things that are not in their best interest. The use of random rewards to create addictive, gambling-like experiences that eventually lead certain users to
be unable to exercise free will. Obfuscated systems that encourage users to
divulge information about themselves
for reasons that are not obviously stated initially. Systems that deliberately
exploit the most vulnerable in society, such as the sick or the very young.
These are all pertinent examples.
It is very important to keep in mind
that all of these instances, and indeed
all instances of ethical concerns with
gamification, are not the fault of gamification as a concept, but rather the designer. Like a hammer, gamification is
a tool. A hammer can be used to build
beautiful houses when used by someone who understands its uses and its
limitations. However, a hammer can
also be used to break objects and cause
great damage when used by those with
less creative intentions. This does not
make the hammer ethical or unethical, it is just a tool. The ethics have to
be associated with the intentions of
the person holding the hammer.
The same is true of gamification.
The onus must be on the designer to
use the techniques available to them
to make gamification ethical.
Open Gamification Code of Ethics; http://ethics.gamified.uk/
[ 1] Schell, J. Jesse Schell: When games invade real
life. TED, 2010; https:// www.ted.com/talks/jesse_
[ 2] Paul, B. R. and Elder, L. Miniature Guide to Ethical
Reasoning. Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2003;
[ 3] Hatton, C. China ‘social credit’: Beijing sets up huge
system. BBC News. October 26, 2015; http://www.
bbc.com/ne ws/ world-asia-china-34592186
[ 3] Marczewski, A. Pokémon Go: The Good, The Bad and
Some Lessons. Gamified UK. July 22, 2016; https://
Andrzej Marcze wski is a gamification solution designer
and consultant at Motivait. He has been directly involved in
gamification since 2011, writing regular blogs and articles
on gamification at https://gamified.uk. He is also the
author of Even Ninja Monkeys Like to Play: Gamification,
Game Thinking & Motivational Design (Blurb, 2015), and
has been recognized as a world expert in gamification,
especially on the topic of user and player types.
© 2017 Copyright held by owners/authors.
Publication rights licensed to ACM
sibility for the actions of players, if
players put themselves in harm’s way
to play the game?
To consider the ethics of the game,
we need to go back to our definition
and framework. First, we have to
ask the question, does the game offer players a choice. The answer is a
simple, yes. They do not have to download the game and play. Again, as with
the social credit example, there is a
fear of missing out and potential social pressure applied by early adopters. However, there is no danger of the
game ever being made mandatory by
Next, what was the intention of the
designer when creating the game? In
this instance, the answer is clearly to
bring joy to players. They wanted to create a game that would get people physically involved in a new type of game. Of
course, they also wanted to make money. This is not a negative point—it is the
right of anyone creating new products
to want to make a profit from them.
When considering the benefits and
negative outcomes of being in the
game, we can’t ignore the fact that serious harm has befallen certain players.
However, the majority have found the
game to be enjoyable and have faced
no negative effects of playing. So, on
balance, the positive outcomes of being in the game far outweigh the potential negatives. This also is true of
the benefits to the player versus that
of the designer. The game was made to
give joy to players and it seems this is
exactly what it has done. The designers
have made money, but not to the detriment of the player’s enjoyment.
From an ethical standpoint, “Poké-
mon Go” does not apppear to break
our rules. The game was designed with
good intent and players, on balance,
benefit in the way they desire. Howev-
er, there is a moral concern here. While
the negative events that transpired
were unintended, they still happened.
So, although there is no ethical issue
(based on our definition), the design-
ers did face a moral quandary. To help
limit the danger people faced playing
the game, they created a series of mes-
sages that reminded the player not to
do dangerous things while playing,
such as not looking where they are go-
ing. Early in the game’s life, there was
also the question of where Pokestops
and gyms where placed. For instance,
having a children’s nursery marked
on the map as a Pokestop could draw
large numbers of people to the spot.
Was this acceptable? Again, the devel-
opers took action, releasing tools to
allow people to request the removal of
Pokestops and gyms [ 4].
“Pokémon Go” represents an interesting crossroads in the argument
around the ethics of designing systems. While there was no intentional
harm done, it certainly had many unintended issues thanks to the lack of
forethought on the designers’ part.
Whether or not it is right to hold them
responsible for this is a question of morality rather than ethics.
It is obvious there are ethical concerns when it comes to the use of gamification. Defining the term is useful,
but it helps to have a more expansive
code of ethics for designers to consider when creating gamified solutions.
There have been several created, notably by Zichermann and Marczewski,
although some critics believe such a
code does not always go far enough—
the focus is more on the enterprise
rather than the individual. However,
the key elements of this code are a
need for transparency and honesty
with the user about the intentions of
the system, and not creating systems
that deliberately trick users into behaviors that could cause them harm.
This is the central point about ethics
Gamification becomes unethical
when the designer uses the psychology
of players to manipulate them to do
It is useful to have
that prevent the
potential dangers of
personal morals, or
lack thereof, over-