But that is where Bogost and other critics may have a point. In many cases, gamification is not working, says Brian Burke, research vice president at Gartner. He says many attempts to gamify situations are let down by people who do not understand games in the first place. “Poor game design is one of the key failings of many gamified applications today,” he says. “The focus is on the obvious game mechanics, such as points, badges and leader boards, rather than the more subtle and more important game design elements, such as balancing competition and collaboration, or defining a meaningful game economy.”
Proponents of gamifcation are used to dealing with the more extreme critiques like those from Bogost. Gabe Zichermann, a former marketing man and prominent advocate of gamification , dismisses the charge that it is exploitative. "Is the company trying to trick you or trying to get you to do something that it needs you to do by making your work fun and engaging, and you understand that's what's happening?" he asks.
Similarly Werbach, co-author of the recently released book For The Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business, dismisses the charge that it is exploitative. He says that inevitably there good and bad designs of gamification. "It's a serious criticism and there are examples where companies seek to exploit their customers or their workers by substituting meaningless points and rewards for things of actual value," says Werbach. "But it's not necessarily true of all gamification."
He says successful gamification needs “to use a thoughtful design process, map out the objectives” understand the players and then pick the most appropriate elements from games to achieve the desired goal. Effective examples, he says, provide users with real-time feedback, clear, achievable goals, narratives that they care about and challenging but achievable tasks.
But some believe that debates about good design are premature. Instead, they question one of the central tenets of gamification, that rewards immediately improve performance or engagement. This criticism is based on the work of American psychologist Edward Deci, who several decades ago observed students who had been asked to solve puzzles. Some were offered cash prizes and others were not. He noted that those given financial rewards were less likely to continue working on the puzzles at the end of the experiment.
His conclusion was that trying to motivate someone with external rewards can undermine their pure enjoyment of doing something. Psychologists call this the overjustification effect. American writer Alfie Kohn later published a series of books arguing that a "do this and get that" approach to parenting, teaching and management might stimulate desired behaviours in the short-term but will ultimately fail.
"Much of the problem with gamification comes down to the same oversimplified worldview that we find in business, education, and parenting." says Kohn. "Namely a tendency to see motivation as a single thing that can rise or fall. It reflects an ignorance of what psychologists have known for decades - that intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are two completely different things, and that the former is undermined by the latter."
It's a charge that those in the industry reject as simplistic. "An Olympic medal is an extrinsic reward but if you want to win it bady enough it becomes intrinsically rewarding to you," says Zichermann. "Motivations can start off being extrinsic and become intrinsic, and those who pit these against each other fail to understand that they exist in a continuum."
But perhaps the biggest concern around gamification is around the idea of addiction. Estimates suggest that nine-15 million Americans are problem gamblers and 1.8 million are addicts. It may at first glance seem surprising that so many people are willing to keep pulling the slot machine lever and throwing down chips to the point of losing their houses, relationships and more when the odds are so obviously stacked against them.