Subscribe for updates and more.

Victory is Boring

(This started as a marketing class discussion post intended to be about gamification and worth 4 points.)

Gamification is a pattern easily turned dark—easily turned to bullshit. Easily, meaning I don’t know if it’s inherently bullshit. But, as I imagine many examples of gamification that come to mind show, corporations primarily use gamification to increase consumption. Like any tool, it can be used, for better or for worse.

In 2012, I had a Nike Fuelband and the first version of “Zombies, Run!” (two different “gamifications” mentioned in the You-kai Choi Tedx Talk)

I didn’t particularly care for the running part of Zombies, Run!. To me, the real game wasn’t running, it was base-building. So after a few runs I simply bugged the game and maxed out my base. Because I was playing to win, not playing to play in the sense of the 2005 David Sirloin Playing To Win book, not the 2013 Lafley, Martin one.

A lesson learned by repeating this across a wide swath of games is victory is boring. Once you realize this, you can see gamification is a means of playing to play, not playing to win. Gamification is designed to keep you playing to play.

Today, I run away from most gamification. I’ve used Snapchat since 2014. Snapchat released “streaks” in 2016 and I refused to partake in the following “streak” snaps. I have been drinking Starbucks since, who knows, and I have the app, but I deliberately refuse to use any rewards program. I’ll willingly pay the five-plus dollars for a venti cup of bean juice every time because I chose to do so, not because I’m close to a reward. The only power we have is the power to say no—death to bullshit. There’s no end to such “games”. They are intended to keep you endlessly playing.

Regardless of my qualms, these are both examples of wildly successful platforms. In 2021, Snapchat had $4.1 billion in revenue and Starbucks $29.1 billion—the Starbucks rewards program is so big, it’s basically a bank that sells coffee.

I feel like if there’s anything we should be able to take away in the last decade of platforms, it’s that Aldous Huxley was approaching the territory in A Brave New World. We’ve readily handed over control of ourselves in favor of hedonism—letting our attention and behavior be dragged away with few attempts to prevent it.

It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product. That is the only possible product. – Jaron Lanier in The Social Dilemma

I think it’s worth mentioning, borrowing elements from games was a thing before “Gamification” was coined and I don’t think using game elements is “bullshit”.

“gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.” — Ian Bogost, Gamification is Bullshit

Game elements are designed to keep you playing. We know this. Many platforms want to keep you playing as well, endlessly. We know this too. After all, there are only two industries which refer to their customers as users, drugs and computers.