Game theory and gamification are not the same thing

Adele Peters recently wrote a piece for with the headline ‘Weekend Reading: Using Game Theory to Make the World a Better Place’. Adele is clearly an intelligent woman as she works for the Haas School of Business, but the headline is an example of what is becoming a frustratingly common misuse of the term ‘game theory’.

The article is actually an interview with Gabe Zichermann, a gaming expert, on the application of gamification to improve sustainable behaviour and has absolutely nothing to do with game theory. In fact the article never mentions game theory, it is just used lazily in the headline.

Let’s clear this up:

Game theory analyses strategic situations where one person’s strategy is dependent on the strategic choices of others. (Like the Prisoner’s Dilemma)

Gamification is using game play mechanics to get people more involved in an activity, particularly on a website. It uses rewards to encourage particular behaviours. Foursquare is a well known example.

There are plenty of other examples of these terms being misused, please let me know in the comments if you come across any others. We need to stop this before ‘game theory’ gets hijacked by people who should know better!

Here is a link to Adele’s article

Today’s takeaway: Language matters, please be precise

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11 Responses to Game theory and gamification are not the same thing

  1. Justin says:

    I think the misuse is by people who don’t have a solid, working definition of game theory. I’m an economist but I must admit to not keeping the definition ‘Game theory analyses strategic situations where one person’s strategy is dependent on the strategic choices of others’ at the front of my thoughts at all times. Instead, we all assume we know what a game is so we tend to assume that people interacting is obviously part of game theory. I think what is important is to emphasise that game theory isn’t about explaining emergent, agent-based behaviour. It’s about explaining decisions that are dependent on the choices of others. The former involves analysing systemic outcomes, the latter is about explaining individual decisions.

  2. A common confusion though not sure if it’s really worth a campaign against it!

    But to be fair to Adele Peters, the headlines on a site or newspaper are often not written by the article’s author. It’s probably not her fault.

  3. Barry Hughes says:

    Thanks for the comment Justin. I guess it’s not a problem amongst economists but it would be good if others knew what they were talking about when they use different terms rather than getting them wrong.

    Leigh – I agree it’s not worth getting too upset about, I won’t be organizing any marches on the streets!

    Good point about Adele, I’ll blame the sub-editor instead!

  4. Adele Peters says:

    I didn’t actually write the headline…that was courtesy of the site’s editor. I hadn’t seen that; thanks for pointing it out! I’ll see if they can correct it.

  5. As the “sub-editor” in question, I’ll take the blame, and apologize for “hijacking” the term. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, and I’ve updated the headline.

  6. Hi Barry,
    It`s a hard duty to get people, economists or not, to know about the right usage of the economics concepts, specially when the media usually does exactly the opposite, but it`s our challenge to continuously do that. Congrats for your post!
    Do you think that there is a common point between game theory and gamification, a point that economists could research about? Do you know any research about that?

    • And what about behavioral economics?

      • Barry Hughes says:

        Hi Vinicius,

        I guess the common point between game theory, gamification and behavioral economics would be looking at what motivates people to make certain decisions. Game theory tends to be very focussed on assuming people are rational, when we know that in reality they aren’t, behavioral economics is starting to try to address this issue. Gamification looks at turning otherwise fairly mundane activities into games and this gives people the motivation to take part. People love to compete or to collect (e.g. Foursquare badges).

        What motivates people’s behaviors is at the intersection of all these areas.

        Thanks for your comments.

  7. Richard says:

    Interesting article. As a continuous learner I am always striving to gain new knowledge. Though I have read a few introductory Game Theory texts can you suggest some of your favorite text or papers. BTW I penned a recent blog post titled The Games of Quality at . Comments good or bad, are always welcomed. After read my first text I sat in the executive staff meeting, thinking and drawing out various scenarios. I think game theory needs to be expanded from economics into other fields.

  8. Hi,

    your article is fully true. However, I wrote a article how both worlds could be connected with each other. Would be interested in your economical perspective.



  9. Pingback: Gamfication and Game Theory |

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