MORE THAN JUST A GAME: ETHICAL ISSUES IN GAMIFICATION
Forthcoming in Ethics and Information Technology
Tae Wan Kim
Tepper School of Business
Carnegie Mellon University
The Wharton School
University of Pennsylvania
Gamification, also known as gameful design, is the use of elements and techniques from
game design in non-game contexts (Deterding, Dixon, and Khaled 2011; Deterding, et al. 2011;
Werbach and Hunter 2012; Werbach 2014). The term has been in widespread use for only a few
years, but already a large number of business and non-profit organizations are applying
gamification to engage customers, stimulate employee performance, encourage health and
wellness activity, motivate students, and achieve public policy objectives, among other
applications (e.g., Deloitte 2013; Knowledge@Wharton 2011a; Plummer, et al. 2013; PWC
2012). In particular, employing mechanisms such as points, badges, challenges, and puzzles,
firms seek to make workplace activities feel more game-like, and therefore drive desired
employee behavior. These systems build on the tremendous popularity of video games, and the
capacity of connected digital platforms to support interactivity and feedback (e.g., Connolly, et
al. 2012; Marchand and Hennig-Thurau 2013). Games are as old as civilization, but gamification
as a widespread business technique is a phenomenon of the information society (Floridi 2010,
2014). Gamification merges the playful world of games into the serious world of business and, as
we shall explore, the clash of the two spheres generates various normative tension points.
Critics have questioned the moral legitimacy of gamification on a variety of grounds
(e.g., Bogost 2011a, 2011b, 2015; Kim 2015; Rey 2012; Sicart 2015; Selinger, et al. 2015).
Although the critics’ accounts make important progress, they are partially misplaced. The critics
generally paint with too broad a brush, asserting that almost all practices of gamification are
context-independently impermissible or vicious. In this article, we propose a more sophisticated
and context-relative account. Furthermore, the critics’ accounts typically do not consider that the
largest application of gamification is as a technique firms choose from a palette to motivate
employees or customers. In this article, we focus on gamification as a situated business practice
in the workplace and elsewhere.
There has been less serious study of the ethical issues of gamification in business than
one might expect, given that gamification is one of the fastest dispersing behavioral tools in
business. We are concerned this lack of attention is a portent of what business ethicist Thomas
Donaldson (2012) calls “tech-shock”—a phenomenon in which a serious moral and social failure
(e.g., the financial crisis) occurs as a result of substantial lag time between the development of
new technologies (e.g., securitization of debt) and the development of adequate normative
frameworks to assess involved ethical issues. In the novel domain of gamification, the
technological context involves the arrival of video games as a full-fledged mass medium, and the
rapid adoption of networked digital application platforms. Gamification feeds on an environment
where many hundreds of millions of players regularly play games on computers, consoles,
phones, and tablets (Brightman 2014). Similarly, work is rapidly being transformed by mobile
connectivity, cloud computing, social networking, big data, machine learning, and other
technologies (Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2014), which also happen to support gamification.
In this article, we offer a normatively sophisticated and descriptively rich account for
appropriately addressing major ethical considerations associated with gamification as a business
practice. We hope that such an understanding serves as a precautionary foundation for the
development of best practices in the field, as well as legal and public policy assessments. The
framework can also help more researchers to bootstrap normative investigations on gamification.
In Section 2, we introduce the practice of gamification. In Section 3, we explore a
framework for gamification ethics, with a focus on exploitation, manipulation, various harms,
and character. In Section 4, we conclude with suggestions toward a framework for gamification
We want to address a kind of resistance to our survey-type article upfront. One might be
tempted to say that this article is not philosophically theoretic enough, in part because it explores
several issues. Our primary aim is to engage not only professional ethicists but also colleagues
who are information and communication technology scholars and industry practitioners. For this
reason, our work is admittedly practice-relevant. Indeed, game design and human-computer
interaction scholars and practitioners are debating the ethical status of gamification (e.g.,
Deterding 2014; Sicart 2015), and ethics is a popular theme in important gamification-related
academic conferences. However, these communities tend to lack the tools for normative analysis.
The ethics and information technology community can, thus, offer guidance to enhance the
norms of the field.1
1 Still, one might say that this article does not provide substantive philosophical knowledge. It is
beyond the capacity of a single article to provide a full-fledged analysis of several issues. Our
exploration can be understood as the beginning of a larger, collaborative, intellectual
examination of ethical issues in gamification. To use Rawls’s (1971) concept, this article
provides considered moral judgments about gamification, suggests potentially relevant moral
concepts and principles, and calls for a larger scale “reflective equilibrium” (see also DePaul
1993; McMahan 2004).!
2. The Gamification Phenomenon
Gamification is a growing practice in business, education, the public sector, and other
fields (e.g., Greenwald 2014; Burke 2014; Zichermann and Linder 2013). Gameful systems can
draw on both design patterns from games and the strategies that game designers employ to create
engaging experiences. A typical example is the system rolled out by LiveOps, a virtual call
center operator that uses a network of 20,000 independent agents who answer customer service
calls from their homes (Werbach and Hunter 2012). LiveOps makes its e-training system video
game-like, by, among others, assigning these agents digital points and badges, instead of
financial incentives, for completing modules in the online training system, and awards further
points for performance on customer calls. LiveOps seeks to promote friendly competition by
displaying these points on online leaderboards visible to all agents, and by recognizing top
performers with badges. (A badge in gamification is a visual token of a particular achievement,
typically displayed on a user’s profile page.) The company’s software vendor reports that
implementation of the program substantially reduced the time to “onboard” a new agent,
produced superior agent performance, and increased customer satisfaction (Bunchball 2013).
The case above illustrates how elements from games (such as points, badges, and
competition) can be incorporated into a business function (training). Other examples of
gamification are incorporated directly into the production activities of firms. Consider
Microsoft’s Language Quality Game:
“Bugs and other errors are inevitable for such complex software systems
[Microsoft Windows and Office]. The testing group is responsible for ferreting
them out. … Automated systems aren’t sufficient, and the only way to ensure
quality is for a vast number of eyeballs to review every feature, every usage case,
and every dialog box in every language. It’s not just the scale of the problem:
Rigorously testing software is, much of the time, mind-numbingly boring. …
Smith’s group pioneered the concept of software-quality games that turned the
testing process into an engaging, enjoyable experience for thousands of Microsoft
employees. … All told, 4,5000 participants reviewed over half a million
Windows 7 dialog boxes and logged 6,700 bug reports, resulting in hundreds of
significant fixes. Not only did they do it above and beyond their work
responsibilities, but a large number of them described the process as enjoyable
and even addicting” (Werbach and Hunter 2012: 17-8).
The result of Microsoft’s Language Quality Game was a dramatic success. Introducing
gameful elements can effectively motivate employees to perform specific behaviors that
employers want their workers to perform, while the gameful elements improve workplace
morale and excitement (Hamari, et al. 2014). That is, “[g]ames can cause people to do
amazing things, purely for the sake of fun” (Edery and Mollick 2009: 155).
Gamification as a business technique has deep roots (Mollick and Werbach 2015).
Sociologists have long noted the prevalence of casual gameplay at work, at least since the
seminal studies by Roy (1959) of spontaneous games among factory workers. The military and
private companies use “serious games” to simulate scenarios for training and other purposes
(Aldrich 2009). While many experiments over the years applied the techniques that engage game
players in other motivational contexts, they were haphazard and unconnected until recently (see
Werbach and Hunter 2012 for reviews). Around 2009, commentators began to articulate how the
principles driving the growth of the video game industry could be relevant to serious business
challenges (Edery and Mollick 2009; Reeves and Read 2009). “Gamification” emerged as the
primary term for this phenomenon around 2010. Since that time, organizations in virtually every
industry have begun to employ gamified approaches. Gamification is applied in customer-facing
scenarios such as marketing and sales; within firms to motivate employees; and for social impact
through behavior change and crowdsourcing (Werbach and Hunter 2012). With growing
adoption, there has been a rapid rise in both popular and scholarly accounts of this new practice
(Deterding et al. 2011; Silverman 2011; Wingfield 2012; Walz and Deterding 2015; Fuchs et al.
We believe the business practice of gamification raises important ethical issues for two
interesting primary reasons that prior literature does not appropriately capture: the overlay of
virtual and real-world norms, and the tension between organizational and individual interests.
Both will be important later in developing our framework for ethical issues in gamification.
2.1. Virtual and Real-World Norms
First, gamification merges the real world of work into the virtual game world of play.
Unlike the employee-generated games studied by Roy (1959), gamification is something that
happens “on the clock” as part of the job. At the same time, gamification maintains the context
of the physical environment during the game-like activity. When doctors participate in a surgery
simulation game, they know they are not in a real operating room. By contrast, call-center agents
accruing gamified rewards never step away from their live jobs. In the case of gamification,
actions in the physical spaces of work or consumer relationships are simultaneously actions in
the virtual sphere of the game. To use Kücklich’s (2005) term, gamification is a good example of
“play-bor”—a state where the meanings of labor and gaming merge into a single background
Relatedly, gameful experiences overlay the norms of two social contexts. As the Dutch
phenomenologist Huizinga (1949) observes, games create a “magic circle” whose rules
supersede the norms of reality during play. A player of PacMan is not labeled a cannibal for
eating the ghosts, nor is a baseball player arrested for stealing second base. Conversely, a player
who engages in griefing (maliciously disrupting the gameplay experience of others) may be
acting inconsistently with the norms governing the game context yet not believe he is touching
on any social norms outside it (Dibbell 1993). Although the concept of independent social
spheres or context-relative meanings of social norms is well established (Anderson 1993; Walzer
1983), the boundary of the magic circle is not always clear-cut; the “real” and the “virtual”
cannot always be easily separated (Consalvo 2009; Taylor 2006). Notably, gamification
obfuscates the boundary between the two spheres. A runner using Nike+ (a gameful system that
tracks a runner’s speed and distance) is subject to the norms of both the physical world and a
gameful virtual contest at the same time. A student earning virtual badges for educational
achievements is competing simultaneously in the course and the course game. This complicates
any simple ethical analysis. Any adequate normative account of gamification, thus, must
evaluate activities understanding how the game frame and the non-game frame interact with each
other. What is legitimate in one may be problematic in the other (Dewinter et al. 2014).
For instance, in a gamified labor system, workers create a real change—for instance,
enhancing productivity—but for their labor the workers may receive only virtual rewards such as
digital points and badges, instead of real rewards like money. In financial terms, the workers
receive nothing for their additional labor, while the employer gets all the incremental profits.
From the virtual perspective, the workers merely play a game, so they only seek and are entitled
to virtual rewards reflecting success in the game. These two perspectives can create a serious
normative tension (see 3.1). In a game, deception may be an essential part of the play. Poker, for
example, depends on players’ ability to bluff. Players of such games can legitimately consent to
be manipulated for fun. This norm for the virtual world, however, does not seem to be
consistently held in the real world. For instance, it is unclear whether or not people can
legitimately consent to be manipulated or deceived for fun in the sphere of labor and
employment (see 3.2.). In a game, leaderboards—visual rankings of players’ performance—are
sometimes essential motivational elements, and are not typically interpreted as insulting or
offensive to players. However, this technique, when transmitted to the sphere of labor and
employment, can go astray. In some kinds of workplaces, attaching numerical scores to workers’
productivity and publicly disclosing them can be interpreted as an act that expresses
inappropriate attitudes such as humiliation, insult, or offense. The norms of the virtual world,
when transmitted to the real world, can also incur physical harm to involved parties, whether
intentional or unintentional (see 3.3). Players’ desire for success in a game and game designers’
desire to motivate players in game situations are usually not themselves morally problematic.
Games can embody authentic moral values (Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014). In some cases of
gamification, however, there is no bright line between virtual experience and real-world behavior.
As we shall discuss later, gamification in some contexts (e.g., wartime) can have a negative
impact upon the character of involved parties and motivate a socially unacceptable degree of
moral indifference to widely accepted fundamental human values such as the sanctity of life (see
We do not believe that there is a simple, universal, and context-independent principle
about how to reconcile the tension points between the norms of the real world and those of the
virtual world. It is not true that norms for the virtual world can never be used for the real world
or vice versa. Even when a certain norm should not be applied to the real world in a certain
context, it does not follow that it should not be transmitted to all other real-world situations. In
this article, we develop a more context-relative approach that acknowledges the complicated
tension points generated by the distinct sets of norms and values of the two worlds.
2.2. Organizational and Individual Interests
The second reason that gamification raises novel ethical issues is that gamification
programs serve the interests of organizations by stimulating the motivations of individuals. We
call the company that develops or manages the gamified system the provider. This could be the
employer in a workplace context, a company seeking to engage its customers, or a technology-
based service such as Khan Academy (for online learning) or FitBit (for fitness tracking). The
users of the gamified system we call the players. Whether or not the activity appears as a full-
blown game, the participants respond based on their affinity for the game-like features.
As Rigby (2015) observes, gamification exemplifies a larger power shift from
institutions to networked individuals, who must be enticed rather than commanded to perform.
From the player’s perspective, gamified systems are appealing because they seem fun,
stimulating, or challenging. To the firm, all that matters are the relevant business metrics. In the
LiveOps example, for example, the measure of the program’s success was the agents’
performance in answering customer calls, not the number of points or badges they earned in the
gameful training. In some cases, the goals may be closely aligned. A good example is Keas, a
gameful wellness program deployed within enterprises. It helps employees get healthier, while it
helps employers reduce healthcare expenses. When there is dissonance between the motivations
of the providers and the players, however, normative tensions can develop. If Keas were
designed to identify employees at risk of serious health conditions in order to fire those likely to
push up the employer’s healthcare costs, the story would be different. And this is not the only
area for concern. Even when the outcome is socially optimal, it may not reflect individual
players’ actual preferences (Bovens 2009).
All of marketing and management are, to some degree, efforts to harness individuals to
serve organizational goals. However, gamification adds a new dimension to the economic
relationships and power dynamics that normally hold sway in business. It establishes objectives
addressed ostensibly to the hedonic desires of the individual. Players may be drawn in because
they find the experience fun, they see it as distinct from “serious” work, or they feel a
compulsion when the system pulls on psychological levers such as social comparison or rewards.
Games-based activities correspond to established practices for motivation and behavior change
(Werbach and Hunter 2012), as well as satisfying innate psychological needs (Ryan et al. 2006).
Merely identifying a process as a game, with no other changes, has been shown to enhance
participants’ interest level and motivation (Lieberoth 2014). The question is how this changes the
3. Framing the Ethical Issues
As gamification becomes a more common business practice, a growing number of
practitioners and scholars are highlighting normative concerns. Accounts in the popular press
describe worries about the manipulative or exploitative potential of gamification (e.g., Bréville
and Rimbert 2014; Fleming 2012; Knowledge@Wharton 2011b). Surveying gamification
experts and stakeholders, Shari et al. (2014) found diverse areas of ethical concern.
This awareness has not, however, led to the development of a robust code of conduct for
gamification designers. The Engagement Alliance, a non-profit association for gamification
practitioners, released a “proposed ethics statement” for public comment in December 2012
(Zichermann 2012). The first element is to “help individuals, organizations, and societies achieve
their true potential”; the second is to “not obfuscate the use of game mechanics with intent to
deceive.” As a standard for ethically responsible gamification, this statement is woefully
wanting. It is not clear why these commitments were chosen, or how they provide useful
guidance to practitioners. “True potential” is exceedingly vague. The third and final provision in
the proposed statement, to “share what I’ve learned about motivating behavior with the
community” does not even concern gamification practices themselves. Not surprisingly, no
provider appears to have endorsed the statement. The absence of thorough ethical analysis is in
striking contrast to the rapid adoption of gamification in the marketplace.
Among gamification researchers, the primary attention to normative questions comes
from critics who fundamentally challenge the practice per se. For instance, Bogost (2011a,
2011b, 2015) and Rey (2012) regard the very idea of gamification as inherently exploitative.
Sicart (2015) and Selinger et al. (2015) argue that gamification is fundamentally in tension with
human flourishing or good character. Such attacks have some merit, as we will examine later.
However, these critiques tend to be overbroad. A more nuanced approach is needed, as we
explain below, because gamification practices are not always ethically wrong, nor do wrongful
applications of gamification always have a single wrong-making feature (e.g., taking unfair
advantage of the exploited). An employer using leaderboards to shame poor-performing workers
may be in a different ethical and social context than academic researchers using game-like
challenges to crowdsource scientific research, or a software provider making available a gameful
tool to aid in weight loss.
As noted earlier, gamification ethics is under-theorized, at least in part, because the
technological novelty and rapid adoption of the practice have outstripped careful consideration.
Both proponents and detractors, therefore, tend to generalize too rapidly from particular
examples. What is needed, thus, is a conceptual map of the terrain. Such an endeavor will by
necessity be abstracted and incomplete: it cannot address all possible scenarios in detail, nor can
it encompass all possible factors of moral salience. However, it should be more than a mere
taxonomy. An ethical map of gamification can offer normative guidance to both scholars and
practitioners if it identifies deep structures that tie together seemingly disparate phenomena and
anchors the topic in established scholarly literature. Our starting point is that we need to take a
context-relative stance—that is, gamification may or may not be ethically or socially acceptable
in specific cases. The proper question is “What forms of gamification are unacceptable in which
contexts, and which moral norms are primarily relevant to which contexts?” We propose that the
ethical status of a practice of gamification, primarily, but not exhaustively, is determined by the
extent to which the practice (1) takes unfair advantage of workers (e.g., exploitation); (2)
infringes any involved workers’ or customers’ autonomy (e.g., manipulation); (3) intentionally or
unintentionally harms workers and involved parties in various ways; or (4) has a socially
unacceptable degree of negative effect on the character of involved parties. In the discussions
below, we expand on the four categories of ethical difficulties that may arise. Each encapsulates
a cluster of related concerns. For example, manipulation also brings to bear questions of
autonomy, transparency, consent, and self-reflection, while exploitation highlights issues of
voluntariness and fairness.
Game designer and critic Ian Bogost (2011a, 2015) dubs gamification
“exploitationware.” He writes: “…gamification proposes to replace real incentives with fictional
ones … Organizations ask for loyalty, but they reciprocate that loyalty with shames, counterfeit
incentives that neither provide value nor require investment. When seen in this light,
‘gamification’ is a misnomer. A better name for this practice is ‘exploitationware’” (2011a).
Sociologist P. J. Rey (2012) supports Bogost’s claim by calling gamification a menacingly
exploitative form of “play-bor” (Kücklich 2005). However, neither Bogost nor Rey fully
develops the normative argument to support his claims. In this section, we consider whether their
charge of exploitation can be further developed or justified.
Alan Wertheimer’s (1996) work is probably the most influential normative account of
exploitation, according to which Transaction x is exploitative when Person A takes unfair
advantage of Person B. Consider a standard example, The Port Caledonia and the Anna, in
which the master of a ship A in danger asked for help from a nearby ship and the master of the
nearby ship B offered £1,000 or no rescue. In this case, A voluntarily agreed to pay £1,000.
Wertheimer explains that the transaction was voluntary, but it was exploitative because B was in
a unique position to take advantage of A’s vulnerabilities, which made the transaction unfair.2
Wertheimer argues that the transaction would not be unfair if a reasonable amount of competing
ships were nearby, in which case A would not have unique vulnerabilities. That is, if there were
some more competing ships, the price would probably be way less than £1,000. Hence,
Wertheimer proposes that, in general, Transaction x is fair if it is an option that would be chosen
by Parties A and B in a hypothetically imagined competitive market.
2 Matt Zwolinski (2007, 2008, 2009, 2012) claims in his libertarian account of exploitation that
voluntarily chosen transactions are justified or tolerated. Thus, Zwolinski would not believe that
the transaction in The Port Caledonia was a wrongful form of exploitation. Along the same
logic, Zwolinski also believes that most practices of sweatshops and price gouging are not
exploitative or that even if they are exploitative they are justified forms of exploitation. In this
article, we do not discuss the libertarian view. First, for the sake of consistency within the
fairness account, we opt to primarily rely on Wertheimer’s view (1996). Second, we disagree
with Zwolinski, mainly because we do not believe that voluntariness is the most important moral
consideration. For a more detailed discussion about this issue, see Michael Kate’s (2015) recent
criticism of Zwolinski’s view.
According to Wertheimer’s fairness-based account, most consumer-facing gamified
products would not be exploitative with customers, because the real market is already a
competitive market. For instance, Nike+ is a mobile app that makes running a game-like
experience, and competing apps or other products exist in the market. If a user chooses to adopt
Nike+, we can assume the arrangement is fair, and, therefore, not exploitative.
One might say that Wertheimer’s fairness account does not give us a clear view of
gamified workplaces. First, it is not easy to hypothetically construct a competitive market for
gamified workplaces. A company that provides gamification is already in a situation in which it
hires employees. One might also say that the hired employees are not completely out of the labor
market because they can always quit and change workplaces. In addition, because many
competing companies already provide different systems of gameful environments, the real labor
market is already like a hypothetically competitive market. It follows that most gamified
workplaces are, therefore, not exploitative.
But this approach is not always appropriate. First of all, gamified environments are not
always clearly included in job advertisings. Furthermore, quitting a job in order to avoid a certain
practice of gamification that employees participate in during spare time—as in the case of
Microsoft’s Language Quality Game (Werbach and Hunter, 2012), for instance—seems an
unreasonable burden to employees. Third, and most fundamental, it is not clear whether or not
workers are well informed about their situations and options regarding gamification. If the player
is not reasonably informed about her most-preferred option, and voluntarily chooses virtual
rewards in gamification, she may still enter into an unfair transaction.
One might say that in games, players sometimes endure seemingly unfair activities to
achieve certain long-term objectives, even if they do not find an activity itself rewarding. A good
example is “grinding,” a common feature in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) such
as World of Warcraft, in which players must spend long periods doing repetitive tasks as a
condition for something they desire. Grinding achieves several purposes in these games, such as
increasing the perceived value of the desired objective. In this specific case, the long-term
benefit can probably justify the uselessness of the short-term rewards. Then, what long-term
benefits, if any, do exist to justify the uselessness of virtual rewards such as points or badges at
the gamified labor? For instance, gamification can probably lead to positive trickle-down effects
to employees. If gamification promotes workplace productivity, which in turn enhances
corporate financial performance, then it can potentially also enhance employee benefits such as
increased salaries, bonuses, or longer employment. But as G. A. Cohen (1992, 1996) points out,
unless corporate leaders have an egalitarian ethos, such a trickle down effect, in theory, does not
necessarily occur. Even if it occurs, ordinary workers often cannot clearly see the trickle-down
effect, so cannot take it into account when assessing their own welfare, unless the provider
clearly explains it to them.
So far, we have discussed a micro account of the fairness view that focuses on
individuals’ discrete transactions (Snyder 2010). By contrast, macro fairness accounts of
exploitation (e.g., Sample 2003) hold that transactions that can be viewed as innocuous from
micro perspectives can nevertheless be unfair if they are based upon questionably unfair macro
structures that have been historically created through global economic orders. The macro fairness
account is not itself relevant to our purposes, because most gamification providers are U.S.- or
developed country-based companies. Yet, the underlying idea that workers can be structurally
exploited can, nonetheless, be relevant and is worth pursuing.
A simple sociological mechanism underneath gamification is that workers in the
contemporary world find their jobs more or less boring, monotonous, and sometimes
meaningless, whereas gamification can offer fun and excitement. In fact, many popular books or
lectures about gamification begin by emphasizing how unsatisfactory, not fun, and stressful most
modern workplaces are (e.g., Burke 2014; Herger 2014; Paharia 2013; Zicherman and Linder
2013). If it can be argued that the monotonous and meaningless working condition is a structural
issue of modern capitalist society that makes modern workers vulnerable to those who have
capabilities or power they can leverage through gamification, then a society in which
gamification is marketable and preferred by workers is itself a clue that we need to be concerned
about the fundamental economic paradigm in which workers cannot but choose gamification to
find meaning and fun.3
Gamification is a technique to change players’ behavior. So it is prima facie open to the
charge of manipulation (Duggan and Shoup 2013; Fleming 2012; Herger 2014). Recently,
editors of Le Monde Diplomatique (Bréville and Rimbert 2014) criticized gamification as
manipulative with a provocative title: “Losing on points: Do you play games, or are they playing
you?” The Pew Research Center’s special report on gamification is also concerned that “[digital
g]ames can be compelling and can easily lead to behavioral manipulation” (Anderson and Rainie
3 There are important accounts of exploitation that we do not explore in this section. For
example, we do not discuss the Kantian account of exploitation as using workers as a mere
means (Arnold 2003, 2010; Arnold and Bowie 2003, 2007), which typically, requires, in the
context of organizational life, meeting minimum or reasonable safety standards and providing a
minimum or living wage. We do not explore Robert Goodin’s (1986, 1988) vulnerability-based
account or Mikhail Valdman (2009)’s excessive benefit based account. In theory, these other,
unexplored accounts of exploitation can potentially address gamification as exploitative.
Furthermore, although all existing accounts do not address gamification as exploitative, a new
defensible account that addresses gamification as exploitative might be developed in the future.
Further research is called for. !
2012). To our knowledge, however, no rigorous normative work has been published to examine
whether gamification really is manipulative. As we noted above, we find this lack of attention to
be a moral risk or “tech-shock.” In what follows, we explore how the charge of manipulation can
be further developed.
We begin with Alan Strudler’s (2005) account of manipulation, which we find to be
intuitively acceptable. It is that “[o]ne person manipulates another when he intentionally causes
that person to behave as he wishes through a chain of events that has the desired effect only
because the manipulated person is unaware of that chain” (Strudler 2005: 459). According to this
account, a company that does not clearly disclose to its workers the contents and goals of a
gamification system because it knows they would otherwise not participate is manipulating those
Consider a relevant example. Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Luis von
Ahn’s ESP Game encourages players to label digital images (Von Ahn and Dabbish 2008). Does
it matter whether participants who do so for fun are, in fact, contributing to an academic research
project, a commercial search engine, or a pornography website? Zittrain (2008) identifies this as
a significant ethical question for all crowdsourcing applications. It is an important question
whether or not providers have a duty of disclosure about why players are being invited into
gameful experiences. There may be situations where disclosure of the purpose of gamification
could undermine its effectiveness, by sensitizing users or dissipating intrinsic motivations.
Effectiveness can be a pro tanto consideration, depending upon contexts, but effectiveness does
not typically justify a wrong. In the analogous situation of online privacy, fears that users won’t
opt in to data collection do not themselves overcome arguments for such a requirement. Hence,
further research about specific cases is required to articulate under what circumstances of
gamification silence is permissible for effectiveness. A precautionary principle would be to
provide as much disclosure as is feasible without undermining an otherwise legitimate activity,
but such a rule leaves practical questions unanswered.
A stronger version of gamification transparency would be to mandate informed consent
from participants. Requiring participants to have sufficient information and expressly advert to
the contested action is a touchstone in bioethics, for situations such as human subjects research
(Faden et al.1986; O’Neill 1985, 2003). Appropriately, consent or voluntariness is a fundamental
element of many definitions of games. Carse (1986) encapsulates this view succinctly with the
maxim, “whoever must play, cannot play.” The difficulty comes in defining the meaning of
consent in this context. Mollick and Rothbard (2014) speculate that offering participants in a
gameful sales competition the opportunity to customize visual features of the user interface
enhances positive affect because it represents consent. However, is such surface-level autonomy
sufficient, or must the worker offer informed consent to all aspects of the gameful experience?
And given the potential of gamification techniques to stimulate psychological responses that
supersede rational reflection, can we be certain even an affirmative agreement to participate after
receiving all relevant information is an indication of consent? What about when a gamification
program is mandated for a job? If the only opportunity to exit is to quit, which may involve
significant costs for the worker, the formality of informed consent may not overcome ethical
objections. Finally, consent has inherent limits. There are some actions that even informed
consent (and in a legal framework, valid contractual assent) cannot legitimize. As it is in privacy
(Nissenbaum 2004, 2010), consent in gamification can be necessary, but not necessarily
sufficient to address normative concerns.
As Strudler (2005) himself recognizes, one can manipulate others without clearly
deceiving them, for instance, by using compelling emotional influences. To explore this
possibility, several recent discussions about manipulation draw upon Robert Noggle (1996)’s
account. Noggle (1996) defines manipulation, roughly, as an attempt to cause others’ decision-
making to fall short of important moral and social values or to violate norms that reasonably
govern their decision-making. This is a deep and complex account (see, Barnhill 2014;
Blumenthal-Barby 2012; Mills 2014; Wilkinson 2013), but all that we need to say for our
purposes is that varied fundamental values about decision-making can be relevant to
manipulation (Gorin 2014) and the most relevant value for our context is autonomy. It follows,
then, that a gamification provider manipulates workers or customers if the provider, through the
video game experiences, causes the players to make decisions in a way that unjustifiably
undermines their autonomy.
Different accounts of autonomy define it differently. Therefore, substantively different
arguments can be developed about the manipulativeness of gamification, and whether or not
gamification is manipulative depends, in part, upon which account of autonomy is most adequate
for the gamification context.4 Adjudicating different accounts of autonomy is beyond the reach
of this survey article. As a model, we draw upon John Christman (1991)’s widely accepted
account.5 For Christman’s historical account, what primarily matters for our context is the lack of
4 For instance, one might say that the hierarchical account of autonomy (e.g., Dworkin 1988),
according to which one’s autonomy is not infringed to the extent that his first order desire
corresponds to his second-order desires, is not adequate for our purposes. If correspondence
between first-order and second-order desires is what makes a person’s decision processes
autonomous, a person is not manipulated when his manipulated first-order desire corresponds to
his manipulated second-order desires. This is a problem for our purposes. For a more discussion
about the inadequacy of the hierarchical account for issues of manipulation, see Gorin (2014).
5 “(i) A person P is autonomous relative to some desire D if it is the case that P did not resist the
development of D when attending to this process of development, or P would not have resisted
factors that inhibit self-governance through minimally rational self-reflection. Although it is not
an easy task to fully explain what Christman means by self-governance or minimal rationality,
some commonsensical parsing will have to suffice for our purposes.
At a general level, gamification draws from behavioral psychology traditions that do not
rely on rational self-reflection to explain behavior. One of these is behaviorist operant
conditioning, in which people learn to associate rewards with desired behavior through an
unconscious process of reinforcement, rather than rational consideration. B.F. Skinner, the giant
in the field, even went so far as to reject the concepts of freedom and dignity entirely (Skinner
1972). It is easy to see why this approach has long been subject to moral and social criticisms.
Many gamified systems employ rewards such as digital badges, visual feedback elements, and
virtual goods in a manner consistent with behaviorist teaching (Linehan et al. 2015, Selinger et
al. 2015). At the same time, gamification can be consistent with the precepts of Self-
Determination Theory (SDT), a psychological school diametrically opposed to behaviorism.
SDT focuses on innate psychological needs, in contrast to the extrinsic rewards emphasized in
behaviorism. Yet all of the intrinsic motivators that SDT identifies—competence, autonomy, and
relatedness—can be satisfied through games and game-like experiences (Rigby 2015; Werbach
and Hunter 2012).
Whichever psychological approach one adopts, gamification can be viewed as a means of
shaping actions without conscious rational consideration. This alone does not clearly make it
manipulative. There must be some factor that inhibits rational self-reflection, and, thus,
unjustifiably undermines autonomy. Otherwise, every teacher who used the extrinsic reward of a
that development had P attended to the process; (ii) The lack of resistance to the development of
D did not take place (or would not have) under the influence of factors that inhibit self-reflection;
And (iii) The self-reflection involved in condition (i) is (minimally) rational and involves no self-
deception” (Christman 1991: 11).!
good grade to motivate students to study, and every manager who convinced employees of the
inherent joy of succeeding in a challenging assignment, would be guilty of wrongful
Below we discuss two examples of specific inhibitors of rational self-reflection that can
potentially arise in gamification: addiction and distraction.6
One of the defining features of addiction is an “impairment of self-control” or
“compulsion” (Levy 2013: 1). It is possible that in a game, players are so engaged, addicted, and
compulsive that they have difficulty stopping. Concerned about such effects, the Chinese
government even passed a law requiring online game operators to install software that
discourages players under 18 from playing more than three hours per day (People’s Daily Online
2007). Game developers can argue that addiction is an unintended outcome, but they can be
responsible for such unintended outcomes if they should have been aware of them (Sher 2009).
In addition, in other cases such as that of the casino slot machine, enticing uncontrolled play is a
primary design goal (Schüll 2012). The same mechanics of seduction and variable rewards that
are the basis for slot machines can also be found in gamification systems (Carr 2011; Thompson
2015). Virtual reward structures that promote obsessive behavior deserve ethical scrutiny.
Players bear significant responsibility for their actions, but so do those who take advantage of
psychological vulnerabilities to neutralize players’ rational capabilities. Moreover, casino
6 Sicart (2015), a games scholar and philosopher of technology, argues that gamification
inherently diminishes self-reflection, even when employed entirely at the user’s choosing. From
his neo-Aristotelian viewpoint, gamification interferes with human flourishing by introducing an
artificial set of motivators that substitute for personal reflection on the goals and content of the
experience. Because we discuss an impermissible and wrongful form of manipulation, to our
perspective, the important question is whether the player’s autonomy has been unjustifiably
compromised. If not, the player is entitled to choose the stimuli through which she achieves her
goals, although the choice can be bad in an Aristotelian sense. Nonetheless, we agree with Sicart
that workers have a good reason to avoid bad choices.
patrons and game players know they are entering a seductive game space, even if they don’t
appreciate the strength of its pull. As discussed in the manipulation context, those subject to
gamification may be unaware of that fact.
We realize that it is in part an empirical matter whether addictive gamification is a
concern in practice. Gameful systems lack the complex, immersive environment that may suck
some players into massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) to the exclusion of all else. If
only complex games can get people to be addicted, then it is less likely that gamification gets
people to be addicted. But one might also say that people are often more vulnerable to simple
and repeated game environments such as points and badges. Simple social video games such as
Farmville or Candy Crush Saga in fact target intensive players and rely on obsessive “whales”
spending heavily for virtual goods (Johnson 2014). Of course, not all people can become easily
addicted to simple games, but that does not justify behavior that targets vulnerable customers or
workers. If a gamification system deliberately or negligently applies techniques to promote
compulsive behavior, or fails to take corrective action when some players display such behavior,
it falls short of ethical duties regarding manipulation.
Another gamification factor that can hinder rational self-reflection is the possibility of
excessive distraction. Distraction is typically less compulsive than addiction, but it can still
prevent a person from attending to a rational assessment of how his decision-making and
behaviors affect his interests and welfare. There are opportunity costs to the time and energy
players put into gameful activities. To the extent that these are voluntary choices by players, they
reflect the natural variation in preference functions: one person’s waste of time is another’s
worthwhile pursuit. At some point, though, the costs of a gameful experience can decisively
outweigh the hedonic benefits. In contrast to full-blown games, which can create rich, immersive
experiences, gamification tends towards shallower game-like activity. Such “cheap fun” is, as
mentioned above, sometimes difficult to justify. Typically, a rational self-reflector would not
prefer such an option. However, gamification can often easily distract players to make irrational
Bogost’s Cow Clicker, created to illustrate the perils of gamification, is an extreme
version of this distraction scenario (Tanz 2012). Cow Clicker was a casual social game that
invited players to click repeatedly on virtual cows every eight hours for no purpose other than
earning virtual rewards. It attracted over 50,000 players, one of whom clicked a cow over
100,000 times. Cow Clicker is not itself an example of gamification; it is a stand-alone game.
However, if the mechanics of Cow Clicker are emblematic of gamification, as Bogost apparently
intended to suggest, an ethical challenge arises. The danger is similar to what media scholar Neil
Postman described, in connection with television, as “amusing ourselves to death” (Postman
As with the addictive forms of manipulation, the line between ethical and unethical
distraction is partly an empirical question. Thus, a rigorous normative investigation cannot be
complete until enough empirical research about the distracting or addictive nature of
gamification is conducted. Until then, we suggest the following as a rule of thumb: when a player
would, upon rational reflection, conclude the time participating in a gamified activity would have
been better spent otherwise, there is good prima facie reason to believe the line has been crossed.
We can safely assume that gamification providers do not intend to cause physical or
psychological harm. Their goal, as discussed at the outset, is to achieve some organizational
objective using a motivational technique. What if harms do in fact arise in connection with
gamified actions? We consider the ethical implications of such scenarios in this section. The
risks of physical harm due to gamification primarily involve injury to others outside the gamified
system, while the risks of psychological harms generally involve the players themselves.
Physical harms: According to a 2011 article in Foreign Policy, Islamic jihadi groups use
gamification techniques such as points, levels, and content unlocking on many websites designed
to recruit supporters and promote their agenda (Brachman and Levine 2011). It would be a
stretch to suggest that someone stumbling upon the sites would commit an act of terrorism just
because gamification made the group seem appealing. Yet the gameful systems do enable jihadi
recruitment. Terrorist groups need to ascertain which visitors to their sites are most fervently
committed to the cause and weed out those who are untrustworthy or undercover law
enforcement agents. The gameful elements are designed to walk users through a “player journey”
toward mastery based on their performance on the site, granting access to more exclusive
sections and more sensitive information only to those with enough points or achievements.7 A
similar example is Camover, a website that encouraged protestors against the surveillance state
to destroy CCTV cameras around Berlin. The site gave points and bonuses for creative
techniques, functioning as a “real-life Grand Theft Auto” (Stallwood 2013). Even if political
ideals against the surveillance state could be ethically justified to some extent, the encouraged
behavior—damaging state property—would be ethically concerning. In both these examples, the
gameful systems intentionally attempt to motivate players to harm others and themselves in ways
subject to moral and social condemnation. One might say that there is some parallel between the
ethical condemnation of the jihadi’s use of gamification and the responsibility of game
developers for the violence committed by players of violent video games, a significant discussion
7 Many business organizations, e.g., Google, use similar game techniques to recruit qualified
employees, including math questions and other IT challenges.
topic in games scholarship (Sicart 2009). But in video games, the game only simulates violence
in the real world; the jihadi websites motivate action in the real world.
Gamification can also unintentionally, recklessly, negligently, or inadvertently encourage
players to cause harms to involved parties. For instance, Lazzaro (2012), a noted game designer,
observed the San Francisco Bay Bridge, where variable-rate tolls exist and where large screens
display the current rate of cars crossing the bridge. This is a kind of gamification: a feedback
loop with rewards for meeting the challenge of avoiding rush hour. Some drivers approaching
the bridge near the cutoff time for the lower toll swerve off the road to wait before entering the
toll plaza or stop in an active lane, creating a serious safety hazard. Sometimes the players
themselves may suffer the harms. Several users of Strava, a gamified tool for cyclists, have
suffered fatal crashes because, allegedly, they were too focused on the game rather than safety
Unlike cases of manipulation, these examples do not involve subverting the players’
goals to those of the providers. In the case of the Bay Bridge, the results are even contrary to the
provider’s interest in offering safe transportation. The primary ethical responsibility may,
therefore, remain with the player. Nonetheless, a responsible gamification designer should
consider not just the direct harm for players, but potential indirect harm as well. If it is
reasonably foreseeable that players may respond to gamification incentives in ways that harm
themselves or others, the provider accordingly bears some responsibility.
A lesson from game design that carries over to gamification is that players are apt to
“game the system” and sometimes act in ways the designer never anticipated (Werbach and
Hunter 2012). Players might seek to absolve themselves from responsibility on the grounds that
gamification numbed them to the serious implications of their actions,8 but this claim will be
difficult to sustain when players are clearly acting outside the expressed frame of the gameful
system. Both providers and players, therefore, have duties to avoid situations that contribute
significantly to the risk of harm or unethical conduct.
Psychological harms: A video screen leaderboard system for the housekeeping staff at
Disneyland hotels in Anaheim, California generated significant anxiety, embarrassment, and
shame among workers, who labeled it “the electronic whip” (Lopez 2011). Seeing their
performance ranked against that of coworkers on a large screen often caused some workers to
skip bathroom breaks9 and others to become panicked about losing their jobs.
Many gamification systems involve competition and ranking. For example, digital
leaderboards showing the relative performances of players are a popular game element to adapt
to the workplace. If contextually taken as a stick rather than a carrot, such features can
sometimes produce “expressive harms” (Anderson and Pildes 2000). The Disneyland hotels’
“electronic whip,” mentioned above, is an obvious example. Plausibly, each of us generally has a
negative duty not to gratuitously insult, offend, or humiliate others (Feinberg 1985; Kim and
Strudler 2012) or a “duty of decency” (Kim 2014), which may be violated in such social
contexts. Expressive harm is oftentimes not a trivial matter. As Margalit (1998: 9) argues,
“humiliation,” including insult, offense, embarrassment, or disrespectfulness, “constitutes a
sound reason for a person to consider his or her self-respect injured,” and self-respect is an
8 It is a controversial issue whether or not addiction or manipulation can absolve responsibility or
blameworthiness. In this article, we only assume the widely acceptable principle that a person is
responsible or blameworthy for a wrongdoing to the extent that she has a relevant capability to
avoid it. For more detailed discussions, see Levy (2013), Poland and Graham (2011), and Sher
9 Causing employees to skip bathroom breaks can potentially involve issues of freedom. For a
philosophical analysis about freedom, dignity, and use of the bathroom, see Waldron (1991).
important condition for a person to preserve her dignity (Dilon 1997; Hill Jr. 1973; Stark 2012).
Thus, psychological harms, if incurred through gamification, can sometimes be an experience
that strips workers of a certain dignity.10
In this context, transparency and voluntariness are not fundamental solutions. First of all,
gameful activities can harm not only voluntary players, but also any other indirectly involved
parties. Second, and more fundamental, one can wrongfully harm a person even if she consents
to and prefers to receive such treatment, e.g., slavery or sweatshop labor (Meyers 2004). Both
morality and law recognize that while people are autonomous actors capable of assuming certain
risks, they cannot consent ex ante to all injuries. Murder is an obvious example, and more
commonly, harms that the reasonable person cannot be expected to evaluate fully and rationally.
In fact, in the context of Disneyland, the more information workers have about their relative
performance, the more humiliated they will feel. A gamification provider clearly should not
mislead workers into thinking a gamified comparison system will be part of the performance
review process when it is not. But if the gamification system is actually intended to identify poor
performers, disclosing that fact will not alleviate the potential humiliation. If it is not intended in
this way, players will appropriately wonder why the organization is going to the trouble.
In such social contexts, the normative concern centers on the socially interpreted
messages to individuals in the real world. The player’s actions within the game—in the Disney
case, performing existing job functions—are not themselves problematic. Or at least, those
actions are no more problematic than they were before the introduction of gamification. The
potential for expressive harm arises from the socially interpreted impact on the workers’ real-
world job status. Yet the essence of the mental pain is not that the employer benefits unfairly, as
10 In this manner, Margalit (1996: 149) says, “if there is no concept of human dignity, then there
is no concept of humiliation either.”!
with exploitation, but that the workers are pushed to feel diminished in relation to their co-
workers or other individuals. The moral failing lies in ignoring the possibility that a competitive
hierarchy that is innocuous within a game can be expressively pernicious in some social
contexts. To avoid such expressive harms, gamification designers should anticipate and pay
enough attention to the expressive dimensions of gamification and social norms governing public
interpretations of given contexts (Anderson 1993; Hellman 2000; Nissenbaum 2004, 2010).
As Grant (2012) explains, incentives can sometimes have a negative effect upon people’s
character traits. A standard example is that parents often hesitate to use candy as a reward to
change their child’s behavior, not just for health-related reasons, but for its negative impact upon
important social character traits like autonomy, self-governance, etc. Moral character is a
complex concept (see e.g., Adams 2006; Hursthouse 2001) and we do not aim to fully cover how
gamification can impact different aspects of character. We discuss how gamification in some
limited social contexts can motivate people to cultivate and display a socially inappropriate
degree of moral indifference—a building block of bad character or vice (Arpaly 2003; Arpaly
and Schroeder 2014)11— to fundamental human values such as the sanctity of life (Dworkin
1993). Let us quickly move on to real cases.
In 2012, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) launched a blog and social media effort to rally
support for its military action against the group Hamas. The campaign raised eyebrows when it
incorporated gameful badges and levels to reward readers who searched for information on the
blog and shared content through social media connections. John Mitchell, a writer for a popular
technology blog, was flabbergasted: “This is a WAR. Israel is trying to enlist the people of the
11 A reverse moral indifference or goodwill is a building block of good moral character. See
Arpaly and Schroeder (2014).
world in its campaign with military ranks, badges and points. Innocent people are dying on all
sides, and the IDF wants to reward people for tweeting about it.” (Emphasis in original.)
Mitchell’s objection has intuitive appeal, but is difficult to justify on deeper investigation.
From the IDF’s perspective, the gameful war blog was a fully transparent effort to engage and
motivate supporters. What, then, was the ethical problem? Unlike full-fledged video games or
serious games, gamification involves not just simulating reality but influencing it. The IDF blog
was actually part of the war effort. Specifically, it was a propaganda tool. The real concern
implicit in Mitchell’s moral reservation might be that participants would come to see the Israeli
campaign in a positive light. The game-like environment might contribute by de-emphasizing the
brutality of combat, but so would a stirring speech about the rightness of the cause. If this is the
source of Mitchell’s concern, one could certainly conclude that the IDF blog was in poor taste,
but to declare it ethically suspect is a contestable conclusion about the IDF’s campaign against
Hamas, rather than about gamification.
Furthermore, it is unclear whether the problem is that war should never be associated
with games. War games, both physical and virtual, are a widespread and essential military
planning tool. Nor is there an inherent ethical problem with digital games related to war.
Although concerns are sometimes raised about the dangers of violent video games, it is unclear
whether there was something uniquely violent displayed in the IDF’s social media campaign. It
was about a war, but participating in it was not actually like fighting in a war. The IDF blog is
more akin to strategy games, such as the well-regarded Civilization series, which show battles as
a stylized, bloodless movement of armies. Even critics of violent video games rarely attack such
Nonetheless, a moral remainder could still exist. There is more than one way to address
Mitchell’s suspicion, but one interpretation of his quote is that the wartime context is inherently
serious because it inevitably involves serious injuries, including killing innocent people, but that
gamification in this context is used to motivate people to cultivate and display a certain moral
indifference to fundamental human values like the sanctity of life, an indifference that one can
find morally and socially unacceptable. Suppose that two men are playing a video game that
involves physically saving a drowning child. They compete for the sake of fun, points, and
badges, but not for the sake of the sanctity of life. Of course, their act itself—saving children in
danger—is a right thing to do. Thus, their act is not itself blameworthy. But their desire to save
the child, encouraged by the game, can be interpreted as inappropriate because it expresses moral
indifference to a certain fundamental human value that deserves serious consideration. If the
players were repeatedly or habitually exposed to such motivating influences, it could have a
serious impact upon the players’ moral character.
As in the case of the other moral concerns we have discussed, each case must be
contextually examined. If some incentives for morally good actions, such as tax deductions for
charitable giving, do not have a socially unacceptable degree of negative impact upon tax payers’
civic character, such incentives would not be interpreted as cultivating a socially unacceptable
form of moral indifference to values like beneficence or generosity. In the case of wartime,
however, gamification can more likely, depending upon contexts, encourage people to cultivate
and express unjustifiable moral indifference to fundamental human values like the sanctity of
innocent life. Wartime businesses and other business activities that involve fundamental human
values should be extremely careful of using gamification.
Another example that tests the boundaries of what can be gamified, with respect to
fundamental human values, involves a U.S. military base in Griesheim, Germany that was
involved in tapping email and other electronic communications in connection with the global
effort to fight terrorism. As part of training, operatives were challenged to earn “skilz points” and
unlock achievements based on their success at finding promising information (Poitras,
Rosenbauch,and Stark, 2013). Here again, some observers would intuit that something was
inappropriate about the use of gamification, but it is difficult to divorce that sense from one’s
contextual perspective about the underlying activity. Imagine a social context in which
gamification had been used by the British team at Bletchley Park that cracked the Nazi Enigma
code during World War II. One might believe, then, that any motivational approach that
improved those scientists’ performance would be viewed favorably. But the moral reality is not
that clear. In the saving-the-drowning-child game, the players’ act was not itself wrong, but
displayed a certain moral indifference—and the gaming encouraged them to do so. It is possible
that the gameful system can have a negative impact upon the British team’s moral character, by
repeatedly or habitually encouraging them to have a certain moral indifference to fundamental
human values. Ethical gamification designers should pay attention to this unintended moral
trade-off and should try to minimize players’ moral cost, especially given the dominant role of
working life in the contemporary world and its strong spillover impact on other aspects of our
lives and our character traits.
Of course, because gamification obfuscates the norms of two different spheres, where to
draw the line is not always clear. If motivational techniques derived from games should not
always be employed in “serious” environments, that would apply to services such as Free Rice,
an online quiz game created by the United Nations World Food Programme that educates players
about world hunger, or Half the Sky, a social game on Facebook that raises awareness about the
mistreatment of women around the world. Rather than providing definite answers here, we
propose a basic guideline: carefully examine whether or not gamification repeatedly encourages
players to be indifferent to fundamental human values.
4. Conclusion: Toward a Framework
Each of the four categories of moral concern about gamification raises distinctive issues.
And within every category, the specific circumstances of implementation must be considered to
determine whether ethical lines might be crossed. Gamification is not per se exploitative,
manipulative, harmful, or detrimental to character, but neither can any of those objections be
dismissed out of hand. Further analysis is needed to develop a full framework for normative
evaluation of gamification systems. However, we can sketch the outlines of an approach that
could assist gamification providers in taking ethical concerns into consideration.
We acknowledge that gamification can be involved with moral issues other than the four
in our framework. Our approach has been inductive, building on a systematic evaluation of the
ethical issue in major cases. Nonetheless, we believe there are unifying principles reflected in the
ethical concerns we have discussed. As described at the outset, gamification always involves two
sets of actors (individuals we call players and the organizations we call providers) and two kinds
of experiences (in the “magic circle” of the game and outside it). Overlaying these two
dimensions produces four quadrants, each of which houses a different normative concern
discussed in this article.
Figure 1: Conceptual mapping of gamification ethics
Exploitation and manipulation both arise from the relationship between the providers and the
players. The moral status of the situation cannot be assessed solely by asking if the player is
worse off. If the flaw in the player/provider relationship is an imbalance in the real world, such
that providers are able to take advantage of players’ unique vulnerabilities, the issue is
exploitation. If the problem is that providers have created an environment such that, in the game,
players do not make autonomous decisions, and instead make choices serving the providers, the
issue is manipulation.
Harms and character, by contrast, can be evaluated purely with reference to the players as
individuals. Whether the providers benefit is immaterial. If the gamification activity produces an
injury manifested in the real world, whether physically or psychically, the issue is one of harm.
If instead there is an ethical lapse in the game, such that players act to satisfy the game’s
objectives and are indifferent to fundamental human values, the issue is character.
Since we did not cover all (possible) cases, it is logically possible to see cases that cannot
be appropriately addressed by the four considerations. If there were such cases, they would need
to be taken seriously, and additional effort would need to be made in the future to further develop
the framework of gamification ethics. We do not deny such a possibility. Nonetheless, we
believe that these four categories can address moral issues in a broad range of gamification cases.
One reason is that we draw upon three major ethical theories and values to develop the
framework. For exploitation and manipulation, we appeal to deontological values such as
autonomy, reason-responsiveness, and fairness. For harm and humiliation, we appeal to both
deontological and utilitarian values such as dignity, self-esteem, and harm. For character, we
appeal to virtue ethics.
As is the case with many new business practices, the adoption of gamification has
preceded a serious examination of its benefits and dangers. Most reports about the practice and
its effects are anecdotal. Best practices are not well-defined. Success stories are better publicized
than failed implementations. In such a context, both empirical and normative scholarship can
contribute to better understanding. This is particularly true for ethical considerations. Firms
deciding whether to invest in gamification solutions have a direct incentive to demand sufficient
evidence of gamification’s effectiveness in meeting their business goals. In contrast, firms do not
always clearly see a direct financial incentive linked to the moral significance of a practice and
so, unfortunately, ignore the ethical dimension. However, adopters of gamification need to
understand that the moral legitimacy of business practices is itself often directly related to
corporate financial performance (Margolis and Walsh 2003) and the survival of a firm
significantly depends upon gaining, maintaining, and repairing moral legitimacy (Suchman
1995). More fundamentally, gamification providers need to understand that the purpose of
business is not to manipulate, exploit, or harm people, but to help them create values for human
flourishing (Donaldson and Walsh 2015).
In detailing four major areas of ethical concern for gamification, we are not arguing that
gamification providers are all morally terrible, vicious, and wicked people. Most probably strive
to be moral individuals, and take ethical issues into consideration in their gamification designs in
an implicit and unconscious manner. However, good people can make bad decisions. As
behavioral ethicists show (Bazerman and Gino 2012; Bazerman and Tenbrunsel 2011), people
are often not as ethical as they think. Their failure to recognize or admit this fact leads them to
self-justify unethical actions. Such moral naiveté can lead gamification developers to
unreflectively believe that their services or products have no ethical problems. Specifically,
recent behavioral ethics literature compellingly shows that good and well-intentioned people
make unethical decisions mostly when their decisions are made in what Daniel Kahneman
(2011) calls System 1 Thinking mode, characterized as unconscious, effortless, and automatic.
To avoid such a problem, gamification developers should make a shift from System 1 to System
2 thinking, characterized as deliberate, conscious, and principled (Prentice 2014; Tenbrunsel and
Smith-Crowe 2008). What we have explored in this article is one attempt to look at gamification
ethics from the perspective of System 2. We hope this view helps gamification developers and
researchers better understand the ethics of gamification.
Further work could build additional bridges with ethics and information technology, and
with legal regimes that exist to protect similar interests. If gamification continues to develop and
become more prominent, serious attention to ethical concerns will help to push the field in a
positive direction. Such an effort would help to move the gamification ethics conversation
further toward particulars. There have been few rigorous case studies of gamification practices,
and even fewer controlled experiments. Even the scope and definition of the field is still subject
to debate. With regard to gamification ethics specifically, the extant examples, such as the
Disney “electronic whip,” Camover, and the other cases described throughout the article, are
generally drawn from news articles rather than academic works. Further rigorous work is needed
to guide gamification designers at both the design and implementation stages.
A situation analogous to gamification arises in debates about online privacy. Systems that
collect, aggregate, distribute, and use personal information raise serious normative questions, but
developing a robust theory that covers the breadth of these situations and takes into account the
countervailing values at play has proven difficult. One of the most successful approaches is the
concept of contextual integrity (Nissenbaum 2004, 2010). Contextual integrity identifies
legitimate objections to novel information transmission practices with violations of context-
relative norms. Such a violation is prima facie established with changes in actors, attributes, or
transmission principles in a prevailing context, and can be overcome with sufficient moral
justification for the new practice. Gamification differs from privacy in that it is not based upon
information transmission. However, it is similar in that it involves a variety of arguably
objectionable practices that can be categorized in terms of players, providers, and contextual
A contextual integrity approach to gamification ethics would identify the individuals
subject to gamification, the organizations implementing it, and a set of motivational principles.
These could include transparency, consent, autonomous decision making, and adequate rationale.
The approach would then evaluate practices relative to the norms in two parallel contexts: the
game and the real world. Manipulation and impact on character involve actions within the game
frame; exploitation and harm are evaluated relative to real-world behavioral norms. This
approach allows consideration of factors such as whether the individuals subject to gamification
are unusually vulnerable, and whether the situation involves an activity in an area with
distinctive norms, such as health.
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