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Julian Doherty. Coder. Ruby, Elixir, Javascript, Whatever.

Baby Shows Why Gamification Is Bullshit

I’ve always been a little bit dubious of the whole “gamification” thing.

Ian Bogost’s piece on Gamification Is Bullshit talks about how gamification peddling consultants are pushing something of dubious worth. They’re doing this in order to make a buck from the enterprise suckers willing to buy it. This is true. But it’s also worth noting that the concept itself (as well as the marketing of it) is lacking in substance and basically just doesn’t work.

Gamification supposedly takes something that people aren’t interested in doing, wraps some game mechanics around it, and then it magically turns into something they do want to do. Giving you badges or achievements, or some other symbolic reward when you fill in your timesheet. It really doesn’t work though. It doesn’t make it any less brain numbing and unexciting just cause you “levelled up” while doing it.

Turns I’ve been unintentionally using gamification with my 15 month old son.

And it doesn’t work there either.

Like most little boys, he gets really excited about little things, and he also wants to imitate everything he sees adults do. One of these things has been putting his disposible nappies in the bin. He’d started to want to hold the nappy, and throw it in the bin. Then open the bin as well, then close it, then carry the nappy over from his change mat and do the whole thing.

It’s nice seeing him learn new skills. It also made him more interested in coming over laying still for his nappy change. While he didn’t hate this before, he definitely was bored with the whole thing, and it was a chore for him (if you’re reading this a decade or two from now Big Guy – no, dirty nappies aren’t that fun for me or your mother either ;) )

Great. As a parent, anything that means less work is all good. Encouraging kids to take responsibility and help out around the house and all that.

So we made it a game. We’d encourage him to pick up his nappy, and deposit it correctly, and then give him a big clap and lots of praise when he did. Which he absolutely loved and was so proud of himself. He clapped his hands and had a huge grin on his face. Very cute.

Then he mastered the game.

Suddenly he wasn’t interested in the chore of throwing out nappies anymore after that.

Really quickly, we’ve hit the bullshit in gamification (possibly babyshit in this case). Our “gamifying” of a menial task didn’t really make it any more appealing or interesting.

He was motivated in the first place because it was a good challenge. Something to learn. That is motivating. The praise and clapping and cheering was inconsequential. He would have done it anyway – and once the challenge wore off, he wasn’t interested anymore. And no amount of cheerleading from his parents is going to change that.

He already does a bunch of challenging activities on his own without any gamification. Stuff that would seem boring and repetitive to an adult, but it’s right at his level. He’ll find little projects to work on, like figuring out how to get his ride on truck up and down the stairs to the garden, or turning his legoman night-lite on and off over and over till he can hit the button with one finger with absolute precision. And once he masters these tasks, he really isn’t interested anymore. We can cheer and clap every time he does something, but if he’s not interested, he just won’t do it.

This is true of babies, and it’s true of adults. Shallow window dressing doesn’t make anyone any more motivated when it comes to sorting shit out. If something is interesting and/or we’re challenged by it, we enjoy it. If it’s dull monotony, we don’t.

Gamification != games

This is the same experience I’ve seen so many times with gamification in actual video games (you know, where gamification supposedly comes from, and where it’s supposedly such a wild success). The compelling part of a video game is the actual challenge and enjoyment of mastering the game itself. That is what the game is all about.

Gamification isn’t something inherent in video games. It emerged as a shallow design pattern in subscription MMO games to try and keep gamers engaged (and paying subscription money) long after the challenge and inherent motivation to play has worn off. The best way to do this is to add new content and challenges. But that’s expensive. Building a bunch of achievements to get more replay out of existing content is much cheaper.

But it doesn’t really work that well there either. So you went and patted every single character in the game world? It took you 3 weeks? Yeah. Me neither. Boring. I have better things to do with my time (like play other games that I haven’t mastered yet and still provide a challenge).

Gamification == bullshit

It’s the same thing with gamifying dull tasks as with slapping achievement in video games so you’ll play more once you’re reached boredom point. Just cause I get some badge to display on some profile, filling out timesheets is still a crappy task. My 15 month old son knows this, and once the novelty of gamification wears off, most people who have been gamified know this as well.

I’m really hoping this whole gamification thing goes away. I hear a lot of buzz from people implementing gamification features, and even more from consultants and “gamification experts” selling their services. I don’t really hear much excitement from people that actually have to use the gamified systems at the end of it all.

Yes, I use disposable nappies. Yes, that means I’m going to eco hell.

Note for any US readers: s/nappy/diaper/g