Gamification vs Manipulation

Gamification vs Manipulation image Gamification vs Manipulation

Written by Steven Egan

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When some people hear that gamification is about customizing situations and communication to how people respond, they wonder, “Isn’t that manipulation?” As a game designer focused on education, this is a serious concern to me. With games getting so much negative media attention, it can be hard to tell the difference, but there is a difference, just not where you might expect.

To see the difference, we first need to look at the similarities. In both gamification and manipulation one person, or group, customizes their behavior, based on other people’s response to achieve their goals. Media is often used, but it’s by no means the only method. Tone, word choice and how information is presented is often adjusted to achieve goals. With that said, what’s the difference?

Honestly, on the surface, there might be little difference. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when somebody is trying to manipulate us. Sometimes we can’t tell till it’s too late. This is part of why we care about the answer to “Isn’t that manipulation?” It’s important, but the surface can deceive us, so the surface won’t tell us the answer.

The Power of Choice in Gamification

Taking a deeper look at these two terms, we understand the difference: gamification applies game design outside of games to help a user achieve his/her goals, while manipulation is the attempt to control people to accomplish things. The key part is that games are about the player’s choices, and game design is about empowering players in their choices to experience the intended gameplay. That’s very different from manipulation’s focus on control.

A great example of unintentional gamification that clearly shows the difference is an experiment that was conducted in India with a computer. The computer was made available, for free, with no supervision to the public outside a building. Children, who didn’t know English at all, started playing with it. I say “playing”, because they were just exploring what the computer was and what it could do. When the experimenter spoke with the children months later, the first thing they said was, “We need a faster processor and a better mouse.” Nobody controlled the children or forced them to learn English or figure out how to make the computer work better, like we see in classrooms. They chose to do it, and were able to because the placement of the computer empowered the children to make those choices.  Further experiments refined the findings and inspired experiments in alternative education.

If you don’t think that’s gamification, I’d disagree with you as a game designer. There were designed rules, just not very many. There was a designed situation, despite it being simple. The computer was designed to give feedback based on interaction, and so were the programs made available. There was a designed, open-ended experience for the participants to go through by choice. It was like an exploration-focused sandbox game.

Unintentionally, Sugata Mitra, the experimenter, applied game design to a non-game situation. That is gamification, and in this case it helped children learn a new language and other complex subjects by empowering their ability to make meaningful choices. Yu-kai Chou calls this “Human-Focused Design” in his post “What is Gamification?“. By intentionally applying the lessons he learned about human behavior (Human-Focused Design) Sugata Mitra has made amazing, positive effects in the lives of children, and plans to do the same for many more.

Children are not the only ones that benefit from gamification, as companies like Ideo and Google are known for their playful and game-like work environments and practices. The more reading I do on work environments and employee productivity and creativity, the more I see game design principles being discussed and recommended. At the same time, manipulation tactics and a lack of respect seems to be a warning sign that the company, or group, is on the road to failure. Another TED Talk by Tim Brown on creativity and play shows how gammification by any name can enhance the lives and productivity of almost anybody.

A Warning on Manipulation

It’s important to point out that communication and design are tools, and as tools they can be used to help or to harm. The more effective the tool is, the more potential it has to change our lives. Psychology, experience design, and effective communication have all been used to empower and to control. It’s possible to use a tool either way, but it’s not good game design if it’s used to manipulate. Gamification is about empowering choices, while manipulation is about controlling choices.

While gamification and manipulation are similar on the surface, they very different below the surface.  Gamification is about empowering people to do better and make their own, informed choices, so it can be done honestly, respectfully and with integrity. If you find this interesting, I invite you to explore this blog, my own blog and to do some searching for yourself.

A Call for Guest Authors

i want you as a guest writer A Call for Guest Authors

This is a call for writers to author guest posts that focus on motivational design and Octalysis analyses.

As you’ll see on Wednesday’s post from Steven Egan, we’re looking for authors that are just as excited and thorough at understanding the intricacies of good human-focused design and want to share this knowledge with the world.

If you are interested in authoring a post or sharing your Level 1 Octalysis certificate analysis, get in touch with my colleague Zen Trenholm at

New Series: Engagement Website Design Series via Captain Up

A series on how to build engagement on your website through the Captain Up Platform

Many of you have asked me about the gamification platform I used on my website here at For some, it has been a gruesome but rewarding experience of leveling up and climbing through the ranks.

It’s no secret that the platform I use is called Captain Up. Like I say though, gamification platforms are like Graphic Engines in making games. A good graphic engine can help you create a great game, but it doesn’t mean you automatically have one.

I’ll be creating a short series of videos on how to implement my various Core Drives into a website through the Captain Up Platform.

I may explore other platforms too in the future, but since I enjoy using Captain Up so much, I thought this would be a great start.

Stay Tuned!

Black Hat Gamification and the Fall of Plants vs. Zombies 2

Plants vs. Zombies 2 Logo Black Hat Gamification and the Fall of Plants vs. Zombies 2

Why Plants vs. Zombies 2 Failed to Engage Gamers

Motivation Matters: An Insightful Lesson in Game Development from the Plants vs. Zombies Franchise

Author Bio

This interview was conducted by Clark Buckner from (they provide coverage content on gamifying sales programs, customer loyalty solutions, employee engagement platforms and much more). Also, be sure to check out their Technology Conferences Calendar.

To check out the interview in full:

Yu-Kai Chou, a thought leader in gamification and publisher of the Octalysis gamification framework, gave insights into the different motivating drivers behind the wild success of mobile game Plants vs. Zombies, white hat and black hat gamification, and the essential elements for engaging users.

Yu-kai believes the reason Plants vs. Zombies 1 (PvZ1) was more successful than Plants vs. Zombies 2 (PvZ2) is that, even though the game is essentially the same but with some new “stuff” to make the sequel more interesting, the core experience of PvZ2 is broken. (Note, the analysis here is mostly based on the PvZ2 in 2013. In 2014, there was a large overhaul that improved some of the issues, but still far from ideal).

For him, no game is guaranteed success if it misses the essence of the game (especially in the wake of a wildly successful game) and the motivation of its players to play the game. Game mechanics and other elements can be copied from a previously winning formula, but that doesn’t guarantee a hit.

To verify his opinions, Yu-kai researched why casual gamers tended to play PvZ1 more than they did PvZ2. He used his own Octalysis Gamification Framework to break motivation down into a few of the eight Core Drives. Essentially, he discovered that PvZ 2 shifted from using white hat core drives to black hat core drives. 

White Hat Core Drives in Plants vs Zombies 1 Lacking in Plants vs Zombies 2 

Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning and Calling

In PvZ1, a gamer’s doing something meaningful by saving their home. This is something that even female demographics that don’t care about fighting games can resonate to. In PvZ2, the gamer’s going through pain and trouble just so Crazy Dave can re-eat a taco. When a player is in the midst of danger, sometimes it feels fairly pointless. 

Core Drive 2: Development and Accomplishment

PvZ1 is very careful with flow. After one or two minutes, a user may have three or four peashooters. They’re slowly but surely amassing a stockpile and building their economy. When a user gets to the end of the game, they have a full army. Ultimately, this gives gamers a feeling of harmony and accomplishment, matched with the magic of the beats in the music.

In PvZ2, the user quickly gains 10 or 12 plants, providing a quick boost of early success and productivity. However, when the user gets to the end of the game, the economy proportionally slows down but the user’s still trying to finish amassing their army of plants. As a result, this makes gamers feel like they’re struggling to survive. 

Here is an example of how the flow differs:

Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback

PvZ1 offers a creative process with numerous ways and combinations to seek victory in the game.

PvZ2 limits options. A gamer must use certain plants or else they’ll die. In the first world of mummies, if the user tries the pea shooter or even double pea shooter, chances are he will lose because of the tombs. The game has to be won by using cabbage throwers and boomerangs. Certainly, when a game forces a user to play in a certain way, the elements of play, strategy, and meaningful choices are lacking, consequently making the game boring.

Yu-kai further identified the notable differences in Milestone Unlocks:

When a PvZ 1 player unlocks a milestone achievement, they’re rewarded with the perfect plant that solves all past problems and makes them want to try more in the future.

In the older version of PvZ2, a player is forced to earn the achievement through unlocking a stage many times. It’s more about scarcity and dangling rewards. Plus, the user’s rewarded with a random plant that’s seldom what they need, adding to the slow grind of gameplay in PvZ2. In the later update, this has improved, but the plant unlockable schedule is still far from perfect for motivation.

The Black Hat Core Drives of Plants vs Zombies 2

Core Drive 6: Scarcity and Impatience 

In the first version of PvZ2 player plays the same stage over and over again, earning keys for a far-off goal. It ultimately overwhelms a player’s patience. The second version of PvZ2 improved on that, especially with multi-world transferring, but the dangling technique is still apparent.

Core Drive 7: Unpredictability and Curiosity

PvZ2 is unpredictable in that it takes players into different zones, driving fascination with these “crazy” elements, and making Crazy Dave’s conversation a center piece of the game (whereas in PvZ1 Crazy Dave was not as important besides playing the role of a merchant).

Black Hat Gamification vs. White Hat Gamification

In generally, even though game firms like Zynga consider their development process as “data-driven design,” a lot of it is black hat gamification, or a focus on creating urgency, obsession, and addictiveness in users. Metrics for black hat gamification include monetization, addiction, retention rates, and sharing with friends. 

Black hat games ultimately leave players with a not-so-good experience. So, they end up playing just an hour or two, then leave the game and never come back.

Yu-kai contrasted that to white hat gamification, where developers use motivating factors in gaming to make people feel good without a sense of urgency.

Chou’s eight Core Drives help developers see games as more than just mechanics. Instead, game developers need to look at the users’ motivation to play their games:

  • Does the game make people feel accomplished?
  • Does the game let people make meaningful choices?
  • Is there epic meaning and calling?
  • Is there unpredictability in the experience?

How to Better Employ Engagement

Yu-kai outlined the different factors that are essential to employing engagement: 

  • Meaning: He explained that many campaigns are about scarcity and fixed-action rewards that drive motivated actions. However, this is not long-term motivation because people don’t feel good after playing such a game—as opposed to white hat gamification which stresses meaning.
  • Development and Accomplishment: Developers ought to very carefully control flow so that it begins slowly but increases in difficulty as a gamer’s experience increases. Gamers don’t want to feel insulted or frustrated by a hard game. 
  • Meaningful Choices: Give people meaningful choices where they can customize their play and environment to make the game more interesting and more fun. The multi-world hopping is a great improvement in this, which is what made the game Megaman so innovative in the early days.

Ultimately, meaning is very important as to why people engage with certain games. Unfortunately, there are many products and resources that describe what you need to do in game development and seldom explain the “why” behind it.

For more information on Chou’s Octalysis Gamification Framework and its 8 Core Drives, visit, or send Yu-Kai Chou an email to get certified. Connect with him on Twitter @yukaichou.

Beginner’s Guide to Gamification (20 of 90): Left Brain vs Right Brain Core Drives (Intrinsic vs Extrinsic)

Episode 20: Left Brain vs Right Brain Core Drives (Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation)

Finally a new episode with the Beginner’s Guide to Gamification! In this episode, I talk about the differences between Left Brain and Right Brain Core Drives, which coincide with Intrinsic vs Extrinsic motivation that we often hear a lot about in other pieces of work. I also talk about some strategies on how to make an experience more intrinsic.

In this lesson, I take the viewer to my Hawaii Honey-Moon (which is like the only time I get to work on this), Norway, California, India, Kingdom of Bahrain, and Shenzhen China.