Original image by Damzow/Wikimedia
Original image by Damzow/Wikimedia

Because it suggests humanitarian achievement, a favorite example of gamification advocates is the game that helped cure AIDS. Called Foldit, the game presented complex puzzles that correlate to proteins in the process that allows HIV to propagate in the body. By making a game of the challenge of mapping the structure of those proteins, Foldit’s creators induced online gamers to tackle a problem that had frustrated scientists for more than a decade. After three weeks of gaming, researchers were able to map the enzyme’s structure, potentially opening the way for smart drugs to combat the disease.

It’s partly on the strength of such examples that gamification has recently found broad currency. The term can be heard in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies as well as onstage at TED conferences. Gamification evangelist Jane McGonigal has described it as her “#1 goal in life… to see a game designer nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.” The Foldit experiment illustrates a key point in such enthusiasm—that gamification has the potential to change the world for the better.

The idea itself is a little vague. Loosely speaking, it refers to any innovation that applies the mechanisms of games to other social activities in order to encourage a desired interaction. In the case of Foldit, the goal was to entice players to solve a problem that had so far resisted brute computation, but even systems as simple as those that reward particularly active message board participants with onscreen icons have been lumped into the trend.

There is little doubt that, for certain types of problem, gamification schemes like Foldit can facilitate change, but the more broadly we understand the term, the less sparkle it has. In fact, marketers have long practiced something very like gamification, often to less than commendable ends.

If gamification has struck a nerve with 21st century idealists and executives, that may be a matter of timing. An increasing number of adults currently coming into their own belong to one of the first generations to have grown up with video game consoles in their homes. That formative influence has exerted a powerful pull on many. Gamification can be interpreted as one way of turning years of button-mashing to good use.

As part of that generation, I grew up with video game systems: first an Atari 2600, then a Nintendo Entertainment System. Yet, for several years around the time of junior high, I could occasionally be diverted from video gaming, sometimes for days on end, by the arrival in the mail of a weighty packet informing me—or my parents, rather, but let’s not split hairs—that I “might already be a winner.” Surely one of the slickest sales pitches of all time, it seemed to attribute to the recipient any number of unspecified qualities—achievement, luck, wealth.

Moreover, the hard part was over; you had already won. All that remained was to claim the prize you deserved. The letter came as a veritable assurance of self-worth. There was money, presumably, but the only prize you were guaranteed was the suggestion that you may already be a winner, just by virtue of being you.

Nevertheless, the process itself was needlessly complicated—choose between this prize and that, affix a stamp from one flier in the proper place on another. The rigamarole gave the illusion that there were meaningful choices to be made in what was essentially a nation-wide raffle. I played along, but really had very little interest in the convertibles and cruises on offer as alternatives to the cash prize. The money was where it was at.

Such was the phenomenon of direct mail sweepstakes, a gamified scheme for hawking magazine subscriptions. “You may already have won” was the hook of American Family Publishers, but the general outlines were set in 1953 by Harold and LuEsther Mertz, founders of Publishers Clearing House. Prior to that, publishers relied on door-to-door sales to drive up circulation numbers, but the salesmen couldn’t compete with the almost complete lack of overhead involved in direct mail marketing. Mailers were bundled with “stamps sheets” for multiple magazines and the vague but misleading suggestion that receipt of the prize money might be contingent  on buying one or more subscriptions. The odds of winning, whether or not you bought any magazines, were estimated at over one in a billion—so rare that there were cries for proof in the 1990s, which PCH answered with their highly publicized Prize Patrol—but while you were putting together the envelope, why not spring for a couple of magazines while you were at it? That sort of money would be a drop in the bucket once you were rich.

My parents forbid subscribing to magazines we neither needed nor wanted, but quietly decided that the best way to discourage my credulity was to let the companies themselves disillusion me. Even that wasn’t entirely necessary. In retrospect, it strikes me that my willful suspension of disbelief was a preemptive revolt against growing up. I was vaguely aware that adulthood required income. For most people, that meant a job—usually, I believed, something dull and soul-crushing. The $10,000,000 sweepstakes prize was a way to sidestep a reality I considered broken.

My competition tended toward the opposite end of the age range. Magazine subscription sweepstakes were especially popular with the elderly, who sometimes spent beyond their means in hopes of a gilded retirement fund. That eventually led to lawsuits and legislation requiring PCH and AFP to provide clearer messaging to specify that no purchase was necessary for entry. The 1980s were the halcyon days of the sweepstakes; by the end of the century, the combination of legal trouble and declining periodical sales had critically weakened the direct mail market. Driven to bankruptcy, AFP reorganized as American Family Enterprises. PCH continues to operate, but was wracked by lay-offs in 2011.

Despite those difficulties, PCH has spent the last decade expanding its operations online. In 2009, the company launched PCHGames, an ad-supported gaming site. Positioning itself to capitalize on the vogue for casual games a la Zynga, PCH followed with the acquisition of various online gaming start-ups. Just this year, the company acquired Liquid Wireless in order to increase its focus on mobile and social platforms, with special emphasis on Facebook. They’ve even adapted their direct mail techniques into a search engine that incentivizes ad-clicks with the promise of cash prizes.

Those strategies align more obviously with contemporary notions about gamification, but it’s probably accurate to say that PCH and its ilk have been gamifying marketing for nearly 60 years. As such, the sweepstakes serve as an object lesson in how gamification can encourage destructive behavior and, at its worse, build tools for predatory business practices. Enthusiasts like McGonigal have high hopes for the progressive effect of gamified media, but if history is any guide, the applications we’re likely to see most often may well be those designed to change little more than profit margins. On their own, those negative possibilities are no reason to condemn gamification, but if interest in the subject continues to grow, discussion will need to focus on the ways gamified societies can tilt the balance in favor of the good, while minimizing the potential for abuse.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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