University XP
Design | Training | Consulting


Fearful Fun

Fearful Fun

Fearful Fun

Fearful Fun

Gamification is supposed to be fun. That’s why businesses, organizations and individuals use it on a daily basis. Why else would someone play games?

But what are the ethics of gamification? What stops one business or organization from doing something nefarious? Is there a limit to gamification? Should it be up to academics, the government, or individuals to police how gamification is used?

I imagine the Black Mirror episode Nosedive when I think about gamification ethics. In the episode, the character Lacie Pound played by Bryce Dallas Howard shows us a world where everyone is on a 5 point rating scale. 5 is the best that a person can be while 0 is, you know, the opposite.

People in this world are rated based on what they do, how they interact with each other, and how they contribute to the society. We see our character’s rating take a plunge (a nosedive) after a series of bad events that causes her to become a pariah.

While this is science fiction, it is not that far from reality. China recently implemented a social credit system which gamifies the interactions of citizens with the government, businesses, and each other. This system is eerily similar with the Black Mirror Nosedive episode… Except in this case: it IS reality.

That’s what lead me to this line of thinking: what is your motivation for creating gamification? For businesses it can be to engage more users to make more money. For others it’s to maintain a just society for greater good.  For some, it can be simply to make life easier for all of us.

But the ‘why’ behind gamification is the most important question we can ask. That is more important than the who, what, when, or where. Asking ‘why’ is the most fundamental ethical question we can ask ourselves before putting gamification into practice


Digital gamified systems do a lot of tracking. Activity trackers track steps, credit cards track purchases, and GPS units track miles. Information is a powerful, and a critical commodity in these gamified systems.

But ethical questions that we should ask ourselves include: where does this information go? How is it shared? What is done with it in the system? What is done with our information if it ever LEAVES the system?

With privacy, security, and the ‘right to be forgotten’ becoming increasingly critical issues in our society, we have to think about these questions more thoroughly. Exactly what is happening when we participate in a gamified system? Exactly how do we treat data as designers?

Basic Needs

Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter in their book For the Win: Gamification for Business address some of these ethical questions. One particularly dubious implementation of gamification is the creation of an incentive system at the Disney Land resorts where the cleaning staff is encouraged to become as efficient as possible in processing tons of resort laundry.

However, one of the side effects of this system was the impact that it had in its workers. In their pursuit to become more efficient workers (and thus better employees) they gave up bathroom breaks, meals, and other entitlements in order to process more laundry. They performed better in the gamified system, but they no longer took time to address their basic needs.

So we must ask ourselves as designers, what are our players giving up when they use our gamified system? Is it their attention? Time? Social safety? What is their cost for playing?

Big Brother

One last thing to consider as designers are our decisions. At what point are our players making interesting decisions within our gamified system? That is truly at the heart of great games. But what if you don’t have the ability to choose to play. What if you MUST play?

Part of game design is the lusory agreement. That is the agreed upon set of rules that all players abide by when playing the game. This is a rule that is adhered to… in the game. But what if the game is not optional. What if the game occurs in real life? Like the Chinese social credit system.

If people cannot opt out of playing the game; does the game have a lusory agreement? At what point does the lusory agreement become THE agreement. At what point does the game imitating life BECOME life?

Games are no longer fun when players have no agency. When they must participate then they cannot make the first kind of interesting decision: the decision to play the game.

Closing Thoughts

Ethics in gamification is a huge topic. There are many things to consider as a player in how we interact with gamified systems. There is even more to consider when we create them as designers. But one of the first things to consider when designing a gamified system is HOW the system will affect all involved.

What is the impact that the system will have on its players? How about its designers? Finally how does it affect the organization that created it and what lasting impact will it have?

Download a PDF print ready version of this blog post with APA reference list here.

Dave Eng, EdD
Managing Partner