The Risks of Rewards: When BLAP Gamification is Problematic
Last time, I introduced the concept of BLAP Gamification – gamification that focuses on Badges, Levels, Achievements, and Points. I also suggested that there were some significant risks with this type of gamification. When I first started looking at gamification, I was reading the core text on BLAP gamification – Gamification by Design (Zichermann & Cunningham, 2011). When I read this sentence, it was a full stop for me:
“once you start giving someone a reward, you have to keep her in that reward loop forever” (p. 27).
WHAT, WHAT, WHAT????!!?!111!!!
It was at this moment that I decided I needed to do something about this. Up until this point, I had been like many games scholars:
I was sitting in the balcony, making fun of the gamification term, not really paying much attention to it. I knew there were a lot of “experts” who were selling their BLAP gamification systems, but didn’t worry about it.
But when I hit this little nugget, it caused me to flip out. If you look at the marketing material of gamification experts, you do not see this warning. It’s just slipped into the book – “oh yeah, once you start giving rewards, you can’t ever stop.” If the goal of using gamification is to raise sales on a specific product or teach a skill that then has real-world benefit, then the short-term reward-based gamification is fine. If, however, the goal is to create long-term change, then BLAP gamification can create problems for those trying to help.
Long-term addiction is great for a gamification consultant, but potentially devastating for the users of a system (and the unwitting sponsor who is paying for the system to be created.)
This, for me, was a life-changing moment. It was the point where I decided I needed to figure out what was behind this statement, and then to see if I could develop a better way. I was quite concerned about schools, libraries, museums, and other places of learning joining in on the BLAP gamification movement not being aware that by doing so, they were signing up for life.
Internal Motivation and External Rewards
As I started to do research into why this statement was made, I came across Self-Determination Theory (SDT) by Deci & Ryan. They have spent decades understanding motivation and gathering data from hundreds of studies in the educational domain to look for patterns to support their theory. This theory is about why someone chooses to do something without an external influence, and is centered on the importance of three needs for internally motivated growth:
- Autonomy: Individuals need to have control over their own choices
- Competence: Individuals need to feel like they are skilled
- Relatedness: Individuals need to feel that they are connected to other people and the world.
There is a sub-theory of SDT that is relevant called Organismic Integration Theory, which is focused on the effect that extrinsic motivations (such as rewards) have on someone. If someone does an activity because of a reward, then that person internalizes aspects of the reward along with that activity. If that person sees the reward as used in a controlling manner, then that sense of control is connected to the internal motivation to do that activity. Since we don’t like someone else controlling our behavior, some of that internal motivation is replaced with negative feelings of control.
What this means is that:
- if you get a reward for doing an activity, and
- if you perceive that reward as being used to control your behavior, then
- you are less likely to do that activity without the reward.
(as an aside, I am simplifying all of these theories for the discussion here – to learn more, start with the SDT website at http://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/)
Returning to BLAP gamification, this means that if the gamification system is implemented so that the participant perceives it is there to control behavior, then if the system is taken away, the individual will have less internal motivation than before the gamification!
As a real-world example, consider a summer reading program in a library where children are given rewards at different levels of reading books. This is BLAP gamification, where the points are accrued by reading books and the levels correspond to different prizes. In the short term, this produces results – children check out more books when rewards are available.
In the long term, however, it can cause problems. If the children perceive the use of rewards as controlling their behavior, then this reduces their internal motivation to read. Those with high internal motivations to read will still read, but those with low internal motivations to read will then be less motivated to read without the rewards.
If we look at the use of public libraries by teenagers after they age out of summer reading programs, we see that it is, in general, not good. Teens are one of the hardest groups to bring into the library; in fact, this is where many gaming programs in libraries are focused. If the summer reading program was instilling a love of reading in these teens (as is a goal), then we wouldn’t see this behavior. Now, correlation is not causation, so there is no proof of this connection, but it is certainly a possibility.
Where this raises a great concern for me is when I see gamification programs for libraries, where the proposal is to offer rewards for every aspect of using the library. Just as with summer reading, the short term rewards will be there – library use will go up if patrons get rewards for coming to the library and checking out materials. But what long term damage will be caused? How will this change the patron’s interest in visiting a library that does not have the reward structure? What will happen if the gamification system is taken away?
This short-term benefit and long-term damage is of serious concern to me. Organizations see the short-term jump in engagement, so are eager to join in on BLAP gamification. It is easy to implement, so more and more groups are adding points, levels, badges, and achievements to their activities. But what will be the long-term costs of these systems?
And is there another way?
In my next column, I will talk about another method of gamification designed to increase internal motivation and avoid reliance upon rewards – meaningful gamification.
(By the way, if you would like to panic more about the damage reward-based systems have done to our society, take a look at Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. This book is chock full of examples of how rewards make people less effective and strategies on how to avoid rewards when working with people.)
Using rewards to control behavior is how we treat animals. Humans deserve better.
Ding! You’ve Leveled Up! Please see your local librarian for training.