the joyful core

In response to my post on Making a Game Out of It, Kathy Sierra writes:

I wish everyone on the planet would stop right now and read at least this one bit from your post:

“Don’t make me think it’s a game when it’s not. Don’t make it look like fun when it isn’t. Show me the fun in it, the fun of it. Invite me to the joyful core of it. Share with me the delight.”

I feel so disheartened when people say things like, “well it would be wonderful if all kids were motivated to learn, but what to do when they aren’t?” as though it was simply a sad reality that not everyone is “motivated to learn.”

Yet every single person who believes this could recall numerous examples of that one teacher who made a topic they were NOT interested in to begin with suddenly fascinating. Or how they became interested in something because a friend’s enthusiasm around it was infectious, etc.

I have been a fan of yours for a long time. I was thrilled to see this post of yours. I am not at all ambivalent about gamification… the topic hits a weird sweet spot on the three venn diagrams of my entire adult life: game developer, teacher, and horse trainer.

Even animal trainers are starting to appreciate that the any of the more intelligent animals can suffer when extrinsic rewards are applied to things they have a natural motivation for. One day I will write about how I nearly “gamified my horse to death”, literally. In my quest to motivate this horse for rehabilitation, I used extrinsic rewards until he lost so much motivation he began failing neurological exams. He was nearly euthanized as a result, until I was reading Dan Pink’s book “Drive” and near the end he had a comment about how we should not treat people as if they were horses, simply responding to carrot and stick. I suddenly realized that if my horse was not acting “like a horse, responding to carrot and stick”, then perhaps what applies to humans would apply to horses. Turns out some of the motivation research originated with animals, so… They, too, can be shut down by misplaced extrinsic rewards.

Long story short, the very next day I embarked on a quest to help this horse do just as you wrote… “find the fun… The joyful core.” In a horse, this meant the pure joy of moving like a proud, awesome creature. So I eliminated the reward-for-behavior and (somewhat painfully for both of us) taught and encouraged him to move in a way that would express pride or, as we called it, “finding his inner bad-ass”. Within 48 hours of me changing my approach — from extrinsic rewards to helping him reconnect to intrinsically pleasurable aspects of the behavior — he turned a corner, and six months later he went from death’s door to an international competition.

I kicked myself for having deep knowledge of game design (based entirely on intrinsic rewards, though the gamifiers have of course cargo-culted just the surface mechanics) and a skillful ability to use operant conditioning, and yet I had been so willing to use only operant conditioning because it is so seductive. You DO get behavior. Highly engaged (at first) until you notice it is all phoned-in and mechanical. And by then, it may be too late to re-ignite the real spark. Or as you put it so beautifully, “the joyful core”.

I was, understandably, thrilled to receive not only such an affirmation but news of such a clear and positive application of the principles that have come to form my beliefs and faith in fun. I wrote the author for permission to share her letter with you, and for any way people could find out more about her work online. She responded:

I have not blogged since 2007, but I once gave the opening keynote at SXSW, and this year have decided to return because of my feelings around gamification. My solo presentation is titled, “Battle for the User’s Soul: the dark side of gamification

As for URLs, I made a little video about my horse, and afterwards, Dan Pink wrote to say in a revised version of the book he removed the part about horses. And said “if I had a dime for every horse owner who told me…” in other words, a LOT of horse people recognized that a pure extrinsic reward approach to motivation was problematic, even for horses.

And I suppose one other video that sums up my approach to work was a keynote I gave to a publisher’s conference, though it suffers as a presentation (technical problems advancing slides, etc.) but the message is the one I care about. It also starts a little counter-intuitively because I mention the significance of writing books “for the money”, but, well, you’ll see where it goes if you watch it.



  1. chris saeger on February 20, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Bernie and Kathy,
    Thanks to both of you for this post. I can add nothing but my thanks to you for putting into words what I have been feeling about the dark side of “gamification”. Kathy, I hope that some of the content from your presentation at SXSW finds its way online.
    Best regards,

  2. Shelly Immel on February 28, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    It’s not just activities that have intrinsic fun and joy. It’s people, too. To reveal the joyful core of an activity, we have to be in touch with our own joy.

    When people say they don’t know what makes them happy, what they desire, I get a visual of a bunch of dirt scuffed and pushed and piled into a great mound completely obscuring a shining fistful of gold. They (we) have spent our lives pushing the dirt around, burying the heart of who we are: our Joyful Core.

    Play is a wonderful way to excavate and unearth our shiniest parts.

    Thank you, Bernie & Kathy, for deepening the conversation around this!

Leave a Comment

This site uses inline comments. To the right of each paragraph, a comment bubble with a + sign appears when you click inside the paragraph. Click the bubble to load the comment form.