Heather Chaplin: gamification’s worst nightmare?

August 4th, 2011 by

microtask_gamification_heater_chaplinThis year has been huge for gamification. Barely a day passes without another story about it in the media, with its champions enjoying so much exposure to the spotlight they had suntans long before summer. We were no exception. Here on the blog we’ve already covered the topic from several angles: sometimes with unashamed enthusiasm (for example here, here and here) and sometimes discussing the deep, intellectual concerns of the field (here, here and er here).

For some time now, Jane McGonigal has been hailed as gamification’s greatest ambassador. However so far, what the gamified battlefield has been missing is a real and credible anti-gamification champion.

Reality fights back
Step forward Heather Chaplin. Ms Chaplin is no videogame hater, quite the opposite. She’s the author of popular gaming history book Smartbomb and has worked as a videogame journalist for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and GQ.

Chaplin is a fan of grown-up gaming (less “kill the zombies” more “design public healthcare for the zombies”). Back in 2009, she made big waves at GDC when she accused game-developers of being “a bunch of stunted adolescents”. Her views on gamification are equally controversial. In an article published in Slate earlier this year, Chaplin claimed that (despite her epic enthusiasm) Jane McGonigal is not advocating any concrete change but only a change in perception: adding game mechanisms to reality just to simulate feelings of satisfaction. In Chaplin’s opinion gamification will not work in the long run because it fails to solve people’s underlying problems. No amount of points or power-ups can compensate for jobs being shipped overseas, stagnant wages and unfair taxation. Chaplin continues: “it’s no wonder corporations are so excited about turning the world into a game. One of the movement’s central insights is that a sense of accomplishment sometimes feels more meaningful than a paycheck”.

Gaming for the greater good
I can see that Chaplin has a point, maybe the power of game-mechanics has been over-hyped. But her article makes gamification sound like a giant, evil corporate conspiracy. She ignores the hundreds of examples of “good-will” gamification: people engaging with games on a totally voluntary basis, where contributing to the cause is the compensation. Think of leaving a tip on Foursquare after dining in an exceptional restaurant: that’s something I’ve done several times, not for the points or badges but because I just enjoy free drinks reviewing places. Closer to home there are the thousands of volunteers who’ve contributed to digitizing Finland’s National Library by playing the games we developed for Digitalkoot.

While the views of Heather Chaplin go hand in hand with the complaints of graphic designers, they don’t take into account that gamification works on many levels and for many different products and platforms. So where should we draw the line? Is gamification just another “stunted adolescent” or is the concept capable of growing-up? We hope to hear your thoughts in the comments below.