Why “gamification” is bullshit, and Foursquare isn’t “sticky.”

This is definitely a rant, one that started when I read another post out there on the internets on why “gamification” is bullshit.  First of all, I’ve decided I loathe that word.  It feels like a really awkward neologism that was coined just to make the concept it’s describing sound cool and futuristic.

Here’s my first radical assertion: Gamification isn’t new at all.  Our parents used the theory on us when we were children to get us to clean our rooms and do the dishes (anyone else have a chore chart with star stickers leading to a reward in their house?  Yeah?  Thought so.).  Of course, as kids, we really wanted those shiny stickers or happy faces, because we could count them and know that ten stickers from where we were now we’d get a new bike.

So.  Why is gamification bullshit if it’s a concept that worked for us as children?  Because gamification isn’t about turning things into games, it’s about getting us to ignore the fact that we’re doing something laborous (even if that is only the labor of a few seconds) by bolting the basic engine of a game onto something that is otherwise in no way a game.  By giving points for check-ins, or asking us to consider the idea of famine through the lense of a game on the internet, what “gamification” is asking us to do is ignore the labor part for the incentive of the game mechanic.

Which comes to why I don’t find Foursquare “sticky.”  I loved the idea of Foursquare, the social aspect of it, and the cutsey badges.  I’ve tried engaging with it a couple of times, but I find it hard to remember to do.  Because there’s no actual reward for the labor of engagement.  Sure, I get points which I can “compete” with my friends to have more of, and I can earn badges, and I can get mayorships (which sometimes come with rewards external to Foursquare, but not always), but there is no tangible reward which provides me with the spike of brain chemicals required to invest me in playing the game.

Because Foursquare isn’t actually a game.  It’s a labor, the same way Facebook is a labor.  The form of interaction is pretty much the same once you get past the superficiality of checkin v. status update.  I’m not “playing” when I update Facebook (although I do get a brain spike from comments on my updates…) nor am I “playing” when I check into Foursquare.  For something to be a game, there has to be more to it. 

What I think gamification misses as a concept is that games aren’t just mechanics, they’re shared spaces.  In many kinds of games those spaces are shared imaginations and fictions.  In some games those spaces are the physical confines of the game (think chess, checkers, or basketball).  Foursquare doesn’t have any sort of shared space apart from real life, that is in fact its point.  That real life “is” the shared space, and it’s applying a game mechanic to real life.  But games are about escaping from real life to join the shared space of the game itself.

Ultimately, as in the post I read (which I will link in an edit if I can pull it back up) “gamification” won’t work because it’s asking us to work against our own natures.  I think to create something that’s actually sticky and gets engaged with successfully, it’s going to have to include other defining aspects of a game, and not just a mechanic with faux-rewards.  Until Foursquare can give me a shared space in which to play, and things to play with, I suspect I will continue to fail to check in.

Edit: My G+ post for this entry, here, has some conversation on these ideas.


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