Response to Gabe and Sebastian’s #gamification discussion
A VERY interesting debate has been going on this last week primarily between Gabe Zichermann, author of the new book by O’Reilly called “Gamification by Design”, and Sebastian Deterding, PhD researcher on user experience, persuasive and gameful design.
For those who want to read the whole thing, here’s a complete history of the debate to date (be warned, there is a lot to read, and it gets a bit personal in a couple places):
- Gamification by Design, by Gabe Zichermann
- A Quick Buck by Copy and Paste, by Sebastian Deterding
- Response to A Quick Buck, by Tim O’Reilly
- Response to O’Reilly, by Sebastian
- A Teachable Moment, by Gabe
- Response to A Teachable Moment, by Sebastian
- Finally, We’re Getting Somewhere, by Gabe
In full disclosure, I will admit that I side more with Sebastian’s side of the debate. I respect Gabe and his mission to advocate for gamification as a tool for established brands, but I don’t think his core understanding of the topic is quite as deep as Sebastian’s.
I have a personal investment in, and love for, gamification. In particular in its ability to create real value in tested implementations that do not at all benefit from the “hype” around the topic. Either the theories work, or they don’t, and I’m not going to pursue tricks that take advantage of users or attempt to manipulate them against their own self-interest simply because it has short-term benefits to me or my business. We are in the long game, trying to solve really old and difficult problems around what motivates us and what helps people change their habits and behaviors in a sustainable way.
My company Habit Labs, and our product Health Month, use many of the principles and theories explored in great detail by experts on gamification and theories of fun/motivation from the likes of Sebastian, Amy Jo Kim, Jane McGonigal, Raph Koster, and many others. Partially, my fascination with the topic is due to the fact that Health Month is a consumer web app, directly interested in promoting the goals of its users, and not a brand in need of loyalty or marketing in a secondary way. This is a subtle point, but I think gets to the root of the disconnect between Gabe and Sebastian.
Two very different applications of gamification
Gabe and Sebastian are both, in my mind, gamification experts. Yet, they have mastered different disciplines within the field.
Gabe advocates for the use of motivational tricks that existing brands can use to power up the loyalty and engagement of their users. Take the example at Gabe’s site, gamificationU.com. He’s selling a book. In order to help sell the book, he added a few gamification elements to the site. These tools are secondary to the actual purpose of the site… which is to sell his book. Gabe’s form of gamification serves as a marketing tool to help sell a product or service, without necessarily having to change the product or service itself.
Sebastian advocates for the use of gamification as a way to improve existing products and services. For example, using badges or points to help a user onboard into an increasingly richer and richer experience of the product, like Foursquare. Or using leaderboards and points to help you know when the people you respect in a given niche community, like boardgamegeek.com, have gained something from your latest game review. In other words, these applications are not trying to directly influence you, they are simply trying to improve the experience of the core product.
For Gabe, gamification is a product-marketing tool that you can add-on to your existing marketing efforts. For Sebastian (and myself), gamification is an experience-improvement tool that requires rethinking the product itself so that it aligns directly with a user’s personal fulfillment.
It’s a bit subtle, but I think is a big reason why the two sides aren’t seeing eye to eye.
Two different audiences
It is important to also realize that these two applications contain ideas that are useful to two very different audiences.
Gabe’s message and audience requires that the term “gamification” stay somewhat high on the hype cycle, because corporations and brands that are willing to try new marketing strategies for existing products need to think that this is the next big thing, and therefore shell out the big bucks to have an expert come in and give them the 101 on game mechanics. Even very high level principles will have an impact by starting the conversation, and helping guide a series of experiments that they can learn from and iterate on.
From Sebastian’s perspective, it doesn’t really matter whether this is called user experience, persuasive design, or gamification. The important thing is to know if the science of motivation, fun, and interest ACTUALLY WORKS. I think he’s probably most useful to people who are deep in the trenches of product and user-experience design, possibly at scrappy startups (hello!), and at the stage of talking about some of the mechanics of intrinsic motivation at a very detailed and test-driven level. Probably not as much for mainstream consumption.
You can pick up on this difference simply by referring to the different conversational styles of each (Gabe is friendly and inclusive, Sebastian is detailed and blunt in his critique). If Gamification were a country on Google Maps, Gabe is zoomed out and talking about the mountain ranges and how the Rewards river comes in through its neighboring eastern country, Loyalty, and continues through to the country to the west, Status. And Sebastian is zoomed in at street level, pointing out the scratches and dings on the door of Foursquare’s Badge car.
It’s not meant to be a judgment of either person… there are different incentives towards marketing a book to the mainstream and trying to start an industry-wide movement versus speaking at game play insider conferences and plowing through scientific articles. In both cases, the message is interesting enough and useful enough that people at several zoom levels can benefit.
The battle for careful thinking
Apologies for perhaps putting words in either of your mouths, Gabe and Sebastian. Please correct me if I’m off on any of these rather broad generalizations about your work.
Mostly, I just wanted to applaud you both for being honest, responsive, and vulnerable in the public debate. I’ve seen many other debates on the same topic devolve into incendiary and polarizing hyperbole, and I enjoy seeing careful thoughts being expressed and nurtured around a topic.
My hope is that by adding a bit of geography to the debate that we can zoom in and zoom out on the layers of meaning, research, and application and continue to tease out the truth about what it is about games that makes them fun, engaging, and applicable to large parts of our lives.