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Before You Press Play… Ethical Concerns About Gamification

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In 2015 concerns began to rise about potential detrimental effects of gamification in workplaces (Finley 2015; Tracey 2015; Korn & Schmidt 2015). There are many studies that prove the benefits of gamification for motivation and engagement (Hamari, Koivisto & Sarsa 2014), but there is the chance that workers might be manipulated in the name of ‘gamification’ and that privacy and safety are potentially at risk in certain situations. This is an attempt to explore the main concerns.

Most of the commonly mentioned gamification techniques are to do with visually tracking progress and achievement (Korn & Schmidt 2015). These elements – especially leaderboards – can lead to psychological harm if not implemented correctly, as was the case with workers at Disneyland in Anaheim, California (Lopez cited in Kim & Werbach 2016). A screen would rank the cleaning staff’s performance causing great anxiety, shame and embarrassment and even led to some feeling their jobs were under threat (Lopez cited in Kim & Werbach 2016).

As leaderboards are a public display of identity linked to action, they can be considered a violation of privacy (Mavroeidi et al. 2019). Additionally, Mavroeidi et al. explain how many common game elements like badges and avatar creation can compromise one’s privacy in this way, especially as most digital gamification systems require one to make a profile, account or link their Facebook or email to participate. Korn and Schmidt also point out that many of these gamification practices contribute to the quantified self (2015).

Generic Leaderboard

This is not to make a blanket statement that leaderboards, or other game elements are bad, because in the right circumstances, they have been shown to increase motivation and engagement (Ortiz‐Rojas, Chiluiza & Valcke 2019; Fotaris et al. 2016). Gamification is not inherently invasive of privacy, provided there is no “information transmission” (Kim & Werbach 2016, p. 170).

Of course there are other implications to consider. Game designer Kathy Sierra talks about how gamification replaces intrinsic motivation with extrinsic rewards, and that the removal of such a system could ultimately be harmful to long term motivation (cited in Finley 2015). Similarly, Tracey notes that some might be averse to the idea of participating in a game and having their progress tracked (2015). He also states that presenting users with incentives like rewards may lead to the wrong mindset and that focus will be directly primarily to winning the game (Tracey 2015). A critique of this view might be that if the system is engineered well enough, employees focused on winning shouldn’t be a problem and might contribute to a better quality of life.

Gamification has been proven to engage and motivate people and regardless of performance, it can make tasks more enjoyable and contribute to a greater sense of achievement among workers and learners. If gramification processes are causing unwanted effects for participants, particularly in the workplace, it could be argued that this would simply be a symptom of an imbalanced relationship between the organization and the employees. If they’re not exploited one way, it’ll happen in another. There would require a shift in attitudes and accountability to remedy this situation.

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On a more serious note, a gamified ride-tracking app allegedly led to a distracted cyclist’s fatality (Hill 2012), so the potential for harmful distraction should definitely be considered. The dilemma here is whether the responsibility lies with the user or the developer. Many apps – like GPS systems – have a disclaimer or a notice to remind users to stay alert. But if the user is drawn into the app or achieves flow, their awareness and judgement might be impaired.

So is gamification worth it? Of course! There are many studies proving gamification to be effective and there have been no issues in the majority of undertakings. Sadly, in some cases gamification has been used in contexts that are not appropriate, or the system has not been engineered in the right manner. There are ethical dilemmas in all systems and practices, as nothing and no one is perfect. The key is to be aware, do proper research and think it through. Often There is no one formula or set of principles in the area of gamification (Kim & Werbach 2016). Kim and Werbach suggest first considering whether the context of gamification is appropriate and what morals are involved (2016). There are some great ideas and methods of implementing gamification, so start strategizing!

Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels (CC0)


Finley, K 2015, How ‘Gamification’ Can Make Your Customer Service Worse, Wired Enterprise, retrieved 2 April 2020 <>.

Fotaris, P, Mastoras, T, Leinfellner, R & Rosunally, Y 2016, ‘Climbing Up the Leaderboard: An Empirical Study of Applying Gamification Techniques to a Computer Programming Class’, Electronic Journal of e-Learning, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 94–110.

Hamari, J, Koivisto, J & Sarsa, H 2014, ‘Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification’, 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Waikoloa, HI, pp. 3025-34.

Hill, K 2012, A quantified self fatality? Family says cyclist’s death
is fault of ride-tracking company Strava
,, June 20, retrieved 2 April 2020, <

Kim, TW & Webach, K 2016 ‘More than just a game: ethical issues in gamification’, Ethics and Information Technology, no. 2, p. 157-73, doi: 10.1007/s10676-016-9401-5

Korn, O & Schmidt, A 2015, ‘Gamification of Business Processes: Re-designing Work in Production and Service Industry’, Procedia Manufacturing, vol. 3, pp. 3424-31.

Mavroeidi, AG, Kitsiou, A, Kalloniatis, C & Gritzalis, S 2019, ‘Gamification vs. Privacy: Identifying and Analysing the Major Concerns’, Future Internet, vol. 11, no. 3, doi: 10.3390/fi11030067

Ortiz‐Rojas, M, Chiluiza, K & Valcke, M 2019, ‘Gamification through leaderboards: An empirical study in engineering education’, Computer Applications in Engineering Education, no. 4, p. 777, doi: 10.1002/cae.12116

Tracey, R 2015, The dark side of gamification, E-Learning Provocateur, 16 March, retrieved 2 April 2020 <>.