As seen in our previous article, the concept of gamification is enjoying a surge in popularity. However, while gamification benefits are widely recognized, ethical and controversial aspects are seldom debated.
In this article, we try to map the different impacts of gamification from an ethical point of view. We will also examine some real-life situations where ethical questions arise. We will investigate how introducing gamified elements in a system can lead to unethical outcomes. Finally, we will attempt to provide some solutions, although many issues remain far from being solved.
To determine whether a gamified system is ethical, we first need to outline a framework for ethics.
Academics propose several – and often complex – definitions. However, it is possible to come down to two very basic questions to identify whether gamification is ethical or not:
- Is the purpose of gamification clearly stated and easy to understand?
- Does the system offer a choice to opt-in (or out)?
The main point about ethics and gamification is the implied agreement between the user and the system.
On the one hand, there is a need for transparency to the user about the intentions of the system.
On the other hand, the system should not be created to lock in users deliberately. A stricter definition of ethics may even request the system to offer a choice AND not push users into harmful behaviors.
To have a better sense of what an unethical system may look like, we can think of the following:
- The systems that exploit vulnerable groups within society, such as children, elderly, or sick people;
- Those that offer random rewards to create additive, gambling-like experiences that lock users in;
- Systems that encourage players to disclose personal information to progress in the game without clearly stating it upfront;
- And last, those that leverage players’ weaknesses to manipulate them to do things against their best interests.
However, the line is not always easy to draw. That is why a more thorough assessment of the potential pitfalls of gamification is needed.
The more potentially harmful and morally questionable, the higher the chances a gamified system is not ethical.
A growing number of games are offered as services to consumers. Companies are implementing gamified systems to motivate employees and boost their productivity. Educational institutions increasingly include game-designed elements in their programs.
Gamified elements are around us, but we might not identify them. A 2013 survey about the use and perception of gamification found that users are not always aware of the game elements they interact with.
Researches asked participants whether they used systems that displayed game elements. While 59% of the participants responded negatively, only 54% of them were actually not involved in any gamified system.
Discrepancies emerged when participants had to spell out which applications they used in their day-to-day activities. To give an example, 66% of them mentioned LinkedIn.
LinkedIn as a gamification example
The adoption of gamification on LinkedIn is related to the “Profile Strenght” bar. The bar signals the amount of information that users provide when completing their profile.
On LinkedIn latest version, for any additional piece of information, one of the bar segments gets colored. In addition, the more the skills and experiences, the more likely a user is to be discovered by recruiters through the site.
In this case, the user receives an instant gratification when he sees the bar getting completed. At the same time, he is dragged by the higher chances to attract potential opportunities.
As the LinkedIn example shows, some gamified elements are not explicit. Users might therefore be unaware that some features of the gamified experience are designed to influence their behavior.
User awareness is not a trivial aspect when considering the ethical nature of gamification. How can users decide to opt in or out of a gamified system if they do not recognize it as such?
To this end, more transparency and disclosure from the provider of the gamified experience would be needed.
Persuasion & Manipulation
Gamification may induce a change in users’ perception of gamified tasks. These may look more appealing due to their playful framework and rewarding outcome.
At the roots of this mechanism are so-called “persuasive qualities” of gamification systems:
- Tunneling: users engage in a step-by-step process with small and quantifiable milestones;
- Self-monitoring: all the data from the performance of the user is tracked and fed into the system. Such data is used by individual users to monitor their engagement and enjoyment;
- Surveillance: it occurs when others can see the tracked data of an individual user. If the “peer pressure” is excessive, it may spur social conflicts between participants. Alternatively, it may affect power relations whenever a hierarchical structure is in place. Finally, it may create privacy issues when data is shared.
- Conditioning: it refers to the ability of gamified systems to motivate users through positive feedback and rewards. However, the idea of conforming to the goals of the system may be counterproductive. Rewards could motivate some users while discouraging others if the stakes are too high.
If persuasive features of gamified elements raise concerns about ethics and moral worth, alleged manipulation has an even greater impact. How do we determine whether the line between a “gentle push” towards the desired outcome and actual manipulation has been crossed?
Manipulation is defined as any practice that infringes users’ autonomy. It involves aspects such as transparency, consent, and self-reflection.
Examples of manipulation include:
- Companies that do not disclose the content and goals of a gamified system because users would otherwise not participate;
- Online service providers that do not mention privacy terms as users might not opt in to data collection;
- Games that exploit players’ additive or compulsive behaviors so that users have difficulty stopping the gameplay.
As said for user awareness, one solution to counteract manipulative practices would be greater transparency. That would involve a commitment from both parts:
- The provider of game-like experiences would state the content and the objectives of his gamified system;
- The user would give his informed consent before entering the system.
However, that solution is far from being perfect as more questions arise. What if user consent is compulsory in order to access the gamified service? What if gamification programs are mandated for a job? Further discussion is therefore needed on these topics.
This practice may be particularly common in the workplace, where it has been labeled as “exploitation-ware.” It highlights issues of voluntariness and fairness.
The term refers to the use of gamified elements to motivate employees to do more than what their job requires. It describes circumstances where an enterprise exploits the social environment (i.e., peer pressure) to get more work done without a tangible reward for the employee.
For example, a form of “exploitation-ware” may be a reward strategy linked to the relative performance of an employee with respect to others rather than to the individual’s performance itself.
While this approach may work for competitive employees or high-achievers, it may be disruptive for less competitive or pressure-sensitive individuals.
Moreover, when it comes to financial aspects and employee benefits, the practice could eventually prove unfair. Even though an employee voluntarily chooses virtual rewards instead of real ones, he may nonetheless enter into an unfair transaction.
While a more transparent policy could overcome some of the hurdles of gamification in the workplace, it may still not be enough.
For instance, gamified environments are not always clearly signaled in job advertising. That could be addressed with a more detailed job description. But what if an employee does not want to be involved in certain gamification practices? Should he turn off the job offer? Or worse, should he quit the job he is currently in? These and other pending questions need to be addressed in the future.
Gamification providers do not intend to cause physical or psychological damage to involved parties. However, that may unintentionally happen.
A most famous example of this pitfall is Pokémon Go. This is an augmented reality game where players use their mobile devices to explore the real world and catch virtual Pokémon. The game is not a whole gamified system, but shows some characteristics of gamification.
The race to collect as many Pokémon as possible, and the “blended reality” that the game creates, led to several accidents.
That spurred a wave of criticism and urged designers to include messages reminding players to avoid dangerous actions while playing.
When it comes to harmful behaviours, the primary ethical responsibility may thus remain with the player. Nonetheless, designers should anticipate – whenever possible – or react to unexpected adverse outcomes.
Gamification is still in its infancy, despite having been used in multiple environments for some years.
Gamification is not per se unethical. However, manipulative, gamification exploitative, harmful, and generally detrimental aspects cannot be neglected.
The lack of a clear framework and many pending questions definitely make ethics in gamification a topic deserving further discussion.
By Nadia Musumeci Creativity, accuracy, and passion
Nadia is a copywriter and content writer. She offers copywriting, ghostwriting, and blogging services to businesses of all sizes. Nadia worked in public affairs, publishing, and the beauty industry. When she is not busy freelance writing or working on her blog, she is sunbathing in a park nearby. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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