I’ll be honest up front… I think “gamification” is crap.  Sure, making experiences more interactive, interesting and valuable for users is awesome.  And yes, gaming embodies a lot of great ways to do that.  But looking at gaming as the source material for that is a bad idea.  Looking at the very well established bodies of knowledge known as human psychology, social economics, etc, is a fantastic idea!  Everything does not need to be a game to be more enjoyable or interactive.  Likewise, a firm understanding of human behavior and drives will make you a game designer unrivaled by those not in the know.

I am glad these people are trying to improve user experiences, but looking at gaming as a source of understanding human behavior is like asking someone to learn how to drive a car by watching traffic out an office window.  Sure, you get a strong outline of what is going on, but the very systems and structures at work are only implied or guessed at.

I have much the same reaction watching people talk about “incentivizing player behavior”.  What “social-mobile” usually boils down to is a system that looks like a drug dealer or fast-food nutritional content strategy, because all of these things work on the same reward system hard-wired into the human brain.  You can apply strategies and monitor the results, or you could just take a step back and learn about the human systems involved in the first place.

A drug dealer would say this:  “The first hit is free, then you pay for the drugs after that.  We slowly increase the price as your need for it increases.  Eventually we can even pimp you out to do unpleasant acts and involve your friends because your need will have grown enough that we can influence your behavior”.

A “Fremium” game designer would say this:  “You get to play the game for free, but we block you off from rewarding actions after you get used to performing them.  Then we punish you via a time mechanic if you don’t purchase the ability to have fun right now.  Once the user is hooked, we push adds at them and block fun again until they click on them.  After they do that a few times, we push them to involve their friends in the same behavior” via “social networking”.

I am of course simplifying a bit for the sake of brevity, but if you want to model this you can go to any bookstore or library and get a book on reward centers and addictive behavior, and save yourself a lot of time and money!  Call it “gamification” or “incentivizing” or anything else you want, your big purple hat and long fuzzy coat are a dead giveaway for what you are really doing!

I’m not going to deny that this is an effective business strategy, whether you are selling drugs, games or potato chips.  Humans are hard-wired to respond this way.  Ethical and moral issues aside, making “games” of this nature doesn’t require real design because it limits you to the very narrow scope of an addictive compulsion loop.  The purpose isn’t to delight and entertain, it’s to manipulate human behavior to achieve market goals.  No wonder advertisers and venture capitalists love fremium social mobile games!

If you are interested in how the food industry has created the addictive compulsion loop effect for decades, read “The End of Overeating” by David A. Kessler M.D. for an explanation of how this same human system works with fat, sugar and salt!

If you want an easy yet thorough introduction to the way people really work, I suggest you read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink.  If you want more, there are countless great books and videos by many smart people for you to delve into.