What’s wrong with gamification?

Can everything be gamified? (See last week’s post Gamification 101.) It already is — especially if you believe in “man the player,” homo ludens a term popularised by Johan Huizinga. The concept of gamification refers to only a part of what being homo ludens entails.

Even through the limiting lens of instrumentalized, managerialized and manipulative gamification, the elements of competition, rewards, progression markers, leaderboards, and scores pervade human social organisation.

Formal education thrives on it (grading, degree awards). Management structures award pay grades, job titles, preferred roles on the basis of performance or loyalty. In democracies, people vote for candidates, and are polled, to produce popularity leaderboards.

Limits of gamification

We don’t need to concur that these elements provide the primary motivation for people to do what they do. An article by Scott Nicholson adds that “players engage with games for an exploration of narrative, to make interesting decisions, and to play with other people” (4). He advocates for “meaningful gamification” (4) that encourages players to explore and develop their own individualised goals and motivations.

It’s not just that we seek higher grades, but the challenge of the learning experience, or the sociability of university life. People don’t just seek higher pay grades, but fresh challenges, and more interesting interactions. Voters and pollsters are not just motivated to see their candidate score higher, but expect them to bring about some kind of change if elected.

The motivational aspects of scores, rewards, and leaderboards are palpable amongst spectators and players at sports events, quiz nights and management retreats. Some articles that address just how effective in commerce and personal development are included in the bibliography.

Here’s a clip from the movie The Circle (2015) First Day In Office. The desk worker handling customer inquiries is introduced to a method for improving customer satisfaction scores. The play context of the work environment is vital for success in the firm as workers are required to participate in (voluntary) weekend social events. Everything the worker does is logged. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ByQ35OLoMM


  • Fuchs, Mathias, Sonia Fizek, Paolo Ruffino, and Niklas Schrape (eds). 2015. Rethinking Gamification. Lüneburg: Meson Press
  • Huizinga, Johan. 1955. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press
  • Nicholson, Scott. 2014. A Recipe for meaningful gamification. In Torsten Reiners, and Lincoln C. Wood (eds.), Gamification in Education and Business: 1-22. New York: Springer.
  • Woodcock, Jamie, and Mark R. Johnson. 2018. Gamification: What it is, and how to fight it. The Sociological View, (66) 3, 542-558.


  • The tug-of-war photograph was taken at the Edinburgh Highland Show this June.
  • For an accessible survey of gamification in training see Apostolopoulos, Aris. 2019. The 2019 Gamificiation at Work Survey. TalentLMS, August. Available online: https://www.talentlms.com/blog/gamification-survey-results (accessed 6 October 2019)


  1. an_kar says:

    It is intriguing how these apps, processes, etc. change the language we use around certain things, and the way we think about them. I keep on being sceptical about quantifying and measuring everything, which is often accompanied by rhetorics involving efficiency, productivity, ‘goal-oriented’, leaving out of the conversation notions such as free play (without gratification), wandering around, day-dreaming, indulging in ‘purposeless’ magical everyday activities.

    Many thanks for your always thought-provoking articles!

    1. Thanks for the comment An Kar. You reminded me of something written by my colleague Adrian Snodgrass in a book we co-authored: “‘To wander’ is ‘to go from country to country, or from place to place without settled route or destination; to go aimlessly.’6 The word relates to ‘wending’ and ‘winding’.7 To wander is to ramble, which is ‘to walk for pleasure, with or without a definite goal’. The OED says that the word ‘ramble’ probably comes from Old Dutch rammalen, ‘to wander about in a state of sexual excitement’. Even if the word has lost something with the passage of time, it nevertheless still implies going randomly, without a goal, but with an anticipation that interesting things will happen on the way. Wandering and rambling are unplanned; they are haphazard; they simply happen; they are happenings, a word not used here by happenstance. The ‘hap’ of ‘happen’ is ‘chance, luck, lot; a chance occurrence; or to come about by chance’. To wander is to give oneself over to whatever happens by
      chance.” Snodgrass, Adrian, and Richard Coyne. 2006. Interpretation in Architecture: Design as a Way of Thinking. London: Routledge, p.246.

  2. td says:

    I tend to resonate more with Deterding in a web article ​A quick buck bycopy and paste​ – a review of Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham’s book ​Gamification byDesign. Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps​ – that “Uniquely, gamification is able to get people to take actions that are not always in their best interest, without the use of force, in a predictable way.” – would be curious on your take on that

    As a UX designer I have come to view gamification as a dark design pattern; the larger discussion: https://touchedspace.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/thehumanexperience1.pdf

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