Is the Icebucket Challenge an example of “gamification”?
Philanthropy experts have had a field day pontificating on the Ice Bucket Challenge, but one term that recently entered the discussion is “gamification.” For example:
“Americans are probably not unique in the world in treating philanthropy as a sort of game, with the goal of making it go down painlessly.” – Michael Hiltzik, LA Times (8/18/14)
“[G]amified philanthropy may cause problems for charities.” – Anna North, NY Times (9/5/14)
“Leveraging the power of smartphones, video, social media and gamification, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a virtual chain letter that is easy, fun, media-friendly and psychologically shrewd.” – J.J. Rosen, The Tennessean (9/7/14)
… and so on. Many of these pieces toss the word “gamify” into the title but never really describe how, exactly, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a “game.” At the risk of slipping into pedantry, I think it’s worth considering whether the Ice Bucket Challenge really is a game, and also whether it matters.
I usually rely on Salen and Zimmerman‘s working definition of a game: “a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome.” Strictly speaking, I suppose the Ice Bucket Challenge is a game: (1) the conflict is the same as truth-or-dare –your willingness to accept the dare and/or make the donation; (2) the rules are to donate or dump water on yourself, though the game actually works when you “break” the rules and do both; and (3) the outcome is the video, which is also the means of the game reproducing itself.
But all of this is just pedantry. When analysts use the term “gamification” to refer to the Challenge, what they’re actually saying is that the Challenge is “fun” (which is how we used to think about Walk-a-thons, remember?). But making something fun, while helpful, isn’t the unique feature of games for change and “serious games.” Rather, to riff off Raph Koster’s analysis of “fun,” it’s in providing a meaningful system that can be learned and mastered. And in that sense the Ice Bucket Challenge is no more a game than is a chain letter.
If someone could just please coin the term “funification,” we would no longer need “gamification” to carry that water.