Giant Rat, Fallout 3

Gamers are basically rats. At least, that seems to be the central design principle informing gamification.

Let me explain. Although gamification is apparently about “the infusion of game design techniques, game mechanics, and/or game style into anything,”  an implicit goal is to transform the attitudes and behavior of users (students, workers, consumers, etc.) to be more like the attitudes and behavior of happy, engaged “gamers.” The problem is, gamification assumes a rattomorphic view of gamers in the appropriation of techniques and principles from games: we’re just like Skinner’s rats, all that is needed is some good old-fashioned operant conditioning!

The term “rattomorphism” was coined by Arthur Koestler and appears in the must-read book for critical gamers by Alfie Kohn, Punished  by Rewards. Kohn provides an interesting history and critique of behaviorism and uses Koestler’s term to launch his argument that behaviorist approaches to human activity are too reductive, leading to negative long term consequences despite short term efficacy. Although behaviorism no longer has any serious adherents in contemporary psychology according to Kohn, the principles are still alive and well in what he calls “pop behaviorism,” which still informs many aspects of American culture.

The Truth about Dogs and Rats
Kohn summarizes two basic forms of conditioning in his critique:

  1. Classical Conditioning, which is exemplified in Pavlov’s experiments with dogs, wherein the stimulus comes before the desired response, and through repetition contributes to the formation of new habits.
  2. Operant Conditioning, which is exemplified in Skinner’s experiments with rats, wherein the stimulus comes after the desired response as a reward and ultimately functions as an incentive.

It is this second form of conditioning by rewards that Kohn argues survives in our culture as “pop behaviorism,” infecting all our institutions, from schools to businesses. The core behaviorist assumption is that the “reward-seeking, punishment-avoiding impulse that drives all our behavior is necessarily and exclusively dictated by self-interest.” This should smack of sad obviousness when thinking about economic matters, given the experience of work and consumption in America. However, we’re less likely to recognize it at play in game culture unless we understand that the rewards do not have to be economic (e.g. cash or credits) or physical (e.g. prizes or desired objects) – they can also be aesthetic/experiential, such as various forms of audio-visual feedback in games.

Left: an image of an engaged gamer on the verge of an “epic win,” courtesy of McGonigal’s TEDTalk; Right: a zombie from Plants vs. Zombies

The Problem Is That It Works
From his survey of the research Kohn confirms that, indeed, operant conditioning works. In fact, the reason its logic has survived and is so prevalent is because it works so well. But the revelation born out in long term studies is that ultimately it backfires. Over time, people engaged in activities that are structured by and sustained through operant conditioning grow to resent or hate those activities, and their creativity in approach as well as their productivity declines. Furthermore, Kohn’s survey of research suggests that rewards actually train people to need rewards, which means the more rewards are used to shape activities the more they are needed in other activities. The upshot here is that over the long run operant conditioning saps and undermines any intrinsic motivation a person has. It is this intrinsic motivation that gamification seeks to engage (or exploit) and which operant conditioning seems to activate in the short term, but this game apparently doesn’t end well.

Gamification Is Corrosive
Ian Bogost has done an excellent job identifying gamification rhetoric as bullshit, and suggesting many of its products are exploitationware. In light of Kohn’s work we are compelled to add that the logic of gamification is the logic of corrosion. The “infusion” of game mechanics and feedback systems to “any” website or activity may induce the desired user-behavior in the short term, but (hyperbole alert) like a kind of digital meth it inevitably corrodes the gaming spirit of the person gamification (in its least cynical mode) hopes to harness—their attentiveness, creativity, inquisitiveness, rigor, etc. It is worth noting that “rewards” merit their own category among the features of Gamify’s gamification system. In fact, most of the other features listed can be construed as extrinsic rewards when we understand that any form of feedback can potentially function like a reward, and thus entail the problems mentioned above.

Gamify.it Features, Nov.19, 2011

This should worry us, since according to one researcher Kohn cites, “people who are offered rewards tend to ‘choose easier tasks, are less efficient in using information available to solve novel problems, and tend to be answer oriented and more illogical in their problem-solving strategies. They seem to work harder and produce more activity, but the activity is of lower quality, contains more errors, and is more stereotyped and less creative than the work of comparable non-rewarded subjects working on the same problems.’” If the goal is to get users to simply DO something, then the logic of gamification may not read as corrosive – just effective. But if quality of action, emotional engagement, and development over time matter at all, we should be concerned about the corrosive conditioning the techniques of gamification entail.

There is No “Game Layer”
One contributing factor is that the purposes of gamification feedback are disconnected from the purposiveness of the gamified activity or media. The rhetoric of “layers” in gamification planning speaks volumes. The problem is that there is no such thing as a “game layer,” if we understand “game” to mean something more than an assemblage of techniques we find in games. What we are really talking about here is more like a “reward layer,” or more abstractly, an activity “feedback layer” that draws its inspiration from techniques associated with games, and thus evokes expectations of gameplay.[*] And it is clear that this layer addresses our inner rat, not our inner “gamer.”

In the New Time Economy, Games are Gamified
But wait, it gets worse. If games bring out “our best selves”, as Jane McGonigal believes, then we might feel righteous enough as gamers to claim that the techniques of gamification bring out our most mediocre selves. Problem is, games are increasingly being gamified, too. The shift from thinking about units sold to time spent in game environments, to an “attention economy,” has amplified the use of the very logic that suffuses gamification in commercial game design. And gamers have been eating this up:


One possible positive effect may be that the design techniques that are appropriated by gamification will become objects of resentment given their omnipresence in the new media ecology. Game designers would be forced innovate, rejecting the rattomorphism they inadvertently inspired.


[*] A more appropriate term to characterize the experience of gamified media is “gamelabor,” which should be distinguished from gameplay and gamework. More on this in a forthcoming post, “From Gameplay to Gamework.”

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