc.. but that they will hopefully later learn to appreciate “real games” (Dwarf Fortress!), “real music” (Schoenberg!), “real literature” (Finnegan’s Wake!). I think the experience with downloadable casual games was that people’s tastes did mature, only not to to “real games”, but to more advanced puzzle games instead.

  18. >Ah, but yours is more specifically a targeted criticism of social games, isn’t it?

    It is, yes, but the argument applies to gamification too. At least, if it doesn’t I’ll be ripped to pieces when I advance the suggestion at a talk I’m giving at a gamification event in London next month…

    >I am always skeptical of claims involving the speaker saying that people will first experience something that the speaker finds fake, derivative, shallow etc.. but that they will hopefully later learn to appreciate “real games”

    Oh, I’m always skeptical of everything!

    The reason I made this suggestion, however, was not because of wishful thinking; rather, it was from observation. Facebook games are gaining in sophistication, and although they do still rely heavily on the techniques that gamification is extracting and repurposing, they’re increasingly adding more actual game.I expect they’ll splinter eventually as people find the particular niches they like.

    The basic thought experiment is: suppose gamification works and two years from now it’s ubiquitous; will it still work just as well and be ubiquitous seven years from now?

    >I think the experience with downloadable casual games was that people’s tastes did mature, only not to to “real games”, but to more advanced puzzle games instead.

    Yes, I don’t expect they’ll be playing hard-core games, but they will be playing games with more game in them. Either that, or not playing much at all…


  19. @Richard I wonder if some of the “shallowness” of Facebook games isn’t due to the fact that they guarantee the user progression in exchange of a modest time investment?
    This makes them a perfect time-limited procrastination tool where you will actually play for 5 minutes and feel that you can return to your work because you a) really achieved something and b) there isn’t much to do right now anyway before the crops have grown/resources has accumulated and so on …
    a) is really borrowed from RPG’s.

  20. >I wonder if some of the “shallowness” of Facebook games isn’t due to the fact that they guarantee the user progression in exchange of a modest time investment?

    This is exactly the same proposition offered by gamification. It’s predicated on a belief on the player’s part that what is offered as progression is indeed progression, ie. they do indeed feel that they have “really achieved something”.

    The difference seems to be that in games (even Facebook games) these elements are offered as rewards for activities that the player has found to be fun, whereas in gamification the rewards themselves are considered to be the fun.


  21. @Richard But aren’t you idealizing regular games a little? First of all, RPGs tend to offer the feeling of progression, even when it’s just the character stats going up. Secondly, even in traditional games, it surely is the case that the rewards and the presumed pleasures of the activity itself work together? Rewards/goals structure the activity, but the activity may not necessarily be all that exciting without the goals and rewards?

  22. >RPGs tend to offer the feeling of progression, even when it’s just the character stats going up.

    Yes, but this is a reward for success arising from the gameplay; it’s not the gameplay itself.

    >it surely is the case that the rewards and the presumed pleasures of the activity itself work together?

    They do, yes. I’m not complaining about the rewards and their connection to the game, I’m complaining about the rewards BEING the game. Even “pull a handle and see if I win” slot machines have more of a game element to them than “pull a handle 20 times and you’ll win this”.

    >the activity may not necessarily be all that exciting without the goals and rewards?

    Or indeed with them.

    The rewards are just an explicit recognition of the attainment of the goals, and although I agree that they can improve the experience of attaining a goal, they don’t make the mere attaining of goals “game”.

    Also, the rewards have to be meaningful to the player to count as rewards. They don’t have to be gameplay-meaningful – the playing of a jaunty victory tune could be a good reward – but they do actually have to have some value to the player. When the player believes they don’t have any value, then they don’t count as rewards; the best they are are flags that confirm to the player that the goal they were seeking to attain has indeed been attained.

    As far as I’m concerned, gamification amounts to bribery. Unless it also brings with it some gameplay, you may as well pay people money as points. If people can cash in the points, then this is indeed what you are doing; if they can’t cash in the points, then sooner or later they’ll realise that they’re being given nothing in the guise of something, and will feel rather disenchanted. Next time they see the same thing going on, they’ll think twice about whether it’s a “reward” or not.


  23. @Richard I can’t disagree with you about “raw” gamification being shallow, uninteresting etc… I just think that some types of symbolic awards (i.e. scout badges) can feel completely meaningful to users, even if they are “bribery”. I also think symbolic bribery is important in game design.

  24. >I just think that some types of symbolic awards (i.e. scout badges) can feel completely meaningful to users, even if they are “bribery”

    Yes, I agree with that. I’d just add that should a player stop feeling that a game’s rewards are meaningful then if those rewards are all there is to the game they’ll be looking for something else to play instead.


  25. Thanks for the resource.

    I just want to add that I’ve been writing about the evils of “gamification” in MMOs and virtual worlds for years now on my blog.

    I’m not an academic just someone who’s actually designed and scripted a few commercial video games :)

  26. I have recently finished my Master’s thesis on gamification.
    I do not really hold a critical position to the concept of gamification, quite on the contrary I am trying to shape a different vision, diversifying it from the the utopian/dystopian ones being heavily debated and argued.

    You can read it here:
    [Christos Iosifidis, “Gamification: The application of game design in everyday life”, supervisor: Miguel Sicart.
    Includes interviews with: Aki Järvinen, Jonas Löwgren, Kars Alfrink, Richard Bartle and Sebastian Deterding]

  27. Bringing in “Punished by Rewards” as a back story is a good idea. In the same vein, I think we could invoke Goodhearts law from economics, as originally formulated in 1975 “once a social or economic indicator or other surrogate measure is made a target for the purpose of conducting social or economic policy, then it will lose the information content that would qualify it to play such a role.” The idea being that the reactivity of using any metric as an indicator erodes its value. Part of the interesting shift here is that a few years back you could see people get into heated arguments about how displaying things like post-count next your posts in a forum leads to people “gaming the system.” In this context, the idea of “gaming the system” is explicitly a bad thing, where the pointisication idea of gamification seems to just be a way of saying gaming the system is in fact a good thing.
    If we back up a bit with this too I think part of this issue is actually tied up in the idea of the “user” on this Tom Morris’s “I’m not an experience-seeking user, I’m a meaning-seeking human person
    “post from last year is quite useful.

    I might suggest my own post from March on play the past, where i tried to connect gamification and some of what I see as related ideas behind crowdsourcing.

  28. @Trevor I didn’t know Goodheart’s law, but it makes a lot of sense – it explains how “gaming” occurs in general.
    It’s true that “naïve” gamficiation is completely oblivious to such problems.

  29. I wonder about the *quality*, or even the *nature*, of engagement gamification is suitable for? Light, first-time and casual engagement; or deep, continuous and risk-taking engagement? Put in another way, the question is about whether, how & why gamification can help solve “wicked” or “super-wicked” problems (

    To illustrate the conundrum, I believe *most* gamification essentially rewards specific types of thinking in 2 major ways: i) explicitly by rewarding behaviors stated in the game rules, and ii) implicitly by recreating tiny clear-cut models of the world in which simplified situations exemplify real-world issues, and rules as well as rewards / reprimands are explicit. This therefore displaces problem-solving complexity issues from the questions: “Which personal and/or collective impacts do I wish to counteract?” and “What outcomes do I want?” to the much easier one: “Which incentives do I like best?”

    Two thoughts stem from the above. First this “problem simplification” might be good to start engagement, but it also carries a strong seed of reductionism… Second to tackle “wicked” problems, we probably need stronger forms of engagement where personal risk-taking and/or commitment to personal change of behavior is needed. There are many examples of other mechanisms able to trigger those strong forms of engagement: moral imperatives, sense of outrage at injustice or unfairness, being stirred by the vulnerability, or courage, someone exhibits in the face of insurmountable odds, protecting one’s family or life, etc… The question for me is whether gamification can trigger this as well, and if so, how, and more to the point, why?

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