Most Gamification is Just Pointsification

Posted by in Blog on Jul 11, 2012

Most Gamification is Just Pointsification

By Chris Jaech

What’s “gamification?”

I personally like “gamification thought leader” Gabe Zichermann’s definition the most: “Gamification can be thought of as using some elements of game systems in the cause of a business objective.”

Proponents of gamification suggest that all it takes is a simple, repeatable process to turn something that isn’t a game into something that has that delicious, game-like flavor. Take your product, mix in some “core gameplay mechanics,” just add water and shake thoroughly, thusly achieving a Hamburger Helper-like outcome where the seasonings are points and badges.

The problem, of course, is that it isn’t quite that easy. Points and badges are not actual game mechanics; they’re just a means of tracking your accomplishments in-game, as any professional game designer will tell you. It’s not like this is even a concept new to video games. People have been using points in sports since time immemorial. That’s why many reject the term gamification: it’s really more like “pointsification.”

With gamification, you get points for doing things that have no intrinsic value to the user. Take for example the popular app Foursquare. Foursquare assigns points and badges to users for visiting certain businesses. The more you visit a certain location, the more points you acquire. Can you buy anything with the points? Oh… no. But if you have more points than everyone else for a certain location, you become “mayor” of that particular establishment! What does being mayor get you? Oh, absolutely nothing. Just the satisfaction of knowing you’re the mayor. Pleasing the user is a means to an end, and really it’s about “better engagement data for Foursquare and its ad partners.” (from this article on Gamification.co)

According to another article on Gamification.co (The Gamification Corporation), Foursquare’s type of gamification is known as “Hard Fun, which challenges players by setting goals and providing feedback until triumph is achieved.” The other “4 Types of Fun” are Easy Fun (which is defined as fun created through “exploration and fantasy”), Social Fun (social networking), and Serious Fun “which fosters a sense of meaning by leading to real-world impact.”

I am quite comfortable asserting that of these so called “4 Types of Fun,” only two are actually any fun, at least in the context of video games. In my experience most popular video games use a relatively even mix of Hard Fun and Easy Fun. I’m willing to concede that perhaps online leaderboards fall under the category of Social Fun, but I maintain that this still doesn’t qualify as a core game mechanic (and this is coming from someone with one of the top 50 times worldwide on Sonic Generations‘ “Chemical Plant Act 2,” which I’m quite proud of).

The example given for Easy Fun in the article was Fruit Ninja, which is a great example. I would define Easy Fun as something that is fun to do just for the sake of doing it. In the example of a typical mainstream FPS, this would be things like enjoying the process of aiming at your enemies and using unique weapons with exciting animations (rocket launcher anyone? Perhaps you’re a shotgun kind of person?) The infusion of Hard Fun would come from the satisfaction of completing levels, stages, or chapters in an increasing level of difficulty, until you eventually beat the game, as they say.

The real problem is that the type of Hard Fun that gamification relies so heavily on is different from the type of Hard Fun that you find in good video games. According to Margaret Robertson, coiner of the term pointsification, “Games set their players goals and then make attaining those goals interestingly hard—that’s interestingly hard, as opposed to just arduous. Hitting my 50 miles in one month in Nike+ was hard, but it was just hard hard.”

Now, the caveat is that some people can become quite motivated by the acquisition of valueless points, and it’s certainly possible to harness that motivation for positive ends. If people are motivated to go to the gym more often because they have an app on their phone that gives them points and badges for doing so, what’s the harm in that? Perhaps my only complaint about gamification is the terminology. Call it pointsification or whatever else you want, but I love games too much to have the term co-opted for something that isn’t any fun. Maybe gamification isn’t fun because “the gamification process rarely involves any actual game designers,” as Robertson says. Imagine what could be accomplished if it did?