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Gamification is Manipulative. Is It Ethical?

Hal Conick

Super Mario Bros.-esque level design

The gamification market is poised to reach almost $23 billion in the next three years, gaining popularity by psychologically engaging customers and employees. But researchers warn that gamification can make for a powerful and unethical tool if used incorrectly.

The first time Andrea Thorpe heard about gamification, it was touted as a fantastic business tool, one that could get people to do whatever you want. Thorpe—a professor of strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship at France’s Kedge Business School—immediately pondered the ethics of gamification, which are game-like processes used to encourage human engagement with a product or service. If businesses could coerce consumers through a game, Thorpe thought it could be an ethical disaster waiting to happen.

Thorpe and Stephen Roper, a professor at England’s Warwick Business School, wrote a paper titled, “The Ethics of Gamification in a Marketing Context,” in which they examine how businesses could manipulate people using gamification. When Thorpe and Roper first submitted the paper, their editor pushed back with questions: How is this different from other aspects of marketing? What’s the difference between persuasion and manipulation?

“It’s a really interesting point,” Thorpe says. “It made us think, maybe this is almost like a spectrum. … Gamification wasn’t so much different from marketing tools and techniques, but it’s certainly at the far end of the spectrum of manipulation simply because it’s so hidden, it’s so subversive.”

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How Gamification is Used

In Thorpe and Roper’s paper, published this year by the Journal of Business Ethics, they argue that gamification in marketing is different from other marketing tools and gamified environments in important ways. Gamification’s aim is to convince people to buy something, which differs from other games but not marketing. Yet it’s different from marketing because, they write, it “includes aspects of design that covertly or subversively persuade engagement.”

By way of this subversive engagement, Thorpe and Roper write that gamification’s aim is to get people to buy or buy-in, whereas advertisements aim to persuade. Gamification wants to engage you directly; advertisements and marketing are typically more passive. As Gabe Zichermann writes in the book Gamification By Design, “gamification is 75% psychology and 25% technology.”

Although gamification is covert, it’s most recognizable in external marketing, such as in apps, websites and contests. If you’ve won Gold status on Uber or become a Premier 1K member of United Airlines’ MileagePlus program, you’ve done business in a gamified environment. The most familiar example of gamification is likely McDonald’s annual Monopoly game, in which customers receive faux board-game pieces with their order for the chance to win more food, money or prizes. The game incentivizes customers to buy repeatedly for more chances to win. In 2013, McDonald’s claimed that the game helped the company raise profits by 5% in one quarter.

Gamification is also used for internal marketing, such as training and engaging employees in new software, programs or projects. For example, CRM software company Salesforce engages employees with a gamified system called Trailhead, in which users collect points for completing training tasks. Such gamified environments are becoming more common in business, extending into employee retirement planning, healthcare and recruitment. In the case of America’s Army (“The Official Game of the U.S. Army”), gamified recruitment extends to members of the U.S. military.

While a game can’t make a consumer or employee do whatever a company wants, as Thorpe was initially told (a study titled “Does Gamification Work?” found that gamification does work, but it’s dependent on users and context), it does engage consumers on a psychological level. And businesses know it: Analysis firm Prescient and Strategic Intelligence predicted in 2016 that the gamification market would reach $22.9 billion by 2022, a more than 2,000% increase from the 2014 gamification market.

As the industry better understands the psychology of gamified environments, they will become more powerful and likely more covert, Thorpe and Roper write.

“In the research aspect, we’ve become more concerned with the ethics,” Thorpe says. “But it’s not quite spilled over to industry. … Not all, but a majority of companies are not going to pay attention to the ethics of something unless there is that code of regulation in place.”

Thus far, she says, no body representing the interests of marketers, advertisers or businesses has an ethical code of conduct for gamification.

Is the Manipulation Hidden?

Gamification is manipulative, writes Yu-kai Chou, known as a pioneer of gamification. But so what? Manipulation is human—saying “please” when you want something is manipulative, as is trying to persuade someone to go to a party when they tell you that they’d rather not. The difference lies not in the fact of manipulation, he writes, but whether the manipulation is hidden.

Chou writes that he uses a two-pronged test to determine the ethics of human-focused design: Is there transparency of the design’s intended purpose? And does the user implicitly or explicitly opt into the system? If both questions can be answered “yes,” he believes it’s an ethical system.

“However, I believe that gamification is completely unethical when there is a hidden agenda that users are not aware of,” he writes. “For example, when users think they are signing up for something, but in reality they are signing up for something else. False statements, lies and a lack of authentic transparency create unethical interactions.”

Gamification could also be unethical if the decision-maker loses sight of why their action is desirable, a process that Tae Wan Kim calls “bullshitification.” Kim, assistant professor of business ethics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, writes in a paper that bullshitification often leads players to become enamored with points, badges and leaderboards, rather than the reasons why something is good to do, thereby putting their action at ethical risk. His solution: Give players more time to think about and understand the aim of the game, just as you would the aim of any other action.

“My suggestion is that players—that is, workers or customers—in gamified environments have what I want to call ‘Solemn Time,’ in which they learn about what their works or jobs are really doing, such as helping others, contributing to society, or enhancing important moral goods such as friendship or sustainability,” he writes in the paper.

If someone is given Solemn Time and realizes that they dislike the aim of the game, Kim says that they should be able to opt out. He offered an example: Many employees at Microsoft recently signed a letter asking the company not to sell AI products to the U.S. military. These employees wanted to avoid letting the technology they created turn into weaponry and should be given the choice to opt out of the process. Others may not have minded and should be allowed to continue their work.

“Here’s a basic ethical principle that can explain this: You can expose another [to] risk without violating her autonomy if you obtain consent from her,” Kim says. “It’s a separate matter whether producing killing machines is ethical or not. The point is not that. It is autonomy.”

The Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios of Gamification

There is a moment when gamification moves too far toward the manipulative end of the spectrum, Thorpe says, but that moment is hard to quantify. What’s acceptable to a company and its shareholders may be unacceptable to a consumer and vice versa. McDonald’s shareholders are happy if the stock rises because millions of customers play the Monopoly game, but is it good for customer health?

Thorpe believes that the best-case scenario is a completely transparent gamified experience, one where the consumer knows that they’re playing. Thorpe says that some companies think the strategy loses its power when the customer knows they’re in a gamified experience. She says that this is a myth, one proved wrong in her own life. Thorpe drives a Nissan X-Trail, a car that gamifies whether she’s been driving in an environmentally friendly way—how much gas is she using? Is she changing gears in an eco-friendly manner? At the end of each ride, the car gives her a score.

“I know this is gamification,” she says. “I know my best-ever score is there in front of me and I have to try and beat that. I know it’s gamification. I love being played with and I know the idea is to get me to drive it in a more environmentally friendly way. … It’s very transparent. I know exactly what’s going on. I can even tell you what aspects of behavior or competition are being manipulated. And yet it still works with me.”

The worst-case scenario, Thorpe says, is that gamification gets better and more powerfully manipulative but remains opaque to consumers. The industry is at a crossroads right now, she says, and the marketing and business world must ensure gamification remains ethical.

“When businesses build a gamified system, it’s a really complex process,” Thorpe says. “Businesses should be stopping and pausing to think: Is this a good thing that we’re doing? It’s just a simple matter of being not only a good working professional, but also a decent human being.”

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at halconick@gmail.com or on Twitter at @HalConick.