Gamification: Merchants of Meth or Merchants of Faith

Gamification: Merchants of Meth or Merchants of Faith

videogame addic

Last Thursday, 2 very different, gamification focused, emails made it to my inbox and highlighted a growing dilemma for those of us using gamification techniques in our applications:  Are we creating applications that benefit our users by empowering them to perform certain tasks more efficiently or are creating digital meth to get them addicted to what we produce and maximize per-user revenue?
Sadly enough there seems to be very little middle ground and app designers have to make the difficult choice of designing systems that reward intrinsic or extrinsic satisfaction.

Basing gamification around extrinsic patterns can lead to extremely addicting behaviors.  Extrinsic patterns occur when the users are motivated to perform a specific behavior or engage in any random activity to earn a reward or avoid a punishment (you may want to look up the Stanford Prison Experiment to illustrate the later option).

An outstanding summary of extrinsic-centric patterns can be found in this article on the psychological drivers behind Candy Crush. Candy Crush is a highly successful mobile application whose success is solely based around the application of psychological techniques to get the users to spend money and keep on playing the game.

As the article’s title says it extremely well there is a  “science behind our addiction”.  There are ways to get people addicted, and when done properly they can even feel the urge to pay to fuel their addiction.  On a large scale, the financial rewards, for the addiction-creator, can be quite outstanding which is why so many companies focus on putting extrinsic rewards in their games.

However, when using these techniques, we are but a few steps removed from the drug dealer or any company that finds ways to make their product addictive (Tobacco, gaming, agro….)


At the other end of a spectrum are companies whose applications revolve around fueling a user’s intrinsic cravings.

Intrinsic behaviors means that the user is engaging in a behavior because it is rewarding to them, independent of external forces. Basically, the user is willing to  perform an activity for her own sake rather than the desire for some external recognition. People engage in an app for its own sake.

A good example came via this email of the SETI program .  If you are a space-geek (guilty as charged) you probably have received the email as well:  The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.   They do so by having people go to the SETI@home project, and install a bit of software that runs in the background and uses idle computer power. The news in the email is that they were coming up with a mobile app meaning compute time could now be done from a smartphone.

In the case of SETI, or Foldit, the whole organization is built around doing an arbitrage between the organization’s goals and the users’ personal drivers.

A progress bar, or any other indicators showing the user how they are moving along towards their goals is the single most effective gamification tool when catering to intrinsic-focused users.  Anything beyond that: badges, leaderboards, rewards…makes an application jump into the realm of extrinsic rewards.  Does it mean we should not use any of these methods?  Afterall they have been shown to be effective and bring quick, tangible, returns to the company that leverages them.

There are entire industries based upon our very human inkling towards addiction so it is no surprise that tech is now faced with this dilemma:  Are we trying to help maximize a user’s wellbeing in the long-term or are we solely concerned about our short-term financial results?