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Gamification and Ian Bogost's Argument

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Gamification: Genuine or Bullshit?

During the past few years, as the Internet became much more accessible and smartphones rapidly gained their popularity, we also witnessed the rise of gamification. Undoubtedly, many businesses see gamification as an effect marketing strategy and various non-business organizations have also integrated gamification with their works. But is gamification as fruitful as its hype seems to suggest, or is it just a complete bullshit, as claimed by Ian Bogost in his piece of writing?

In “Why Gamification Is Bullshit”, a piece from “The Gameful World: Approaches, Issues, Applications”, Ian Bogost asserts that essentially, gamification is “primarily a practice of marketers and consultants who seek to construct and then exploit an opportunity for benefit” (Bogost, 2015). He argues that gamification services offer businesses to solve problems that do not actually require attention, and that these businesses probably take up these gamification solutions because they are able to help the company presents the appearance of innovation to their shareholders. Bogost called gamification an exploitation because gamification providers usually recycle similar solutions for any situation, instead of brainstorm and develop a curated solution for each of their specific clients. As he mentions in the paper, “the process involves the adoption of simple, repeatable, scalable feedback systems such as points, levels, badges, and other rewards” (Bogost, 2015).

Further, Bogost comments that the huge success of gamification is largely due to the naming of such term. The word “game” might appear terrifying, almost magical, to businesses. At the same time, businesses do acknowledge the power of “games”, their ability to capture the attention of the players for hours and hours. As a result, the unfamiliarity of games “perks up the ears of its potential customers, offering a pique that stands out in a noisy environment of possible business solutions” (Bogost, 2015). As for the latter half of the term “gamification”, the “ -ification ” suffix – it sounds safe and predictable, thus balances out the risky implication of the word “game”. In other words, ““ -ification ” assures the customer that the process is easy and achievable” (Bogost, 2015).

Another point brought up in Bogost’s anti-gamification article is that gamification does not actually embody the main characteristics of gaming, and therefore, does not deserve such a misleading name. Proponents of gamification singled out three main characteristics found in games that are adopted by gamification; performance, achievement and social interaction (Bogost, 2015). The problem is that these characteristics can be found outside of games as much as within them. These characteristics and features can also very well be organized and displayed on a simple business performance dashboard, rather than be implemented in unnecessary game-based solutions. Nonetheless, businesses will still find gamification much more appealing, as smartly put by Bogost – “No executive wants to attend a conference on “new approaches to business intelligence through smart dashboards.” By comparison, a conference on gamification sounds like a trip to Disneyland.”

But is gamification as redundant, as useless and as much of a “bullshit” as Bogost claimed? A close look through some of the major gamified businesses implies otherwise. Take an example from the U.S. Army, in which gamification is not just all about badges, performance and levels, but about an actual game. The US Army began putting out its own first-person shooter video game, titled America’s Army, back in 2002, and has continually received much attention from the gaming community. There are no numbers and statistics as to the success of the game, but the US Army has so far released the three official sequels and one spin-off, so it must shows some satisfying results. This America’s Army game is effectively used as both a marketing tool and a recruitment tool. The game familiarizes the younger generation with the US army and allows them to have the chance of practicing on simulated battlefields. It has been researched that roughly one in three of the new US Army recruits have played the game. (Ferriman, 2014) This clever gamification tactic has also expanded outside the marketing and recruitment field, and into the real training field. Recently, the US Army adapted and developed another version of the game to be used as a real training tool. This is incredibly effective in helping the army to reduce training costs as well as allowing the training program to be more flexible.

For gamification, games are not a medium capable of producing sophisticated experiences in the service of diverse functions and goals, but merely a convenient rhetorical hook into a state of anxiety in contemporary business

Unlike what Bogost stated above, the US Army managed to create a polished experience through the use of gamification. The success of America’s Army sheds light on a new side of gamification, in which gamification literally involves the playing of games and not just numbers of on a dashboard.

Another example of gamification that rebuts Bogost’s argument is the creative NikeFuel campaign. Nike launched NikeFuel in 2006 as a part of its Nike+ online community. NikeFuel allows members to compete with their friends in the daily amount of physical activity, which is tracked by wearable technology and smartphone applications. NikeFuel awards members with rewards and badges, and most importantly, a sense of satisfaction and superiority once they have dethroned their friends. The application also motivates users to share their results on social media platforms to help the company raises its brand awareness. NikeFuel is a gigantic hit and Nike has seen a rapid rise in their market share in the running shoe market since the launch of the campaign. This gamification campaign stands out from the rest of the crowd purely because of its creativity and uniqueness.

In addition, NikeFuel undermines Bogost’s saying that gamification is “a way to sell products and services that organizations probably don’t need” because at the launch of the campaign, Nike was in quite a crisis and was in need of such rebranding. In the early 2000s, along with some other major apparel companies, Nike received a heavy backlash due to its cheap and illegal overseas labor. The company experienced several public protests, faced declining demand and in 2004, slipped off from being the industry leader. With this NikeFuel rebranding and a change in its code of conduct, Nike was able to capture the public’s interests again and is back on track to take back its throne. (Nisen, 2013)

Still, Bogost was not completely wrong in his article, because many of the gamification campaigns are indeed, “bullshit”. Zappos was a social media king and was on-point on most of the social campaigns they did, but not when it comes to gamification. Zappos introduced a loyalty system that rewards its customers with a VIP program. The free-shipping benefit that comes with the program is certainly attractive, but what about the other perks? Zappos also gives out random badges that appear on customer’s profiles, these badges serve no clear purpose and some customers even found them to be confusing. (Graham, 2013) To top that off, Zappos invested to create an elaborate interactive ‘gaming’ experience used to browse their products, this could be easily done on their original navigation pages. These pointless rewards hurt the company’s brand image and failed to generate any extra revenue nor more customers. Many other companies that wrongly gamified their campaigns with meaningless badges and confusing games have also seen similar failures, this includes Google News, Marriott and more. (Kleinberg, 2012)

Bogost is not completely wrong in his article, gamification can very well be a total rip-off. Although when gamification is done right, it is definitely far from being just plain bullshit. As in the cases of the US Army and Nike, gamification can be implemented in such a way that is innovative, valuable and effective – the key is to engage customers in an interesting and unique way. Yet when companies gamified their campaigns using repetitive methods with no real motives for the users to engage, then they should not expect see many impressive results.

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