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Gamification goes to war in a bitter battle of ideas

The rise of gamification — adding competitive or game elements to products — has become an increasing point of contention over the past year, with two camps battling it out for ownership of the term. One side argues that it’s a way of providing cheap and effective psychological marketing, while the other feels that it has become a bandwagon full of people who ignore the reality of gameplay in favor of simply adding points, badges and leaderboards.

Now it seems that a spat between two leading figures has left the movement facing a divisive split.

The controversy centers on a new book by Gabe Zichermann of, a self-professed “gamification thought leader” and chairman of a New York conference called the Gamification Summit. Co-authored by Christopher Cunningham, Gamification by Design was launched last week by popular technology publisher O’Reilly.

At the time, Sebastian Deterding, a designer and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hamburg who is studying game design and behavior, posted a long and detailed rebuttal on the Gamification Research Network outlining what he believes is wrong with Zichermann’s book. Specifically, Deterding claims the book misunderstands a number of pieces of crucial terminology, makes statements that fly in the face of established research, and generally encourages the use of gamification as a cheap marketing gimmick.

The original piece — which, at more than 8,000 words, suggests that the author is clearly angry at what he feels is Zichermann’s misrepresentation of a growing industry — also accused the book of lifting liberally from the work of another researcher, Amy Jo Kim.

In the end, Deterding summed it up in no uncertain terms:

A hundred-or-so pages of other peoples’ ideas hastily copied together, incoherent, often contradictory, and riddled with errors . . . lacking due credit to an extent that borders on plagiarism; mixed with claims that are boasting, unfounded, false, even positively dangerous . . . misunderstanding games and their appeal; promoting a flawed and unsustainable “loyalty-for-cheap” philosophy; artificially pumped up with a long advert . . . and littered with further ego-adverts to go and visit

The criticisms clearly cut deep, prompting publisher Tim O’Reilly to say on Google+ that he was “puzzled” and planned to examine the claims more closely.

“The issues Sebastian raises are serious enough that I thought I’d try to get more input on the book from those with more expertise on the subject than I have,” he said. “But if the critiques of the book made here are accurate, I’d love to see our team work hard to make it better in future editions.”

That response seemed to have quelled some of the fires, and the affair looked to have died down a little — until yesterday, when Zichermann responded by firing back.

Gabe Zichermann, GamificationUIn a response titled “A teachable moment,” Zichermann said that Deterding’s post was a “deliberately libelous” piece of work from “a vocal critic of the Gamification industry.”

On the claims of copying, Zichermann said he had built upon prior art, not plagiarized, in order to “remix, refine and filter a wide range of concepts to distill those that are most relevant” to his audience of marketers and strategists. And then he slammed his critics for being academics engaged in theory, rather than practitioners:

It is spectacularly naive to suggest that research – by mere virtue of its publication – is somehow “the one truth”. Almost every piece of work in social science and psychology has significant methodological problems, and opinions about what works (and why) go in and out of fashion as quickly in academia as they do on the runways.

But Gamification by Design is a practical book for practical purposes, focused not on games at all, but Gamification as a unique, emerging and hybridized discipline. Whether or not academics believe the techniques in the book work, they are based on my experience with dozens of clients, interviews with hundreds of practitioners, and extensive review of the literature and case studies.

This appears to have stirred things up again: Just read the comments.

It’s not clear what will happen next: Despite calling Deterding’s comments libelous, Zichermann does not seem to be suggesting that he will take legal action.

So is this just a tempest in a teapot? Two rivals in an industry going head-to-head is certainly not unusual, and audiences love a good catfight, whether it’s in an area like gamification or between the employees of a blog like TechCrunch. Does this actually mean anything in the larger scheme of things?

The future of play in products is important

I think it means something, because I think gamification is an important topic right now. And it’s no wonder: Games have been one of the most incredible boom industries of the past 30 years, and everybody realizes that making products that reward and delight people can be incredibly powerful. Who wouldn’t want that?

But just as the appropriate use of a playful voice has mutated into the ill-conceived marketing trope of hypercasual language (which I wrote about last week), I think it is fairly clear that we are watching an explosion of applications that misunderstand what being “gamelike” actually means.

Where research shows that real people get a deep and abiding enjoyment from solving puzzles, meeting challenges and achieving self-improvement, the dominant applications of gamification are the most facile: offers of virtual currency, shiny digital badges or a higher position on leaderboards. This concern — that correlation does not equal causation — is at the heart of Deterding’s criticism, and I do not think it is unfounded.

In some respects, this always happens. In his Google+ post, Tim O’Reilly makes a good point, that it is inevitable that those whose work is built upon end up feeling that their ideas are diluted or perverted. To illustrate, he picked his own experience as the man who popularized the term “Web 2.0” and then saw it change into something different, something more crude:

Yes, I was disappointed to have the term I intended for one meaning be hijacked by marketers to mean something far more shallow, far less interesting. But in the end, I came to accept that it was all part of the hype cycle, and that as Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof, “Good news will stay, and bad news will refuse to leave.” It’s always a mixture of good and bad.

It’s a fair point. Originators of ideas have little ownership of them, and now that gamification is now firmly on Gartner’s Hype Cycle, any misunderstandings or movements are only likely to get cruder.

It seems to me, however, that there is a difference between understanding that such a shift is always likely to happen, and embracing or endorsing it. Goodness knows I am not suggesting that we leave ivory-towered academics to lead the discussion: Indeed, as a journalist, I am probably considered a bastardizer of almost every idea I lay my hands on.

But I think that when we subscribe to ideas, when we spread them, we make a choice in how we do that. We can act in good faith, we can read the literature, we can try and understand why something happens. Or we can remodel the world to fit an easy, commercially viable message.

Tim has previously argued that we should work on stuff that matters — in his words, that you should “create more value than you capture.” And that, ultimately, is what I think Deterding was arguing, too: that the practice and research shows that gamification can be useful, but that it is about more than just trinkets and psychological manipulation.

Yes, marketers are abusing the principles of game design to try to make crappy products cheap, addictive and, ultimately, more profitable. It’s a growing industry. But it’s fast food for the soul, and we don’t have to revel in it.

6 Responses to “Gamification goes to war in a bitter battle of ideas”

  1. Adena DeMonte

    Gamification is a business strategy that, when applied smartly, is proven to have real, quantifiable results. Gabe’s book is a good introduction to the industry, and like books on other topics, borrows from research written by others. Amy Jo Kim is one of the first and most brilliant researchers in the industry, so I can see why some ideas in this book can seem borrowed from her. But there is a vast difference in how they speak about the concepts of gamification, and clearly books written by each of these gamification experts would be quite different. If it wasn’t sourced properly, I can’t speak to this, but ultimately the book’s goal is to help people start to think about how to design a gamification program. When we (Badgeville) contributed our chapter to this book, we were much younger as a company, and thus the resulting information is reflective of our early product, which in one year has grown to include support for a diverse range of gamification models, some which are mentioned in the book, many of which aren’t yet included. It’s unfortunate that some view Gabe as a “gamification extremist” because every industry needs to promote itself to gain awareness, and Gabe has put on some wonderful conferences with quality attendees having meaningful conversations about the topic of gamification, such as Gilt Groupe, Recycle Bank, Samsung, SAP, and many more industry-leading brands. If he can bring brands like that together in his second major successful conference, he’s clearly on to something.

    • Kathy Sierra

      Gabe’s book is *not* a “good introduction to the industry” for all of the reasons Sebastian’s review so carefully describes. It confuses nearly all of the terminology that is at the heart of what gamification is based on: game design, flow, motivation, engagement for starters. As for a vendor submitting a sponsored chapter, well, it is not possible for me to be objective about that, but the words “embarrassing” keep popping into my head.

      Gabe has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not actually understand the very science he continues to invoke, discounting that which does not support his current pitch while referring to vendor surveys and anecdotal correlations as evidence. There are far better places for people to get a “good introduction” but this book is the last place I would send someone. Reading Sebastian’s review and following the links is great place to start.

      Gamification has the unfortunate attribute of sounding fun and simple while being based around subtle, complex, and deep psychological issues. There IS no simple introduction because gamification has the potential for some very nasty side-effects. It is these potential side-effects, largely ignored by vendors or consultants selling gamification, that drive people like me and Sebastian and others to push back on those who cheerfully dismiss them.

  2. Damon Thomas

    I truly believe gamification can be used to transform how societal institutions operate, particularly education, so when it is argued to be valuable first and foremost in a marketing context to dupe consumers into completing mundane tasks, this can be described as the lowest-level, most unethical type of gamification. When game mechanics, elements, or whatever you want to call them are applied to activities in a careful and thoughtful way, with an understanding of why games are engaging, this leads to something far more exciting. I’m glad Sebastian was willing to put his neck on the line to raise the gamification bar, and can’t wait to read his book, perhaps good gamification by design would be an apt name, as soon as it is written.

  3. Alper Çugun

    It is a momentous lapse in judgement to ask an extremist in the gamification debate to write a book about the subject on such an authoritative label as O’Reilly is. Anybody probably could have written a better and more balanced book than Zichermann did and should have.

    If O’Reilly wants to retain any such authority it has, it had best retract the book and shred it.