More than just a game: ethical issues in gamification

Abstract

Gamification is the use of elements and techniques from video game design in non-game contexts. Amid the rapid growth of this practice, normative questions have been under-explored. The primary goal of this article is to develop a normatively sophisticated and descriptively rich account for appropriately addressing major ethical considerations associated with gamification. The framework suggests that practitioners and designers should be precautious about, primarily, but not limited to, whether or not their use of gamification practices: (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 other involved parties; or (4) has a negative effect on the moral character of involved parties.

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Notes

  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. 2.

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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. 5.

    “(1) 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 that development had P attended to the process; (2) 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 (3) The self-reflection involved in condition (1) is (minimally) rational and involves no self-deception” (Christman 1991: 11).

  6. 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.

  7. 7.

    Many business organizations, e.g., Google, use similar game techniques to recruit qualified employees, including math questions and other IT challenges.

  8. 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 (2009).

  9. 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).

  10. 10.

    In this manner, Margalit (1998: 149) says, “if there is no concept of human dignity, then there is no concept of humiliation either.”.

  11. 11.

    A reverse moral indifference or goodwill is a building block of good moral character. See Arpaly and Schroeder (2014).

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Correspondence to Tae Wan Kim.

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Kim, T.W., Werbach, K. More than just a game: ethical issues in gamification. Ethics Inf Technol 18, 157–173 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-016-9401-5

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Keywords

  • Gamification
  • Gamification ethics
  • Exploitation
  • Manipulation
  • Persuasive technology