Gamification, a term coined in the early 2000s, refers to the use of video-game logic and psychology in real-world environments, most prominently in marketing, education, and the corporate world. The theory of gamification holds that people—whether consumers, coworkers, or students—respond naturally and efficiently to competition, reward, and simulated risk of the type that have made video games such a cultural phenomenon since the 1980s. The concept applies especially to the generation of Americans born after 1975, many of whom were raised playing video games, who began assuming positions of prominence in businesses and organizations in the early twenty-first century. These video-game aficionados brought with them many of the assumptions and strategies of gaming—incentivized decision making, rapid problem solving, the self-evident logic of specific tasks and short-term rewards, an adrenaline response to simulated risk, and the perception of achievement as a measure of self-expression—all guided by the assumption that operating in such a matrix is both fun and profitable.


Gamification assumes that productivity and efficiency can be enhanced by creating artificial narratives and a game feel around otherwise routine endeavors, thus increasing engagement, raising skill levels, and positively influencing those who are participating. Though the paradigm of gamification emerged in a very short time through weekend seminars, online training sessions, and social media, its application soon became widespread. Examples of gamification include fast-food restaurants that offer a free meal after ten visits, community organizations that attract volunteers by creating an artificial system of participation levels, and banks that create ATM games that award points for savvy deposit decisions. Further examples of gamification include entrepreneurs who offer a system of points to potential investors as a way to measure their short-term returns and to map otherwise entirely artificial levels of success; fitness clubs that sponsor competitions that pit members against each other to meet their fitness goals; and companies that maximize productivity by engaging coworkers in competition against one another, not to earn traditional benefits such as better office space or salary bumps, but rather in the simple spirit of competition. In all these situations, gaming principles are brought into an otherwise non-gaming context.

Psychologists point out that the essential strategy of gamification is just a newer version of old-school operant conditioning that leverages desired behavior by reducing people to pawns and supervisors to crass manipulators. Some companies and educational institutions that must consider long-term developments fear that gamification narrows people's focus to short-term gains and to necessarily limited, even vague, objectives. A number of educators in particular have expressed concerns that the emphasis on external rewards may decrease students’ intrinsic motivation for learning, although the extent to which this is a genuine concern remains in dispute; many argue that proper gamification of learning involves using extrinsic rewards to support, rather than supplant, intrinsic motivation.

Some more traditional individuals, particularly those born before the advent of video games, find the premise of gamification insulting and do not believe that the serious work of real life should mimic the simulated thrills of video games. Critics of gamification believe that simply motivating people to act in a certain way—whether customers, students, or coworkers—is a potentially catastrophic strategy because motion can be mistaken for progress, activity for achievement, and competition for teamwork.

This is a chart that shows the progress of gamification.

This is a chart that shows the progress of gamification.

—Joseph Dewey, MA, PhD

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(MLA 8th Edition)