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When Gamification Goes Wrong

Video game designer Adrian Hon wants us to harness the power of his craft for good.

Joshua Fray, used with permission.
Joshua Fray, used with permission.

As a kid playing 80s- and 90s-era strategy games on the family PC, Adrian Hon secretly entertained the idea of designing video games of his own. Deterred by his middle-of-the-road math skills, he turned to other pursuits, studying experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge and starting a doctoral degree in neuroscience at Oxford. But games found him anyway; he left the program after a year to design them full-time, eventually founding the company Six to Start and launching Zombies, Run!, an app that helps users build a running habit.

Hon’s childhood love for games hasn’t left him. But alongside it has grown the fear that they are being deployed in increasingly malicious ways, as companies, governments, and schools leverage “gamification”—the use of game design features like points and levels for nongame purposes—to monitor and control users who may have no choice but to “play.” In his book, You’ve Been Played, Hon explores the spread of gamification and the social and psychological costs of turning life into a game.

How did your psychology background lead to a career in game design?
I’m not sure it did, to be honest. But if I had to draw a connection, it would be that both are tied to my interest in human motivation and how people react when they’re put in certain scenarios. While I was at Cambridge, I was playing an alternate reality game that took place both online and in the real world. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and it became a secondary creative outlet for me. Later, the first game I ever designed was an alternate reality game called Perplex City, a massive treasure hunt that took place from 2005 to 2007.

In Zombies, Run!, players try to survive a zombie apocalypse, completing runs to advance the game’s plot. Why that format?
I suspect that a lot of people who make gamified running apps, even if they run themselves, have forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner runner. Nowadays, I don’t need anything to make myself run; I just do it. But when you first start out, you need every ounce of encouragement and motivation you can get; otherwise, all you can think is, This is horrible, I’m getting a stitch. A good story is highly motivating; you keep going because you want to find out what happens next. I think this fact is insufficiently recognized by a lot of people who try to leverage gamification.

What separates good gamification from bad?
Good gamification helps people achieve the goals that they’ve set for themselves, for one, rather than those that the creators have set for them. You can see the difference pretty explicitly in the gamification that’s been described by Amazon workers, where the game rewards them for returning early from lunch or bathroom breaks, or in the bonuses offered in gig economy apps like Uber, where you get a bonus only if you complete a certain, often fairly high, number of jobs. Being given “points” for overworking or doing unpaid extra time is exploitative. And ultimately, it’s not a game if you’re forced to play. It’s not a game if the stakes are so high that you might not make rent if you fail.

What about games that promise to improve your memory or help you learn a language?
It also can’t be good gamification if it simply doesn’t work. A lot of brain-training apps claim that if you play their game for half an hour a day, it will increase your memory or IQ by 20 percent. But it just doesn’t. They may have studies that show improvement—but they’re studies they commissioned, and they don’t compare their game to other methods.

Companies that use gamification often argue that it makes work more fun and employees more productive. Does it?
It can be quite effective at motivating people in the short term, but it tends to be ineffective, even damaging, in the long term. The games’ design often makes it satisfying to do your first series of jobs—confetti flies everywhere, you make progress in your “quest.” But humans naturally tire of that kind of generic motivation very quickly. Workers have explicitly said that they found gamification exciting at first and horrible by the end. The gamification didn’t change. It’s just based on a basic, incomplete understanding of what motivates people—behaviorism, essentially, which unfortunately accords very well with business incentives.

Increasingly, schools and governments are using gamification to monitor behavior and promote good citizenship. What’s the danger there?
A lot of it comes down to two questions: How do we want people to be good citizens? and How do we decide what’s “good”? Gamification is best deployed when outcomes are easily quantified. If you want kids to get 90 percent on a test, that’s not hard to gamify; if you want children to feel fulfilled at school, it’s not so easy to quantify.

But let’s say we as a community agree that we want children to have certain values. Should we really use “points” to do that? Kids will do plenty of things totally unbidden, without rewards or punishments. But the more rewards and punishments are deployed in a setting, the more they seem like the only way to motivate people—and the more a child may start to think, Well, this is all I’ve got.

Has the spread of malevolent gamification changed your feelings about the power of games?
I still come down firmly on the side of good gamification. The idea that it’s easy to make games work for everything is pernicious—that’s where bad, generic gamification comes from. But when they’re done right, games are among the most exciting, powerful forms of learning and behavior change that have ever been invented. But we have to be very deliberate in how we design them—and right now, too many people just can’t be bothered.