Gamification, Motivation & The Opposite of Hack

A lament for gamification’s immaturity in the face of complexity.

Gamification Motivation Hack

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with ‘gamification’ which, if you are new to the term, is commonly defined as “the application of ‘game-like mechanics’ in ‘non-game contexts’”. And while this definition of gamification remains partially inept and philosophically askew—our collective wisdom has evolved over the years. We’re on The Slope of Enlightenment now. Surely.


When I wrote The Game Changer,* ‘gamification’ was right at The Peak of Inflated Expectations on The Gartner Hype Cycle° (as per figure 1, below). It was (supposedly) The Next Big Thing—The Thing That Would Change The World Forever. And so all sorts of folks on social media suddenly proclaimed expertise in it and made a lot of noise about it—as is the way with anything at that point in the hype cycle.◊ As soon as any word has some buzz to it, the flies will come.☆


* My first proper book, which unpacks the concept of motivation design in simple and somewhat practical ways.
° If you’re new to this, it’s worth checking out. Research firm Gartner tracks new tech (like omg smart dust!)—well before most enterprise leaders become aware of them—and updates the model each year. Here’s the 2017 Hype Cycle.
◊ We’re seeing it now with blockchain, just as we saw it happen with augmented reality.
☆ Hence turning it into a buzzword. And by flies I mean eager consultants, speakers, ‘experts’ and sometimes myself.


Figure 01: Mountains of Hype (Gartner Hype Cycle), illustrated by dangerlam


It was a time of mixed emotions. For one, I benefitted from plenty of bookings and work, so that was nice. People wanted to know the ‘science of gamification’—and, having completed a PhD in behaviour change and just written a book on motivation design—I felt substantially less-impostery-than-usual about sharing perspectives on the topic. I also felt as though I were in service to The Greater Potential of gamification. Namely: the opportunity to evoke a philosophical revolution* whilst also bringing about the professional empathy, curiosity and imagination that is the foundation of good game design.°


* Toward something that might resemble the infinite play of James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games.
° So as to liberate the world from poorly designed work, so that we may all grow and flourish together.


But with hype comes shallow hacks and opportunists looking to exploit an emerging niche. And so, what we saw were services, apps, products and approaches that not only severely lacked substance and sophistication—but were (in many cases) regressing from what we know about motivation.*


Jane McGonigalSebastian DeterdingZach Fitz-WalterMarigo Raftopolous and many others are exceptions to this, and continue to hold the torch of reason to What Gamification Could Be.


Gamification made competition, hierarchies and extrinsic rewards seem cool again. A shiny repackaging of familiar old thinking, which matched neatly with the world-views of those whose experience of motivation was (is) most influenced by the industrial era.° This, in turn, detracted from our more contemporary understanding of intrinsic motivation (and the drivers for more complex and fulfilling work). Instead, we saw gamification dubbed (rightly, at the time) as ‘exploitionware’.


* Just have a look at the cover of this book. And also: Dan Pink (author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us) would describe this thinking as ‘motivation 2.0’—driven primarily by extrinsic rewards (that corrupt any intrinsic motivation).


Now again—please let me emphasise: there were some brilliant examples of gamification that emerged during this time.* But these were getting lost and choked out amidst the weeds that sprouted everywhere. People were talking of ‘badges’ and rewards, and near-everyone was referencing the same small set of original success stories (mainly: foursquare°). But while badges (visual means of recognising ‘achievement’) might mean something to a young scout, they are near-meaningless outside the context of a challenge.


* Though most game designers and researchers (myself included) would actually steer clear of the term ‘gamification’. 
° Which has since divested itself from most of its gamified elements.


And the same could be said about most of these ‘game design’ elements applied to non-game ‘contexts’. Whereas an actual game designer would invest considerable time in player empathy, narrative and meaning (for a genuine sense of purpose), calibrating challenge for psychological flow and mastery, providing the right feedback loops for a sense of progress, and play-testing every facet so as to produce a better (and inherently motivating) experience—a gamification hack,* back then, would be quite happy to simply sell the mechanics without doing the work.


* I'm using the term hack to describe ‘professionals’ who churn out anything in the hopes of being paid, without thought as to quality or usefulness beyond the sale. I also use hack in the same sense as a quick, temporary fix—like duct tape to patch a hole. ‘That'll do, no one will notice. And when they do, we'll be long gone anyways.’


But in the hype and euphoria, people couldn't see this. And the hacks were quite happy to sell gamification while it was hot. The result? Unintended Consequences. Which makes sense: we’re playing with human behaviour here. We’re all complex beings, and thus any intervention designed to influence our motivation and behaviour is likely to generate unintended effects.* Not to mention: the enterprise context is increasingly complex and fluid, and also: consumers are smarter and more astute to bullshît than ever. Thus: your gamification ‘tricks’ won’t work so well, and will backfire.


* Good design mitigates this, which is partly the thesis I'm attempting to arrive at. 


And so for a while I thought it my mission to drag the world—as swiftly and thoroughly as possible—into the swampy Trough of Disillusionment (as per figure 1). The sooner we got there, the sooner we could all skip up the Slope of Enlightenment together.

But... I discovered that simply pointing out the flaws of gamification (in it's manifestation back then), while edifying, was not actually useful. It just made me appear a grumpy and bitter academic. And besides: people were still busy, and still wanted a quick, familiar fix. If it made a slight incremental improvement to things, great. As long as we don't have to think too hard.

This got me wondering. Where was the curiosity? Where was the empathy? And where was the desire to explore the hidden pathways to new value—beyond the banalities of same-same incrementalism?

In essence: where was the pioneering leadership? 
The willingness to venture beyond the default?

This enquiry (among other things, and combined with a foundation in motivation design) resulted in my writing of How to Lead a Quest: a handbook for pioneering leaders. And my experience is that there are a growing number of folk willing to do the (complex, paradoxical, non-linear, failure-rich, ambiguous and challenging) thorough work, that is the opposite of hack.

Because ultimately: this is the work that stands the test of time. It may take longer to manifest, sure. But it endures, perenniallywell after the hype fades

I'm not sure what word we might use to describe the opposite of hack—I'd love to find something elegant like Nassim Taleb did with antifragile. But ‘antihack’ doesn't quite work. And besides, to be defined by ones antithesis lends it too much power (as it is therefore treated as the thesis). ‘Engineered’ might work, but it has a cold and analytical connotation to it. ‘Designed’ is probably the closest word I know of—which is perhaps why game designers remain the truest source of inspiration for gamification.

But alas—to pioneer, meaningfully, beyond the default is... challenging. To stay motivated and true to the pursuit of quality work—when it'd be so much easier to sell out, to get distracted or to opt-out and settle for something substandard—requires us to think differently about motivation. We can't simply set a smart goal and slap a reward onto the task, or add some points and badges. Nor can we rely on our internal drive to pursue it (what with all of the distractions and conflicting demands of life, despite our best attitudes and intent).

It requires (among other things) motivation design—the savvy to consciously craft the external factors, triggers and feedback loops that shape and enhance our intrinsic motivation to do great work.


Good design requires curiosity, empathy, and good thinking. And while there’s no short-cutting this, there’ll always remain cheap options for those seeking a quick fix. The opportunity, though, is to venture beyond such. To pioneer a better way.

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