Gamification, Behaviorism and Bullshit

Jon Radoff
5 min readSep 1, 2021

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I originally wrote this article on my Wordpress blog back in 2011. Since that blog is now offline, I thought it was worth a re-post, particularly in light of my 2021 Building the Metaverse article, “The Metaverse is Real Gamification.

Ian Bogost’s essay “Gamification is Bullshit” has predictably raised the hackles of a wide range of people, most of who missed his point. Like Ian, I’ve pointed out that much of the “gamification” trend is driven by superficiality. As I wrote in the introduction to Game On:

…points are important. Badges can be helpful. Leaderboards are compelling. But these are simply the tools of game design: they don’t tell you what makes games actually work.

Pigeons in a Skinner Box

Games can teach a great deal to businesses, designers and marketers. This concept has come to be known by the unfortunate term gamification. The problem is that gamification is generally caught-up in one of the game industry’s overarching myths — the idea that games are nothing more than Skinner boxes (“push-button, get cookie”), a part of behaviorist psychology which has largely been passed by advances in cognitive and evolutionary psychology over the past 50 years. It’s not to say that reward systems and frequencies aren’t important–it’s just that there’s a lot more going on inside games than the reward mechanism. The belief that games are just reward delivery systems has led to a lot of bad games, not only in “gamifications,” but in games in general.

As Bogost wrote, “bullshit” doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong — it is that the practitioners of bullshit are more interested in getting their way by impressing each other. As HG Frankfurt writes in On Bullshit:

For the bullshitter…he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.

I don’t really like the term “gamification.” Like the label of “serious games,” which Bogost likewise admits is a problematic category, it tends to encompass far too many variants — and within the category, one is likely to find both bullshitters as well as genuine practitioners. Nevertheless, labeling of emergent categories seems inevitable and gamification is the term we have. What I’m calling bullshit on is the trend I’m observing in game criticism overall, which is to generalize categories of games while ignoring the individual differences between approaches, outcomes, products and people. I’ve seen this in criticism of gamification. I’ve seen it in criticisms of social games. I’ve seen it in misguided analyses of “game addiction” and media studies of game-induced violence.

Developing any type of game is hard. Generalizations which lump entire categories of effort into an out-group which can be set up as the enemy aren’t helpful. This sort of criticism is similar to Roger Ebert’s grating insistence on the supremacy of film over games; the activism of Jack Thompson; the Frankfurt School’s theory of how culture industries are a conspiratorial capitalist enterprise intended to enslave the consumer; or those who see a division between low-culture and high-culture, the latter being defined by a higher degree of education, experience or financial means which, by economic constraints, limit culture participation to certain elites.

High Culture?

There’s a similar high-culture versus low-culture divide emerging within the game industry. It’s an ironic turn, given how games themselves tend to more frequently associate closer to the history of other low-culture industries such as television, comic books, movies, genre fiction, popular music — versus “serious” literature, symphony orchestras or fine art museums. In the game industry, the “low culture” is currently social games, gamification and (maybe) mobile games — versus the high-culture of AAA hardcore games. Personally, I enjoy both and fail to see why we can’t find good product within each camp. Indeed, I think innovation is occurring across the entire spectrum of products.

In his conclusion, Bogost states that “…those of you who would consider that games can offer something different and greater than an affirmation of existing corporate practices, the business world has another name for you: they call you ‘leaders.’” I’m persuaded by this argument, because leadership with games will happen with those who rise above the bullshit to understand what games really have to offer. At the same time, I believe the admonition would apply equally well to much of the game criticism that’s happening today: leadership in criticism will happen not by damning entire categories, but by performing the traditional job of criticism: identifying individual works that require better exposition–and illuminating the specific elements, techniques and theories that succeed or fail within a given endeavor.

The problem with gamification isn’t the term, or its objectives, but how it is applied. As I’ve noted above, it’s the behaviorist approach to games that channels inquiry away from the harder problems of immersion, cooperation and competition that is so important to creating successful game experiences. Behaviorism was popular in psychology because it seemed to offer some easy answers–some of which do work (such as certain forms of conditioning) yet which is built on an erroneously reductive premise that ultimately failed to be supported empirically. The behaviorist model of game design goes way beyond gamification; it’s the same model that has caused a long list of expensive MMORPG products to implode. Rather than focusing on the differences between the high-culture versus low-culture camps within the game industry, truth would be better served by an exploration of the underlying methods and theories which undermine the art and craft of game creation.

For an updated view on the state of “gamification” — please read my 2021 article The Metaverse is Real Gamification

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Jon Radoff

Adventurer & entrepreneur. I fight for the game-maker. CEO Beamable.com. Contents of blog, Copyright 2024 Metavert LLC.