Is Gamification a benign form of manipulation and does it matter?

Let me expand on this.

A discussion started on twitter when I mentioned in passing to a couple of gamification people, that really gamification is often a benign form of manipulation. It became an interesting chat, fast. I suppose I expected that! However, when you look at the definition of manipulation in the Oxford English Dictionary you get these two definitions

  1. handle or control (a tool, mechanism, information, etc.) in a skilful manner
  2. control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly or unscrupulously

Of course, we take notice of the second normally – focusing on the more negative connotations, but it is the first that I am interested in. As gamification people, we understand behaviour and how to use game mechanics and the like to influence this behaviour. We use this information to set up systems that promote certain actions. Sometimes this is for the benefit of the end user, other times it may be for the interest of the company (or brand or whatever). Either way, it is done in a way that is meant to engage the end user (god forbid let them have a little fun as well).

We control the system, to control the behaviour of the users in a skilful manner.

This sounds a lot like the definition of manipulation…

The argument is that games don’t need to manipulate you for you to play them. Is that true though? I find that a good games designer is a master of controlling how I feel whilst I play a game. When I laugh, when I cry, when I feel excited or scared. As skilled as a surgeon is at manipulating a scalpel, they can manipulate every emotion precisely by controlling the system within which I am playing. This is what makes the game enjoyable, fun maybe 😉

This is not malicious or unscrupulous. It is skilful and wonderful for the player.

Things that we are applying gamification to are not generally enjoyable. We use game mechanics and more to guide the user or influence them. Sometimes this is done to make the task fun, or just to help make it less of a grind to do. Other times it is to try and create a predictable outcome to something. Of course there are many other uses, but you get the idea. Again, this is all done in a skilful way, controlling the environment that our users are inhabiting. This is not done (I hope) with a malicious intent. When it is done with underhanded intentions, it will fail monumentally. Using your users against their will, will kill off your attempts almost instantly.

So as I say, personally I feel that gamification is a benign form of manipulation – and that is not a bad thing or a slight against it!

I really want to hear your thoughts!!!!

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8 thoughts on “Is Gamification a benign form of manipulation and does it matter?”

  1. I think this is a really interesting and fundamental question! I’ve discussed this several times before with my friends in the industry and the difficult thing is often times language, I think. Because discussions quickly turn into semantic discussions, i.e. what does certain words really mean?

    I’ve got a friend working in public relations who listed himself in the phone book as “Propagandist”. Propaganda is one of those words who has negative connotations, but you could argue that all propaganda isn’t bad.

    Personally, I’m challenging the norm by calling myself a “spin doctor” because I frame and prime messaging to best suit the receivers. But many people feel that spin doctoring is a negative thing, like messing with the truth in some way. This is actually pretty strange, since being untrue in different ways is a recipe for really bad PR.

    And I think “manipulation” falls into the same category of terms. So many people instinctively interpret this as something negative. But does it have to be?


    If I describe a glass of water as half full, I signal to the world that I’m happy with it. If I say it’s half empty, I suggest I wouldn’t mind a refill. By providing context and directing prominent details at the right time, at the relevant people, well, it sure does have effect.

    And using the proper form of semantics in this example, I’m actually manipulating without tampering with the truth. So I’m arguably not a villain really, despite being “manipulative”.

    As for gamification, I think the line is drawn between suggesting people to do what they really want to do, versus tricking them into doing something that they don’t want to do.

    Thanks for posting!

    • You nail the point at the end. It is about
      enabling and encouraging rather than tricking people. As for the use of the
      word, people become afraid of words though; they hear it and want to distance
      themselves from it. I try to avoid talking about dopamine when I speak
      about why games / gamification work. I do this, because the games
      industry (which I love and have strong connections with), are very twitchy
      about the word. The fact that dopamine is released when anything nice happens;
      seeing a puppy, learning something new – hell getting a hug can release
      dopamine, is irrelevant. The connotation is that games are addictive due to a
      drug your brain releases.

      • Oh, the dopamine angle is very interesting indeed. It brings physiology into the mix as well. That’s what I love about gamification, iI’s so cross-transitional. I also think that there’s a philosophical level which often ends up with the eternal question of whether there is a free will or not.

        And also – an political/economical perspective. According to capitalistic theory, entities should really to everything in their power to persuade people to buy their services or products and striving to do this is a greater good, since the Darwinian principle creates better companies in the end.

        But to your point, we who are passionate about gamification must be smart in how we phrase the benefits and the inner workings in order not to scare people off.


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