Peeling the Onion, Part One: Gamification

Red onions. image by Flickr user Gwendolyn Stansbury CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The kinds of leisure activities available to potential museum-going audiences have multiplied exponentially over the past twenty years. Games and gaming have moved from being the domain of children to becoming a multibillion dollar global industry. Alongside this, visitation at cultural heritage organizations in Europe and North America continues to decline at a steady, alarming pace. Gaming clearly has something to offer heritage professionals, but what? And how to separate hyperbole and sales pitches from substance?

In trying to pick apart the pros and cons of gamification, I wound up exploring game theory. That led quickly into examining the relationship between games and play, and underneath all that, the concept of fun and how it relates to learning. So, let’s start peeling the onion. Hopefully without too many tears!


I first want to briefly go over where I come from (professionally) and acknowledge the gaps that I have in my understanding. Or at least acknowledge the gaps I know of. That’s part of the appeal (and terror) of blogging; knowing you don’t know it all, and putting out what you have to offer anyway.

I still tend to think of myself as an informal educator, a self-image I developed at the Museum of Science in the ‘90s and ‘00s, though that’s shifted over the past couple of years. I’ve had some pretty transformational learning experiences, like attending Alibis for Interaction and realizing the powerful synergies between interaction design, exhibit development, interpretive planning, and game design. When I am confronted with forms that want me to list an “OCCUPATION”, now I’m likely to write “experience designer”.

I’ve spent the bulk of my career thus far making science and natural history exhibitions for American science museums. I’ve consulted for a number of historic sites and U.S. national parks. And since 2013, I’ve worked for a museum of art, culture, creativity that also happens to maintain 20-odd historic buildings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. I’ve travelled pretty far and wide, and try to keep abreast of what’s going on in the field.  So while my cultural heritage experience is diverse and broad, it is definitely rooted in the U.S., and inside museums or out on the web. What I don’t know about historic house practice, both here and abroad is a lot! Ditto for the unique issues of working in European contexts and the ways that ethnic, regional, national, and European identities overlap and jostle with each other. Part of the excitement of going to Iceland for me is having the chance to learn from all the people there about what’s happening in the Northern Periphery, and with what issues they’re grappling.

Defining terms

So, with that said, let’s talk about five things; gamification, games, play, fun, and learning. The tangled Venn diagram of the first four is pretty gnarly, and I think a lot of the examples of bad game experiences in cultural heritage settings that I’ve seen come from a failure to disambiguate them, or think that one is the same as the others.


I have a complicated relationship with gamification. I used to be unable to even say the word without gagging a little, having seen it oversold and overused so much. In the great debate over the ethics of “tricking” people into doing something non-ludic by using the elements of gameplay, I was squarely on the side of those who argued that the kind of social engineering exemplified by gamified platforms like Foursquare was just immoral. As Peter-Paul Verbeek said in What Things Do (2005), “Things carry morality because they shape the way in which people experience their world and organize their existence, regardless of whether this is done consciously and intentionally or not. Designers … materialize morality. [Emphasis mine]

The warning many gamified experiences should have to carry. Source unknown.

For some of the early proponents of gamification like Gabe Zicherman, it’s just “using some elements of game systems in the cause of a business objective. It’s easiest to identify the trend with experiences (frequent flyer programs, Nike Running/Nike+, or Foursquare) that feel immediately game-like. The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place.” The obvious bait and switch in that statement is the acknowledgment that using game mechanics tricks people into feeling like a game is taking place.

But a gamified thing is not a game. Game designer Margaret Robertson railed against this, “Gamification is an inadvertent con. It tricks people into believing that there’s a simple way to imbue their thing (bank, gym, job, government, genital health outreach program, etc) with the psychological, emotional and social power of a great game.“ Note that she modifies the goal to be not like a game, but to be like a great game. This is important. Ian Bogost proposed that the term itself was a con, claiming that “”gamification” is a misnomer. A better name for this practice is exploitationware.” Will Wright (of The Sims, SimCity, and all the other Sim games fame) once said that gamification proponents treat it like monosodium glutamate or crunchy flakes you can “just add” to any interface, application or service to make it more fun, motivating and engaging. It’s like umami; a little hard to define, but yummy.

Why are so many well-meaning people interested in gamification? Why make something seem like a game in the first place? The mental equation seems to go something like this:

Playing games = fun

Doing my thing < fun enough

Doing my thing + “gamification” = more funner!

With the end result being

More people do my thing

That “more people do my thing” is better defined in Huotari & Hamari’s definition of gamification as “a process of enhancing a service with affordances for gameful experiences in order to support user’s overall value creation”. People do more and do it better in a process that feels more like a game. And like it or not, gamification works. And the empirical evidence is rock solid. Or is it?

A growing body of research seems to back up the claim that gamification works, but only up to a point. In Hamari et al’s 2014 study “Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification” they found that “gamification provides positive effects, however, the effects are greatly dependent on the context in which the gamification is being implemented, as well as on the users using it.” Sailer et al’s 2017 study, “How gamification motivates:  An experimental study of the effects of specific game design elements on psychological need satisfaction” found that “…badges, leaderboards, and performance graphs positively affect competence need satisfaction, as well as perceived task meaningfulness, while avatars, meaningful stories, and teammates affect experiences of social relatedness. Perceived decision freedom, however, could not be affected as intended.” Their conclusion in part stated that “gamification is not effective per se, but that specific game design elements have specific psychological effects.” Mitchell et al’s 2017 study,  “Understanding how gamification influences behaviour in social marketing”, the authors questions the very assumption that gamification works because people are intrinsically motivated to play games and suggest that “the mechanics of gamification may involve different factors beyond the production of intrinsic motivation through gameplay”

So what does this mean for designers of cultural heritage experiences? Is gamification a panacea or a placebo? I’d say that the drive to look to game design and game theory to make better heritage experiences is wise and potentially fruitful, but that gamification is not the shortcut to instant success that it is often sold as.

“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” Image from

The answer, I think, lies in looking more deeply at games and playing. What makes playing a great game fun? And what can that tell us about how we might differently design our cultural heritage experiences?


  1. Thanks for this food for thought Ed. I am trying to figure out how gaming can work/has worked/or not for us at Conner Prairie.


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