Reality is Broken

This morning (yesterday morning now; I’ve been working on this post all day) I followed a link shared on Twitter by Jamie Madigan and Brenda Brathwaite to read an article entitled “I Don’t Want to be a Superhero.” Having read through almost all of Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards by now, it got me thinking about the whole “gamification” thing and I feel like I have something to say about it that isn’t really being said by most of the people I’ve read discussing it. A lot to say, actually; this is gonna be a long one. Buckle up. Disclaimer: I haven’t read Reality is Broken.


Gamification, according to Wikipedia,

is the use of game play mechanics[1] for non-game applications (also known as “funware“),[2] particularly consumer-oriented web and mobile sites, in order to encourage people to adopt the applications. It also strives to encourage users to engage in desired behaviors in connection with the applications.[3] Gamification works by making technology more engaging,[4] and by encouraging desired behaviors, taking advantage of humans’ psychological predisposition to engage in gaming. The technique can encourage people to perform chores that they ordinarily consider boring, such as completing surveys, shopping, or reading web sites.[4]

Furthermore, Wikipedia goes on to list techniques which are commonly used:

  • achievement “badges”
  • achievement levels
  • “leader boards”
  • progress bar or other visual meter to indicate how close people are to completing a task a company is trying to encourage, such as completing a social networking profile or earning a frequent shopper loyalty award.[6]
  • virtual currency
  • systems for awarding, redeeming, trading, gifting, and otherwise exchanging points
  • challenges between users
  • embedding small casual games within other activities.[4]

So for the most part, it is the addition of operant conditioning techniques lifted from game design to change people’s behavior. It is a new buzzword for what Alfie Kohn calls “pop behaviorism:”

The idea is that the best way to get something done is to provide a reward to people when they act the way we may want them to. Scholars have debated the meaning and traced the development of the intellectual tradition known as behaviorism. What interests me, though, is the popular (or pop) incarnation of this doctrine, the version that lives in our collective consciousness and affects what we do every day.

The core of pop behaviorism is “Do this and you’ll get that.” The wisdom of this technique is very rarely held up for inspection; all that is open to question is what exactly people will receive and under what circumstances it will be promised and delivered. We take for granted that this is the logical way to raise children, teach students, manage employees. We promise bubble gum to a five-year-old if he keeps quiet in the supermarket. We dangle an A before a teenager to get her to study harder. We hold out the possibility of a Hawaiian vacation for a salesman who sells enough of the company’s product.

We use achievement levels and badges, competitions (leaderboards and challenges between users), token economies (virtual currency and points exchange/redemption systems), and progress bars to get people to buy into our brands and visit our stores, give us their personal information, send our links to their friends, and use our software the way we want them to.


The first problem with gamification is the assumption that it doesn’t already exist, or at least that it didn’t exist twenty or a hundred years ago (since some people recognize that elements of it exist already). But our entire society is built on it: grades and praise, merit bonuses and raises, financial incentive plans, and the like are all already here. Even if we look at gamification as more than just operant conditioning, which for the most part it isn’t, it’s still nothing new. Economics is a game. Business is a game. Politics is a game. Game design is a game. Law and policy making is game design, which is a game (just one with high-noise, high-latency feedback loops). Money is points, our resumés are (fanciful?) lists of badges and achievements, and leaderboards are printed regularly by the The New York Times, Fortune, People, Time, and any number of other publications. Phil Shenk pointed out that games have been used in business for a long time, but they really are everywhere.


The second problem is that as Kohn saw with pop behaviorism, everyone seems to be taking for granted that this is a good idea. Phil Shenk in the link above says in his conclusion:

There’s no doubt that rewards, incentives, feedback, cooperation and competition are all very useful in any industry, but clever people and businesses already use these techniques, and have probably been using them since the dawn of civilization.

And when Michael Sinanian writes on Venture Beat that gamification could be the answer to healthcare, he concludes:

Regardless of how healthcare reform takes shape in America, one thing is certain: gamifying certain aspects of our lives effectively appeals to our psychology in ways that are beneficial for both the individual and society at large.

Uwe Hook writes (emphasis mine):

Seriously, wouldn’t you study that much harder if a class valedictorian was called “White Knight Paladin Level 20″? Of course you would. At least that’s what Seth Priebatch, the founder and Chief Ninja (You can’t make that stuff up.) of SCVNGR told the world at his South by Southwest keynote in Austin.

Gamification or Game Mechanics work because it makes technology more engaging/entertaining by encouraging desired behavior and taps into the human desire to play a game. It can help to perform tasks that are normally considered boring or arduous.

Gamification is an important tactic to help change human behavior. It can make life more entertaining and more pleasurable. It will make arduous tasks more enjoyable. It can be used to change bad habits and transform into more positive actions.

Companies are springing up leftright, and center to take advantage of the “gamification” craze. But where is the evidence that it is even effective?

Punished by Rewards cites numerous studies indicating that rewards are not effective at what they attempt to accomplish. So even assuming it could possibly be ethical to manipulate people like this (pretend a perfect, angelic being is at the helm of the system picking exactly the right things to reward), it wouldn’t achieve the desired effect. Oh, it would (and will in the real world) “work,” in the sense that people will push the buttons to get the pellets and the metrics being used to see how well it “works” will report improvement. But at what cost?

Kohn explores the question of whether rewards are effective, and after combing through the experimental evidence explains why they aren’t. He found that while rewards often result in the desired behavior, they are most effective when the subject is already dependent on the person or organization giving the rewards, that they are only effective as long as the rewards last, that despite producing “desired” behaviors they actually reduce the quality of what is produced, and that they are especially ineffective at teaching values like honesty, generosity, and responsibility. He explains five reasons for this:

  • Rewards punish – inherently rewards punish those who do not receive the rewards, as well as subtly punishing those who do receive them, as they are consciously or unconsciously aware that they are being controlled.
  • Rewards rupture relationships – whether between the rewarder and rewardee or between peers (or groups of peers) competing for rewards, they are extremely counterproductive to the relationships that are an integral ingredient of improved performance.
  • Rewards ignore reasons – they gloss over underlying reasons why people weren’t acting in the desired way to begin with.
  • Rewards discourage risk-taking – since the focus is on rewards rather than the inherent value of the task being performed, participants will choose the path of least resistance to get the rewards.
  • And most importantly, rewards destroy intrinsic motivation, which is the single most significant determining factor in how well someone will do at a given task. Whether because the focus is moved from the task itself and its inherent value to the rewards or because anything that seems to be a prerequisite for a goal is implicitly made to seem less compelling than the goal itself, the effect is well-documented and researched: things you would enjoy doing as a hobby often become unpalatable if you are rewarded for them.

Which is why the suggestions in this video are scary:

Everybody is passionate about something, whether it’s good coffee or Radiohead or whatever and so in a sense we don’t have scores for those. But if you were to add scores, think about sort of, um, you know the loyalty you could engender with different brands. Or more to the point, you’re rewarding people for being good or knowledgeable at something that they like to do already. So that’s the part that gets really exciting.

Gamification is the avenue for pop behaviorism to escape its previous confines of school, work, and parenting and invade every other part of life where passion hasn’t yet been destroyed. The future suggested toward the end of this video is positively horrifying:

What is described would be a world without passion. It would be closer to a zombie apocalypse than a golden age. It’s certainly not “technology bringing us back to nature.” Schell seems to have more the manner of a comedian than a scholar (his delivery reminds me of Mitch Hedberg), and it seems unlikely that people would sign up to live that way, but it’s an eerily believable slippery slope.

Watching that video, it seems like she has a set condition in mind she is setting out to prove, and seeks out evidence to reinforce it. The numeric comparisons and conclusions she makes don’t make a lot of sense. And I don’t think a majority of players actually feel the way she describes or acts in the best way possible when playing games. Certainly frustration is not something that “doesn’t exist” when playing games, although most current ones attempt to reduce or eliminate it as much as possible.

Anyway, contrary to what Jane McGonigal might believe, extrinsic motivators won’t save the world.1 In the same way that paying kids when they get good grades doesn’t make them better students, applying more rewards and operant conditioning techniques under the guise of a new buzzword will not fix problems which were in large part created (and certainly never fixed) by the existing systems of rewards. We don’t need a better carrot and stick, we need Summerhill School.


The third problem, which Sebastian Deterding pointed out in his presentation for Playful 2010 in London is a fundamental misunderstanding of what is inherently compelling about games. Many proponents of gamification assume games are compelling because of extrinsic motivators. These have become a staple of games but I would guess that in many cases they do as much harm as good, and that their overuse may have ruined many gamers’ enjoyment of games they might otherwise have liked.

Based on what I have seen and experienced and read, there is one thing that really promotes intrinsic motivation and is the biggest factor in how happy a person is from day to day. I believe it is why most people play games, or spend time on any number of other hobbies. What is it? Freedom. Not free license to interfere with others, but control over one’s own life. Choices, even if it just means choosing to indulge in a specific chosen hobby.

For games that means the freedom to act in ways that wouldn’t be possible in the real world, to have experiences outside of the norm of everyday life, and above all to have some control over those experiences, possibly as a contrast to real life where at times control of one’s circumstances can be difficult to come by.

If gamification was defined as adding more choice and control to otherwise mundane tasks, or promoting the collaborative discovery of and experimentation with creative ideas through cleverly designed scenarios, it could be a force for positive change in the world. But that is not the way things are going. Jonathan Blow gets it.

Reality is broken. But “gamification” is not the solution, it’s part of the problem.

  1. I don’t know if she actually believes this, which is why I say “might.” The first two of the three games described at the end of the video seem to be less reliant on extrinsic motivation and thus may have more potential to have a positive effect.

4 thoughts on “Reality is Broken”

  1. Gamification is a very tricky subject, certainly. It is essentially psychological manipulation, but that manipulation can be used for good or for evil. But I’d like to contest some of the stuff you said, especially those from the Rewards Punish book.

    1. “Rewards punish”: Yes, obviously, but the thing is that life itself works that way too (with a few differences). Those that put more effort into something are more likely to get better results. Those that aren’t rewarded probably didn’t work hard enough for that, so they get what they deserved, no more no less. On top of that, many of the best game systems don’t really encourage harsh competition. A reward system that only benefited the ones that did the best work (the top 3 for example) is bad because there is a big disparity between winner and looser, and between effort put and reward (the difference between the 3rd place and the 4th place may be minimal, but 4th place gets no prize). A much better system would be to give rewards according to reaching a certain standard. That way theoretically everyone can reach that level and reap maximum reward while those that don’t bother get less but work less as well. It’s their choice, essentially. The freedom you spoke of just a while ago.

    2. “Rewards destroy intrinsic motivation”: The problem is that in some cases intrinsic motivation is much harder to foster than extrinsic motivators. What intrinsic motivation could make you clean toilets or do data entry quickly? It’s not impossible, sure, just VERY difficult. At least extrinsic motivation is better than ZERO motivation.

    3. “They [extrinsic motivators] are especially ineffective at teaching values like honesty, generosity, and responsibility”: Actually a well-developed system can encourage these traits. They cannot actually TEACH them, true, but then again who can? If a system encourages people to cheat, be stingy and irresponsible then there is something wrong with the system (and, possibly, those who regulate and arbitrate said system. There is no system that can resist corruption).

    That being said, I have to agree with one very good point you make: Games are not about their extrinsic motivators, they are not about their rewards and punishments, they are not about experience, gold, ranking, achievements and skinner boxes. For the best games playing the game is its own reward.

    1. 1. When rewards are artificially limited (as when grades are forced into a normal distribution, or when rewards are given out in limited quantities and competed for when there is no physical reason they need to be limited) many will often fail to be rewarded who did work hard. “They get what they deserved” doesn’t cut it. Still, when rewards aren’t artificially limited in supply, as you say, the fact that they are inherently controlling leads people to resent them, if only unconsciously.

      2. Of course intrinsic motivation is more difficult to cultivate than extrinsic–really, it can’t be cultivated, at least by others, since by definition it originates from within. All that can be done is to create the conditions which allow intrinsic motivation to thrive.

      And there are people who are intrinsically motivated to clean toilets and do a good job at it… have you ever seen the show Undercover Boss? There was an episode where the company was a waste disposal company and the employee the boss interacted with was one of the happiest guys you could ever meet, and took great pride in doing his job well. In fact I’ve noticed that a lot (certainly not all, not even most, but usually at least one per episode) of the low-level employees on that show are nice, happy people who love their jobs even though they are mindless/repetitive/whatever.

      Letting go of the need to “motivate” other people is the point. You don’t try to motivate someone to clean a toilet or do data entry, you find someone who is motivated to do it already or figure out another way for it to get done. For some jobs, sure, there may be no way to find enough such people, and Kohn addresses that. But we may never know until our entire society abandons extrinsic motivators, since rewards tend to give people the mindset that they are necessary when they aren’t, and can damage intrinsic motivation even for things other than what is being rewarded.

      3. The best a “well-developed” system can do is promote actions that appear to represent these traits, but only when the monitoring is happening. As soon as the monitoring stops or the rewards stop being given, the behaviors stop as well. They can’t be taught, but the faulty underlying assumption there is that they have to be taught. These are our natural tendencies in the absence of extrinsic motivators, especially once we reach the age where we are more aware of the social consequences of our actions. Every system based on extrinsic motivators encourages cheating and antagonistic relationships, since it is impossible for them to actually reward what they are trying to reward (an A is intended to reward understanding of the material, but actually rewards the submission of assignments that show correct answers). There may be no system (of extrinsic motivators) that can resist corruption. That is why we need something that is much more like not having a system at all. Freedom.

      You should pick up Summerhill School and Punished by Rewards; Neill and Kohn go into much more depth about this. Also, your argument that “life itself works that way too” reminded me of this video. Check it out.

      And thanks for the comments. : )

  2. Hmmm… We’re going to have to agree to disagree on that one. The main dividing point I see between our views is that I don’t feel extrinsic motivation is automatically harmful to intrinsic motivation. To speak on a personal level: I enjoy writing, and I do that even without any reward (intrinsic motivation) but if I were paid for it I certainly wouldn’t mind, and would probably do it even more (extrinsic motivation). The only problem would be if they did things that hampered my enjoyment of writing (forcing me to write about what I don’t like or care about, making me write too much in too little time, forcing me to rush and increasing stress, that kind of thing). But in the end extrinsic motivation by itself would not hurt my own motivation, nor any other in a similar position I think.

    And just to clarify some other things I’ve said: When I said “Life works that way” I meant in the sense of “what comes out of it depends on what you put into it”. You put in more effort, you get a better result. And since you mentioned school, I DO have a beef with the current education system but for different reasons. Schools kill motivation to learn about their subjects mostly because they don’t let you choose what to study and don’t even try to encourage being interested in the subject. Add to that the fact that grades are a lousy extrinsic motivator (when faced between either an A or having fun with friends and maybe even getting laid, is it any surprise most teenagers choose the second?) mind you everything I said applies to my country’s education system, which is atrocious. Maybe the States or wherever is it you live have a better one.

    Interesting video by the way. And thanks for keeping the argument civil and intelligent. I’ve been in the internet long enough to treasure such things in their rarity.

    1. It may seem counterintuitive, but at some point later on you might notice the effect. A lot of writers describe having to work to focus on what they liked about writing in the first place when they make the transition to doing it professionally, because that is how you mitigate the damage done by extrinsic motivators: you have to force yourself to focus on the task rather than the reward (specifically, what you are doing rather than how well you are doing it).

      Education has problems pretty much everywhere on Earth, I think. The US education system is not that great. But it seems to me that the things you’re comparing to the A are intrinsically motivated…

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