In the video series Errant Signal, Chris Franklin criticizes the concept of “gamification”, and he even singles out The Escapist as a site that uses gamification to manipulate its audience.

First, I need to do some disclosure: I’m going to be defending The Escapist here. I’m also going to be disagreeing with Chris Franklin. This article was entirely my idea and was not requested by anyone at The Escapist. Furthermore, while Franklin is a personal friend of mine I didn’t write this because I wanted to promote his work. I just think there’s an important discussion to be had here.

With that out of the way…

Franklin’s thesis is that gameification is nothing more than a marketing term for a few cheap tricks designed to keep users hanging around your website. Websites that provide game-like mechanics to encourage people to use the site are simply exploiting our general desire to engage in skinner-box type activities to get achievements, badges, levels, or social networking status symbols. It’s manipulative and most importantly, it’s not really a “game”. It’s just a set of mechanics that superficially resemble a game.

While all of this is true, it doesn’t mean gamification is a bad thing. You can argue that it “exploits” people, but only in the sense that all marketing is exploitive. I don’t think it’s any kind of secret that people running websites want people to visit the site and remain on the site as long as possible. The Escapist does this by providing a ton of content just about every day. However, content is expensive. If you don’t have any tools to hook people then as soon as they’re done watching or reading, they will leave. If the only way to get them to stay for five more minutes is to give them five more minutes of free video content, you’re going to go out of business.

But let’s get down to specifics and talk about some non-“gamification” approaches to keeping people around. Forums are generally the most direct and obvious solution, and I don’t think anyone would be crazy enough to launch a content-driven site without forums.

When a website has a giveaway where registered users can get a game or some hardware, they’re not doing it because they don’t know what to do with all these free goodies. They’re doing it because they want more registered users.

When a website puts up a poll asking, “Who would win in a Master Chief vs. Solid Snake match-up?” it’s not because they’re on a quest for truth. It’s because the poll will generate a nice, long discussion with lots of participants. Lots of people will read and comment, ensuring that those ad spaces are viewed again and again.

When a website puts a Facebook button at the bottom of an article it’s not because they’re really into social networking. It’s because they’re hoping you’ll click the “Like” button and maybe some new people will visit the site as a result.

When a website owner looks at twenty pre-release screenshots and decides to use the one with the most cleavage to headline an article, they’re doing it because they know it will increase the number of young hetrosexual males that click through. They know young guys are fairly predictable and easy to manipulate, and they exploit that behavior for their own ends.

It all sounds rather unseemly, doesn’t it? But remember, we’re talking about websites that are giving away free content, here. About ten years ago I paid a few dollars an issue for PC Gamer magazine. I got one issue a month, and that one issue probably had less content than a single week at The Escapist. (And none of it was video, obviously.) So even if I only read this one site, I’m getting much more content, it’s more current, it’s mostly video, and it’s all free.

Content consumers have more power than ever before. We have so much power that gaming sites fight over us, each of them trying to draw us to their free content. All they want in return is to show some ads and maybe coax a few extra minutes out of you with some quasi-game interactivity. Maybe you’ll bite, maybe you won’t, but either way you got to see a few videos and you didn’t have to pay anything.

I’d say gamification looks pretty good when compared to these other marketing techniques. I’d even call it a step forward. No, doing a quiz to get a Solid Snake badge isn’t the same as playing a Metal Gear game, and I don’t think it pretends to be. It’s an optional thing. Yes, your participation benefits the site owner. Is that really a bad thing? Would you really slurp up a quarter hour of video content and then claim you’re being “exploited” because there’s a little side-game where you can earn a level, a forum title, a badge, an avatar, or whatever payout the game-ified site is offering?

The point is, I don’t think we really need to worry about anyone being exploited. A lot of the criticism of gamification comes in the form of people worrying about the poor, clueless sheeple of the internet and how they’re being used. The argument goes like, “These game mechanics are simple, obvious, and I can’t imagine anyone enjoys them. Therefore the people participating are hapless rubes in need of rescue!”

But maybe these people, you know, like that stuff. I go badge-hunting at The Escapist now and again. (Particularly if the badge features a letter. I collect letters. It’s my goal to someday be able to arrange my badges to spell something rude.) The masses are armed with a back button and if they’re using the internet we have to at least admit they’re smart enough to tell if they’re having fun or not.

Even at its worst, gameification is just another system to encourage you to linger on a website and interact after you’ve consumed some content. It’s arguably even content itself, which is more than I can say for a poll that asks users, “Which videogame heroine is the most sexy?”

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and now author. Check out his new book!

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