In Gamification, Points aren’t the Point

“Rest assured, Commander, we will be victorious. At whatever the cost.”
“Worf, it’s just a game. A little friendly competition. You work up a sweat, you have a few laughs, and you make new friends.”
“If winning is not important, then, Commander, why keep score?”
Worf and Riker in Star Trek TNG: “11001001”

So, I had another conversation about using points for operant conditioning in the context of gamification. And the more I think about it, the more skeptical I become.

Some students seem to think points are these magical coins you can use in an app to automatically motivate human behavior. Magical in the sense you can create them for free, yet they are seen as valuable by the user. Just provide a task list and give them points for doing them (and badges if they get enough points), and they’re motivated. Beside the problem of starting the behavior in the first place, why on Earth should anyone work for points alone?

In almost all games, points are more than just … well, points. They serve as indicators for something of value to the player. In many cases, it’s feedback about the competency of the player, as the points are frequently tightly connected to the players performance. These games show you while doing certain actions that the points increase — and when the player gets better, they reach higher and higher scores. And this does not only apply to old-style Arcade games, but to lots and lots of games. Just think of experience points in role playing games. They have no value on their own. Neither do player levels. But points do indicate player competence. Frequently, depending on how well you solve a quest, you get different amounts of points. Additionally, more points and consequently levelling up also provide for another basic need: autonomy. Usually, with higher levels, you have more options, e.g., more spells, more attacks, more powers. Even leaderboards based on points serve a greater purpose, or a more fundamental need. Besides competency (via social comparison), they can allow for relatedness.

So, it’s really not points that reward player, and you don’t have to give out points to make something “gamified”. So please stop trying to “pay” the players with Fool’s gold. But you do have to address the players basic needs. And used well, points can allow you to address these needs.

There’s really no point in points alone.