Gamification is not Behavioral Economics

Gamification brings together the fields of game design, psychology, and management.  Yet each of those communities is, for its own reasons, skeptical.  When someone from one of those worlds dismisses gamification out of hand, they miss an opportunity for productive conversation.

Case in point.  According to a post on the GamesIndustry International site by Mark Sorrel:

Gamification is often described as ‘adding game-like elements to things that are not games’. That’s not really what it is at all. Those game-like elements aren’t anything to do with games, they are behavioural economics. …

Behavioural economics is what powers all that fremium stuff, that social stuff that make games so more enticing than TV in the first place. Not game mechanics. Engagement, fremium, social – all behavioural mechanics in tooth and claw.


Behavioral economics identifies patterns of “irrational” behavior, such as loss aversion (people care more about losing a certain amount of money than gaining that same amount).   So yes, it can offer explanations for why people respond to points and leaderboards by apparently “wasting” large amounts of time and money.  That doesn’t mean the points and leaderboards are behavioral economics.

Even worse, the proposition presupposes what it seeks to prove: that gamification is just the use of things like points and leaderboards when they generate marketing benefits.  It’s not.  In fact, what’s significant about gamification are the things that behavioral economics can’t comprehend.

Richard Thaler, one of the leading lights of behavioral economics wrote about the Speed Camera Lottery, a Volkswagon-sponsored experiment in Sweden to motivate safer driving by offering the possibility of a reward for non-speeders.  The system made the speed-limit enforcement more game-like.  Yet the lesson Thaler took away was (drumroll please…) that people like lotteries.  So policy-makers should use them.  That’s it.

Games create experiences.  They are, or at least they can be, fun. They aren’t just another category of odd behaviors that people engage in because our brains aren’t built to do economics properly.  Behavioral economics has no truck with them.

Gamification is about what’s inside people’s heads.  It’s about making things that aren’t really games seem more game-like, so as to achieve some purpose.  That’s the farthest thing from behavioral economics.