A nascent field, gamification — the application of online game design techniques in non-game settings — has been quickly gaining attention from leaders in business, education, policy and even terrorist communities. To name a few examples: The USA cable network uses a points and rewards system to stoke an avid fan base for shows like “Psych,” awarding viewers who are active on the channel’s special “Club Psych” website. German software company SAP gives points to incentivize employees to carpool in an effort to cut the large gas expenses it had previously paid for workers. Yoxi, a tech start-up firm, uses an “American Idol”-like competition to social entrepreneurs vying for financial backing for their projects. At Challenge.gov, the White House encourages the use of prizes to crowd source innovative solutions to tough challenges, including the production of advanced unmanned air vehicles. Even Al Qaeda uses game techniques to fortify its relationships with recruits.

But gamification also has plenty of critics, and the debate over its future could quickly become an epic battle in the same vein of many online game favorites. At a recent Wharton conference, “For the Win: Serious Gamification,” academics, game designers, business executives and policymakers gathered to discuss the opportunities and challenges of applying gaming techniques in sectors such as marketing, the workplace, education and health care.

Carnegie Mellon University professor and game designer Jesse Schell, who ignited much of the current interest in gamification with a keynote address at the 2010 Design Innovate Communicate Entertain (D.I.C.E.) Summit, said he was surprised people took interest in his presentation, since he had talked about the phenomenon for years with little response. “Something in the air crystallized at that time,” he noted. “There is something that’s happening in culture right now — a shift just as sure as the Industrial Revolution was a shift. We’re moving from a time when life was all about survival to a time when it was about efficiency into a new era where design is largely about what’s pleasurable.” According to Schell, gamification is a way to arrive at a “fundamental understanding of what it is that’s pleasurable to people.” What’s more, online games have entered the mainstream, helped by platforms such as smartphones, tablets and Facebook.

As game techniques infiltrate walks of life outside of the traditional online gaming universe, however, some are condemning its application in these new spheres. At the Wharton conference, Georgia Institute of Technology professor and game designer Ian Bogost called gamification efforts “exploitation-ware” that is being “invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is video games and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business.” Gamification, he argued, “gets games wrong, mistaking incidental properties like points and levels for primary features like interactions with behavioral complexity.”

But Gabe Zichermann, an author, entrepreneur and blogger at the online industry community Gamification Co., countered that gamification is not only a new industry that can create thousands of jobs for game designers and others, but is also a field that will yield benefits for the public. “It’s the meaning we will enrich, educations we will improve, health we will foster and lives we will lengthen through the application of gamification design that will be among our most important legacies,” he noted.

As an example, Zichermann cited non-profit HopeLab’s use of game techniques to fight obesity among low-income teens. Equipped with an accelerometer measuring vigorous activity, teens can boost their online status through exercise and gain “Zamz,” a virtual currency that can be used to purchase online and real-world rewards. HopeLab reported that participating teens’ activity levels increased by 30% a month through this process.

To Trick or Transform?

Still, debate continues over whether gamification itself is inherently good or bad. That is, is its use motivated by bad intentions to dupe people into doing things that aren’t necessarily in their best interest? Or are some attempts at gamification merely poorly executed, so that its effects are superficial and fail to transform people’s behavior in long-lasting, positive ways? “If gamification is fundamentally about tricking people to feel happier about situations that aren’t going to be better [for them], then it’s problematic on a lot of levels — both ethically and in effectiveness in the long term,” according to Kevin Werbach, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics who organized the conference with Dan Hunter, a professor at New York Law School. “The question is: What are the aspects of [gamification] that are really about meaningfully improving people’s experience?”

Gamification is naturally suspect if it is used by corporations, terrorist organizations or others with the intention of potentially causing harm — whether to push the sales of useless products and services like subprime mortgages, or to lure recruits into suicide missions. Even if the goals of gamification are exemplary, however, does gamification merely gloss over real problems that require real answers? For example, does awarding participants points and using other incentives through the HopeLab program significantly impact the root causes of teen obesity in low-income neighborhoods, such as the lack of access to, and the high price of, fresh fruits and vegetables? By gamifying the problem, “you’re spreading butter over toast so it tastes better, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” Georgia Tech’s Bogost pointed out.

Current efforts at gamification come with other pros and cons, including the relative value of extrinsic motivators (such as points, badges and rewards) versus intrinsic motivators generated by an individual’s internal will or desires. “In the long run, [extrinsic rewards] are not fun,” said Nicole Lazzaro, Founder of XEODesign, which helps companies such as Sony, Sega and Leapfrog improve player experiences. “The use of extrinsic motivation will decrease motivation to use your products and services once you remove that reward…. You have to keep upping the dose to have the same motivation and change in behavior over time.”

But Carnegie Mellon’s Schell cautioned against writing off extrinsic rewards without a deeper understanding of the psychology behind motivation. “We don’t fully grasp the complex relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards,” he noted. And extrinsic rewards can be a catalyst for intrinsic motivation, added Michael Wu, chief scientist of Lithium Technologies, a social networking research and consulting firm. “Using an extrinsic reward is a good way to get people to start doing something,” he said. Although the outside incentive may be the initial reason that people adopted a particular activity, Wu suggested that they may ultimately develop internal motivators. Once teens start losing weight and looking better, spurred by the lure of HopeLab’s Zamz currency, for example, they may embrace a healthier lifestyle because it makes them feel better about themselves.

Conference panelists Sebastian Deterding of the Hans Bredow Institute in Germany and Scott Rigby, president of customer engagement research consortium Immersyve, have studied the psychology of motivation that makes online games so engaging. Online games are voluntary experiences that become so addictive that “people [who play them] won’t even go to the bathroom [in the middle of a game],” Rigby pointed out. An adherent of self-determination theory, Rigby said that humans, who are “energized to grow and to elaborate ourselves,” have basic psychological needs for mastery, connectedness and autonomy. If online games satisfy these basic needs, they will be highly motivating — no matter whether the reward mechanism is extrinsic or intrinsic. In a similar vein, Deterding noted that people play games because it’s “fun,” which can be distilled to the freedom an individual enjoys in various forms of voluntary play.

In a field rife with anecdotes but little hard data, Wharton’s Werbach and New York Law School’s Hunter intend to develop in-depth case studies to examine the types of business problems organizations want gamification to solve, the techniques used and the results. According to Werbach, there currently are few bridges between game design as a craft and psychological research. “That’s why research is valuable — to get beyond whether gamification is good or bad, and does it work or not.”

Related Resources

Web 3.0: The ‘Social Wave’ and How It Disrupts the Internet

From Virtual Barnyards to Real Dollars: Andrew Trader on Zynga, ‘Gamification’ and the Power of Analytics

Facebook’s Ethan Beard: Driving Engagement — and Growth — Through ‘Social Design’