Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Twitter Gamifies the Conversation

Twitter makes conversation into something like a game. It scores our communication, giving us vivid and quantified feedback, via Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts. But this gamification doesn’t just increase our motivation to communicate; it changes the very nature of the...

Published onFeb 27, 2023
Twitter Gamifies the Conversation


Twitter makes conversation into something like a game. It scores our communication, giving us vivid and quantified feedback, via Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts. But this gamification doesn’t just increase our motivation to communicate; it changes the very nature of the activity. Games are more satisfying than ordinary life precisely because game goals are simpler, cleaner, and easier to apply. Twitter is thrilling precisely because its goals have been artificially clarified and narrowed. When we buy into Twitter’s gamification, our values shift from the complex and pluralistic values of communication to the narrower quest for popularity and virality. Twitter’s gamification, thus, involves instrumentalizing our ends for hedonistic reasons. We have shifted our aims in an activity, not because the new aims are more valuable, but in exchange for extra pleasure.

🎧Listen to an audio version of this case study.

Keywords: social media, social epistemology, Twitter, gamification, value capture, technology ethics

C. Thi Nguyen
Department of Philosophy, University of Utah

Meica Magnani
College of Social Sciences and Humanities and Khoury College of Computer Sciences, Northeastern University

Susan Kennedy
Department of Philosophy, Santa Clara University

Authors’ Note: This case study is adapted from C. Thi Nguyen, “How Twitter Gamifies Communication,” in J. Lackey, ed., Applied Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 410-436.

Learning Objectives:

  • Grasp the concepts of gamification and value capture

  • Be able to assess the potential impact of gamification and value capture on both (a) users/participants and (b) the activity that has been gamified

  • Be able to thoughtfully discuss how gamification might contribute to broader current trends in information distribution, polarization, and cultural production

  • Be able to use philosophical concepts and reflection to reimagine and guide tech design and implementation


Twitter is now one of our primary venues for public discourse. But it is not a neutral or transparent medium. Twitter shapes how we interact, who we interact with, and—perhaps most importantly—it suggests specific goals for those interactions. Twitter isn’t just a platform. Twitter shapes our goals for discourse by making conversation something like a game. And it does so, not in terms of our own particular and rich purposes for communication, but in terms of its own preloaded, painfully thin metrics: Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts. And if we take up Twitter’s invitation and internalize those evaluations, we will be thinning out and simplifying our own goals for communication.

Other discussions of Twitter have focused on the enforced shortness of tweets, the influence of hidden algorithmic filtering, the promotion of group polarization, the lack of accountability mechanisms, and the collapse of conversational contexts.1 We would like to focus on another basic feature of Twitter. Twitter gamifies communication by offering immediate, vivid, and quantified evaluations of one’s conversational success. Twitter offers us points for discourse; it scores our communication. And these game-like features are responsible for much of Twitter’s psychological wallop. Twitter is addictive, in part, because it feels so good to watch those numbers go up and up. In fact, the design of Twitter and its scoring mechanisms have been significantly informed by design strategies fostered in the Las Vegas gambling industry — strategies that overtly seek to increase the addictiveness of their products.2

The clear scoring system brings with it another very game-like aspect: a clear and unambiguous ranking. We usually don’t emerge from the party with a ranked list of who the best conversationalists were. Twitter, on the other hand, offers both short-term rankings (Likes and Retweet numbers for each tweet) and long-term rankings (Follower counts). Most importantly, the rankings are entirely unambiguous. Unlike conversation in the wild, we can know exactly how well each tweet did, and we can instantly compare our overall popularity with that of any other user. This can provide all sorts of pleasures: the thrill of victory, when we see those numbers tick up; and the sense of long-term achievement, presented in precise quantitative form.

Gamification is the introduction of design features from games—like points, levels, and achievements—to nongame activities. In some cases, gamification may unintentionally result from a design feature that was introduced to achieve some other purpose.3 For example, the “upvote” function on Reddit may have been designed as a mechanism for ranking content on the platform and perhaps only coincidentally contributes to the gamification of Reddit. But in those cases where gamification is the explicit design aim, advocates of this design strategy say that it can increase one’s motivation to engage in, and the pleasure derived from, some activity. Gamification can supposedly imbue everyday activities with all the fun and excitement of a game.4 Here, then, is an optimistic view of Twitter: by gamifying public discourse, Twitter increases overall participation, and so helps us to reap the rewards of public discourse—such as a more fully politically engaged populace.

We do not accept the optimistic view. Crucially, we don’t think that gamification merely increases our motivation to perform an activity while preserving all the original goods of that activity. Gamification increases our motivation by changing the nature of the activity. Often, the goals of ordinary activity are rich and subtle. When we gamify these activities, we change those goals to make them artificially clear. Games are more satisfying than ordinary life precisely because game-goals are simpler, clearer, and easier to apply. In games proper, this simplification isn’t particularly problematic, because the goals are peculiarly artificial. Game activities, and their associated goals, are usually kept secluded from ordinary life. But there is no such protective separation when we gamify ordinary activities. To reap the motivational benefits of gamification, we must reshape the ends that govern our real-life activities.

Pre-gamification, the aims of discourse are complex and many. Some of us want information or to persuade others; some of us want friendship. Twitter gamifies discourse and, in so doing, offers us reengineered goals for our communicative acts. We start to chase higher Likes and Retweets and Follower counts—and those are very different targets. And this phenomenon will help explain some of the more socially toxic aspects of Twitter. The technology invites us to focus our cares on the narrow task of getting points and going viral. And that goal is in tension with our interest in having morally sensitive and openhearted communication.5 This gamification invites us, instead, to view communication through the lens of competition, victory, and success on Twitter’s very specific terms.6

Of course, Twitter isn’t the only place where gamification can alter our ends and motivation. We see similar effects with Facebook’s Likes, YouTube’s clickthrough and watchthrough counts, academic citation rates, and more. But here we wish to explore, in detail, how gamification impacts discourse and knowledge-production in one particular instantiation, as an opening step toward understanding life in the time of quantification.

Games and Gamification

Why gamify? Jane McGonigal provides a clear—and very influential—argument for gamification. Ordinary life, she says, sucks. Everyday activities, like work, education, and chores, are dull and repetitive. But luckily, she says, we already have an extremely effective technology for eliminating drudgery: computer games.7

In many computer games, we voluntarily engage in what looks, from the outside, like pure drudgery. Many games involve “grinding”—performing simple, repetitive activities to slowly build up various in-game points and currency. Why are people willing to engage in such drudgery in their spare time when they avoid such activities like the plague in real life? The answer seems to lie in the powerful feedback and reward mechanisms available in games. In such games, we are given immediate rewards for our achievements in the form of points, leveling up, achievement badges, and the like. Games quantize our successes, making our progress clear and vivid. McGonigal emphasizes, in particular, how games offer us a steady sense of progress and victory, through a constant stream of clear feedback, in the terms of the accumulation of points. By importing these design features from modern gaming into ordinary activities—points, levels, achievements—we can transform daily life into something far more enjoyable.8

In McGonigal’s picture, gamification is an unalloyed good: it simply removes drudgery and adds pleasure. And there are certainly some gamification “success” stories to support this optimistic view: Microsoft’s Language Quality Game was found to increase employee productivity while improving workplace morale; the language-learning app Duolingo has openly embraced gamification “to help our learners develop long-term study habits and make learning fun”; and Twitter has recently created an interactive “Data Dash” game to help users better understand its privacy policy. Advocates of gamification maintain that it can make an activity more pleasurable while assuming that it will adequately preserve the valuable aspects of the activity. But when we understand the source of gamification’s motivational power, it becomes easier to see the problem with this optimistic view.

Gamification involves a trade: it increases our motivation in an activity by narrowing and simplifying the target of that activity—which, in turn, changes the nature of the activity. And this may be fine when the activity has a naturally simple target, as is possibly the case with language learning. But the goals of discourse are many and subtle, and gamification threatens to destroy much of that subtlety. Twitter is, we think, one of the clearest illustrations of the downsides of gamification—precisely because the activity of discourse is so rich, open-ended, and plural, and the imposed value structure of Twitter is so simplified.

McGonigal treats gamification as a straightforward extension of games into ordinary life. Since games are good, the story goes, then gamification must also be good, since it makes life more like a game. But this view conceals the profound differences between true games and the gamification of real-world activities. To understand that, we’ll need a clearer account of the nature and value of true games.

Here is a brief summary of C. Thi Nguyen’s account of games, which has been developed in detail elsewhere.9 Games, he says, are the art form that works in the medium of agency. The game designer doesn’t just create characters, stories, and environments. The game designer sculpts the temporary agency that the player will occupy during the game. They design, not only a world, but who the player will be in that world. This goes beyond, say, creating a fictional backstory for a character. The game designer creates the essential agential structure of the in-game actor. They designate what the in-game agent’s abilities and affordances will be—whether they will be a jumper, a shooter, a builder or an information gatherer. And, most importantly, the game designer sets the in-game agent’s motivations—by setting the goals of the game. They tell the player what to want, in the game, by setting what will give the player points.

The game player submerges themselves in this sculpted agency, temporarily. Game-playing involves the temporary adoption of an alternate set of goals. Why do all this? For one thing, our goals in game-life are so much clearer than in ordinary life. In ordinary life, our goals are often obscure, our reasons hard to articulate and difficult to apply. And we are beset with a confusing welter of values—both from within our own value system, and from the bruising value complexity of the social world. But games offer a relief from all that. While playing a game, we know exactly what we are trying to do—and afterwards, we know exactly how well we have done. Success in a game is clear and unmistakable. There are points.

And game values usually fit neatly with one another. In ordinary life, our values are hard to balance. For example, one might care about spending time with loved ones, raising one’s children well, writing good philosophy, enjoying rock climbing, staying healthy, and eating delicious food. Not only are these values often in tension, but there is usually no way to precisely compare them. What, exactly, is the cost-benefit analysis for choosing between working today or taking one’s children to the aquarium? But with games, there is usually a clear central currency of value. A game tells someone to achieve victory points and then tells them exactly how many victory points things are worth.10

In games, values are easy. Games offer us a momentary experience of value clarity. They are a balm for the existential pains of real life. In games, we know exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it. And when we are done, we know exactly how well we have done. Games offer us a momentary respite from the value confusion of the world.

It is relatively safe for the game designer to create value clarity, because the values in games are entirely artificial, and often disconnected from the rest of life. But when we seek to gamify ordinary life, we are trying to impose value clarity on a preexisting thicket of values. This is the worry with Twitter. Twitter can grant us the emotional security and existential relief of value clarity of games, but in exchange we have to adopt Twitter’s narrowed targets.

How Twitter Changes Discourse

McGonigal views gamification as providing nothing but a motivational boost.11 The analysis we’ve offered shows the problem with that view. We get those extra motivational elements—pleasure, fun, engagement—in exchange for substantively changing the goals of the activity, and so changing the activity itself. The gamified design of Twitter influences discourse by inviting its users to change the goals of their participation in discourse—to simplify those goals in exchange for pleasure.

Consider some of our ordinary goals for communication. We may wish to collectively pursue truth and understanding, or to promote empathy for one another. But Twitter’s scoring mechanism invites us to replace those values with another, much simpler goal: that of maximizing one’s Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts. Twitter’s measures are a radically simplified—and quite impoverished—rendition of the wide plurality of values for communication. For one thing, we have evidence aplenty that what makes something go viral is not its truth, or the degree to which it promotes understanding. Recent studies have shown that tweets loaded with strong moral emotions, like outrage, are far more likely to go viral, via an effect that researchers call “moral contagion.”12

But a gamification advocate might resist this portrayal, and it’s worth considering how they might make their case. One optimistic argument here goes something like this: individuals have their own values for which they come to Twitter. Those values guide when each individual user decides to Like, Retweet, or Follow. Thus, Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts serve as useful measures of overall success against a plurality of values, since they function to aggregate individual approval.

But being guided by an aggregate measure of one’s audience’s approval is a far cry from being guided by one’s own internal sense of value. When you are guided by an external measure, your values will change—your goals shift, your desires alter. And when that happens across a society, public discourse itself changes.

How so? First, pressing Like is a quick reaction. It typically records a user’s positive first-impression response to a tweet. We would be effectively biased against slow-burn content—against those ideas that lingered in the memory and revealed their depths slowly.

Second, Twitter scoring emphasizes the total number of Likes, rather than, say, the depth of engagement or lasting effect of a particular communication. This sort of problem plagues all sorts of large-scale value aggregations. Consider Matt Strohl’s criticism of the movie-review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.13 Rotten Tomatoes surveys the online reviews of a movie and reduces them each to a simple binary: was it a positive or negative review? And then Rotten Tomatoes produces an aggregate percentage of positive reviews. Notice, says Strohl, how this form of processing influences the results. A movie that strikes every critic as a little bit above average will score 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and show up at the top of the heap. A movie that divides the critics—which some critics find utterly brilliant and other critics find baffling—will show up with a 50% score, and appear, numerically at least, as a mediocrity. But great movies, says Strohl, rarely please everybody. Much of the most important art is difficult and utterly divisive. But the filtering and aggregating mechanism of Rotten Tomatoes ends up expressing a mathematical preference for more blandly agreeable material.

Twitter’s aggregation method produces a similar effect. Twitter scores each tweet with a simple binary measurement: either we Like a tweet, or we don’t; either we Retweet, or we don’t. This binary data collection screens off, at the input stage, any considerations of depth of impact or profundity of connection. Then Twitter automatically, and very visibly, aggregates the results of that binary input. Twitter’s scores make highly salient the number of users with positive reactions, while deemphasizing the quality of any particular interaction. Insofar as we come to be motivated by Twitter’s scores, then the aim of our communication will be subject to a similar biasing effect as with Rotten Tomatoes. We will prefer those communications that appeal to the greatest number—even if that appeal is marginally positive—rather than those communications that might reach a smaller number more deeply.

Third, Twitter scoring aggregates user interests into a single monolithic statistic, which threatens to diminish the plurality of values for which we collectively communicate. A simplified model will make the point apparent. Let’s assume, for the moment, that everyone on Twitter uses Likes in a way that accurately reflects their particular interests in communication. Even so, gamification will result in homogenization of the values for which various actors communicate. Pre-gamification, each tweeting user will be motivated by their own particular values in communicating, giving us a diversity of communicators with different and distinctive motives. Such a diversity of interests is quite healthy. Cognitively diverse communities do better at figuring things out.14 Suppose, now, that the entire community succumbs to gamification and starts chasing popularity by Twitter’s metric. Post-gamification, we have a body of communicators identically motivated to satisfy the same mixed populace.

These three arguments approach, from different angles, the same central idea: that Twitter’s scoring mechanisms offer a simplified rendition of the rich plurality of our natural values. And, insofar as this simplification comes in an attempt to reoptimize the activity for pleasure, we should expect it to reduce that activity’s capacities to perform its other functions. At most, we might have hoped for a compromise between pleasure and the original goals of the activity; but such a compromise would require a careful, intentional design effort. While we have some evidence that Twitter has attempted to carefully design its gamification, such as its 2018 initiative to measure healthy conversation and the 2019 launch of its prototype app Twttr, which aimed at promoting more meaningful conversation on the platform,15 there is also evidence to suggest that the design of social media platforms, like Twitter, is heavily driven by an interest in increasing user engagement for profit.16

Here’s an analogy. Products that seem good and exciting in the store often turn out to be quite poor in quality. This superficiality is no accident; it is the result of systematic pressures. The function of these objects has drifted due to market forces. Where once the function of a shoe was to help us walk, now, so often, the function of the shoe is to get bought.17 And what gets a shoe bought is not its actual long-term quality, but the short-term appearance of quality. We are suggesting that something similar happens with gamified discourse on Twitter. Gamification changes discourse from serving the long-term values of communication to serving the function of gathering the most Likes and Retweets.

And we can’t adjust the metric of Twitter to suit our needs; they’re hard-wired into the technology. So long as we want that steady, visible drip-feed of public points, we have to buy into those prefabricated, hard-wired goals. And the prefabricated nature of Twitter’s scoring system points the way to a deeper worry. To provide the kind of carefully engineered, steady feedback that McGonigal praises, we usually need help from large institutions—like corporations and governments. The high-quality gamifications available to us will, then, be largely restricted to those that large-scale institutions have found it in their interest to produce. Suppose that you find yourself with a strong preference for gamified activities over ungamified activities. When you engage in a particular gamified activity, you will, indeed, find yourself more motivated and more engaged. But a preference for gamification will, over the long run, restrict your freedom in arranging the exact contours of your own life. First, as we’ve seen, gamification constrains the way users can approach the activity. Fitbit counts steps, but doesn’t count, say, one’s aesthetic enjoyment of the walk. Twitter counts Likes, but not, say, personal growth. Second, a user that demands gamified activities will be limited to choosing from the list of gamified activities the institutions of the world have decided to create. Right now, there are popular gamifications for language learning, increasing your step counts, tracking your weight loss, and counting. There aren’t good gamifications for learning to appreciate complex poetry or becoming a better and more empathetic listener. When we demand the pleasures of gamification in our activities, then the range of activities available to us diminishes—and the degrees of freedom we have within the activity also diminishes. If we take the spirit of play to involve something like some kind of freedom or spontaneity with respect to one’s values and activities, then, curiously enough, gamification turns out to be the opposite of play.18

How Gamification Changes Us

So far, we’ve discussed how gamification can change the goals of the activity and so change how we conduct the activity. There is now a further question: how might gamification change the users themselves? How might they transform the users’ lasting values? Much depends here on how the users motivationally interact with the scores. There are several different ways that interaction could go.

First, a user could internalize the scores of Twitter, permitting their enduring goals to be influenced by Twitter’s scoring mechanism. Twitter is a part of a larger phenomenon here, which we can call value capture.19 Value capture occurs when:

  1. Our natural values are rich, subtle, and hard-to-express.

  2. We are placed in a social or institutional setting that presents simplified, typically quantified, versions of our values back to ourselves.

  3. The simplified versions take over our motivations.

Some examples: starting to exercise for the sake of your health, then getting captured by Fitbit and coming to just care about your daily step-counts. Going to school for the sake of a good education and coming out obsessed with your GPA. Becoming a pre-law for the sake of public interest and legal activism, and then coming to care more about getting admitted to the best law school according the US News & World Report’s law school rankings.20 And, of course, going onto Twitter for the sake of communication, connection, and shared understanding—and coming out obsessed with maximizing Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts. And, obviously, a high step-count isn’t the same as good health; a high GPA isn’t the same as a good education; and high Twitter Likes aren’t the same as connection or collective understanding. 

Value capture occurs when our values undergo a long-term and enduring simplification, as guided by the external metrics provided by institutions and technologies. The worry here isn’t that our values couldn’t ever be expressed in quantified form, in principle. Rather, it’s that the kind of metrics, measures, and gamified scoring that we typically encounter in our life with bureaucracies, institutions, and corporations are almost always radical simplifications of the values they claim to be measuring. Those simplifications may have certain uses in administration, management, or large-scale scientific data-collection. But what makes them useful for those functions is, in fact, their very simplification. 

It’s useful here to borrow from a nearby discussion: that of the simplifications involved in bureaucratic quantifications. As Theodore Porter puts it, institutional quantification is driven by an interest in making information highly portable. Rich, nuanced qualitative information is difficult to manage from any sort of informational center. We need to strip out the context-sensitive details and nuance in order to transmit it easily between contexts. This is why such quantification is beloved of centralized bureaucracies, which need to pass information to distant managers, and up many levels in the hierarchy of administration.21

This context-stripping standardization also allows us to aggregate the information arithmetically. Think, for example, of how teachers assess students. Teachers could offer each student rich and individualized commentary about the strengths and weaknesses of their academic work. Such individualized commentary would be vastly useful to the students. But such individualized commentary is incredibly hard to aggregate and manage by upper-level administrators. How is an administrator supposed to compare the portfolio evaluations of the art department with the mathematical performance of the statistics students? So, teachers are asked to provide quantified grades for their students, which can then easily be averaged across classes for one student, and across all the students in a department, university, or school district. Quantified grades strip out much of the most important information. But that context-stripping renders information into a standardized form that can be operated upon arithmetically. This allows managers of massive, sprawling institutions to bring their entire domain into view—by putting information in standardized form and then aggregating it. Institutional life exerts a pressure on information, pushing it toward quantified, aggregable form. Notice that these forces do not typically arise to support our individual interests, but instead the interests of management and large-scale administration. But, problematically, those quantifications appeal to our motivations precisely because of their apparent clarity. And once we offer simple, quantified metrics for success, those metrics take over in the motivations of so many people.

A similar pressure occurs with overt gamifications, especially ones in an automated, technological context—though the motivations for simplifying may be slightly different. In order to create the motivational rewards of gamification, we need to provide a score. In order to provide that score, we need to offer a reliable scoring mechanism. And in a large-scale, technologized context like Twitter, that scoring mechanism needs to function automatically. Twitter can’t offer a score based on quality of engagement, empathy, or depth of thought. It can only score us on what is easily legible to its systems: like whether or not somebody clicks on Like.

There is, it is often thought, a natural aim to belief. Belief aims at the truth.22 We can be tempted by other motivations to abandon that aim: to believe what will feel pleasant or make things easy for us. But to do so is to abandon the natural aim of belief; it is to subvert the activity of believing. The activity of earnest discourse also seems to have a natural aim, which is the collective pursuit of truth. We aim to express what we think of as true, and to question and challenge each other’s expressions, as part of our quest to understand the world. But gamification tempts us to change our goals—to aim at expressions that maximize our score, rather than those that aid our collective understanding. And it promises to reward us for that change with pleasure. Twitter tempts us to subvert the activity of earnest conversation for hedonistic reasons. 

But a user might not permit themselves to be value-captured. A user could treat the scores of Twitter as simple reports of some instrumental resource, useful for the pursuit of further ends. They treat Twitter’s numbers, not as setting a goal, but merely as useful data. Let’s call such a person a value-independent user. Such a user has avoided internalizing the scores of Twitter in any way. They have avoided gamification. 

Here’s what that might look like. Suppose one wanted public influence. A resource for public influence is having a Twitter account with a wide number of followers—and tweets that are heavily retweeted will reach a large number of people. So one could aim for high scores simply as an approximate measure of that instrumental resource. Such a value-independent user wouldn’t have any form of change of value or goals, either short-term, or long-term. They also wouldn’t be subject to the motivational boosts that arise from more fully inhabiting the scores of Twitter. They would be holding those scores at psychological arm’s length. Such a user, then, would be free of the more pernicious effects of value capture and game-playing. They have resisted Twitter’s invitation to gamification. 

Thinking about the value-independent user helps us get clearer on what’s wrong with the value-captured user. The value-independent user manages the scores, where the value-captured user is driven by the scores. Consider, by way of analogy, two relationships you could have with money. First, you could view it as an instrumental resource, to be collected in pursuit of some other value. Second, you could treat it as an enduring end, to be pursued for its own sake. Somebody who sought money as an instrumental resource would manage their pursuit of money in view of their larger ends. Somebody who pursued money as an instrumental resource to happiness, wouldn’t take that high-paying job that would destroy their happiness. They would manage their pursuit of money, making sure to pursue money only to the extent that it actually helped their happiness. The person who pursues money for its own sake, however, has no such guiding purpose with which to manage their pursuit of the greatest pile.

Similarly, consider a user who comes to Twitter for the sake of, say, social progress, and sought Followers and Retweets simply as an instrumental resource for their mission. They have an external standpoint from which to manage their pursuit of Followers and Retweets. They wouldn’t say anything in order to go viral, for many such things they could say would likely undermine their larger purpose. But the person who has been fully value-captured by Twitter’s scores has no such limitation. They will be driven to say whatever it takes to go viral and get those points. 

For the value-independent user, Twitter’s scores are merely a means. But for the value-captured user, Twitter’s scores have become the end. The act of communication itself has been instrumentalized to the end of Twitter scores. Rather than using Twitter scores to advance their independent values in communication, they have changed the nature of their communication to advance their pursuit of Twitter scores. 


Gamification may increase our motivation to perform some activity, but it accomplishes this by changing the very nature of the activity. Twitter is thrilling precisely because its goals have been artificially clarified and narrowed. When we buy into Twitter’s gamification, then our values shift from the complex and pluralistic values of communication to the narrower quest for popularity and virality. Twitter’s gamification involves instrumentalizing our ends for hedonistic reasons. We have shifted our aims in an activity, not because the new aims are more valuable, but in exchange for extra pleasure.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does gamification shape the content of what gets shared on social media platforms? What impact might this have on information distribution, cultural production, and social norms?

  2. Consider polarization, fake news, and hate speech. How has the gamification of social media platforms contributed to these problems? Would de-gamifying these platforms be a more effective solution than content moderation?

  3. What other activities have been changed through the gamification of platforms? How so? (e.g., Robinhood and trading, Duolingo and foreign language learning, Facebook and friendship, Tinder and dating…)

  4. The gamification of Twitter has altered the activity of discourse on Twitter. Should we be worried about the impacts of gamification drifting into offline contexts? (Think: has the gamification of dating on dating apps changed our practice of dating?)

  5. Are the gamified features of Twitter really all that different from standard features of offline discourse (e.g., is the Like button really all that different than a head nod?)

  6. Would it be better if we gamified our work environment to increase productivity? What might be gained, and what lost, from the process.

  7. Let’s say someone wants to redesign the gamified features of Twitter to provide better support for healthy communication. What design features might they suggest? What kind of economic or institutional structures might pose an obstacle to these redesign efforts?

  8. Consider a viral tweet, like maybe this one. Craft a response. Half of the students should aim at going viral and the other half of the students should aim at fostering mutual understanding. Compare and contrast the responses in class.

Activity Section

The following activities are meant to build on one another and to reinforce the skills and concepts. However, each can stand alone.

Activity 1: Gamification in Education

Learning Objective: Practice employing philosophical concepts in context

Small Group Discussion (3–4 students per group). Discuss: (a) What are the aims of education? (b) What are your goals as a student? (c) How has education been gamified?

Class Discussion. Debrief questions (a)–(c) as a class. Discuss as a class: In what ways has gamification shaped your goals as a student, your understanding of education, and your understanding of yourself as a student?

Small Group Activity. Imagine education without gamification. Discuss: (d) What would education look like without gamification? (e) What would your goals as a student look like if we removed gamification? (f) What are non-gamified ways of being “successful” at the activity of education? (g) How might it change your understanding of yourself as a student?

Class Discussion. Debrief questions (d)–(g) as a class.

Class Activity. Create two columns on the board: “Pros of Gamification” and “Cons of Gamification.” Populate the columns. Prompt students with the question: How does gamification of education support or hinder the aims of education?

Class Discussion. How might we redesign education to better support the aims of education? What might we gamify? What gamification might we remove?

Activity 2: Redesign of Twitter

Learning Objective: Use philosophical concepts to reimagine and guide tech design

Small Group Discussion (3–4 students per group). Discuss: (a) What are some of the aims of discourse and communication? (b) In an offline context, given these aims, what makes for successful communication (e.g., someone updating or revising their beliefs in light of new information)? (c) What are proxies that we use to measure successful communication (e.g., head nodding, facial expressions)? (d) What are some motivating values for engaging in discourse and communication (e.g., connection, understanding, etc.)?

Class Discussion. Debrief questions (a)–(d) as a class. Discuss: How is the “Like” button a good proxy for successful communication? A bad one? How might the “Like” button promote healthy communication? Hinder it?

Small Group Activity. Ask students to further consider the “Like” button. In particular:

(1) A “Like” is a quick reaction. This biases users against slow-burn content.

(2) Scoring emphasizes the number of “Likes,” rather than the depth of communication.

(3) A “Like” is a binary. Does not allow nuanced responses (consider that the following response is not even possible: this is an informative articulation of a view, but I disagree).

(4) The “Like” as a metric of success homogenizes and flattens the values associated with discourse and communication.

Assign each small group with (1), (2), (3), or (4). Have them discuss and answer the following questions: How does the “Like” button, considered from this angle, hinder the aims of discourse and communication (e.g., How is a bias against slow-burn content working against the aims of discourse?). Then have them consider how they might redesign Twitter to fix the problem (e.g., How might the “Like” feature be modified to preserve its beneficial purpose on the app while mitigating the harms of gamification? What sort of design feature(s) might promote or encourage slow-burn content?).

Activity 2 Assignment: Extend to Other Contexts

Learning Objective: Export concepts and analysis to another context

In small groups, students pick another platform that has gamified an activity. (Examples: Facebook / friendship; Tinder / dating; Strava / fitness; Duolingo / foreign language learning). Each group is to imagine they are ethics consultants, tasked with analyzing how the gamification of the platform is impacting users and the activity. They are to make redesign proposals.

Assignment Prompts.

(a) Describe the activity that has been gamified. What are some of the aims of the original activity? In an offline context, what makes for success in this activity? What are some heuristics we use for success in this activity? Are they good heuristics? What are some values associated with the activity?

(b) Describe the platform and gamification. What aspects of the activity have been gamified on the platform? What are the design features being used to gamify? What are the heuristics for success on the platform?

(c) Describe the impact on user motivation and activity. How is user motivation changing in response to the gamification? How is the activity changing? Is the gamified version of the activity supporting the original aims? Are the original values being flattened?

(d) What might the societal impact be? Is the gamification of this activity having an impact on broader social practices? Distribution of information? Politics? Is there heuristic drift?

(e) Redesign proposal. Make a proposal for how we might redesign the platform in order to address one of the problems you have identified. Things to consider: How might the design of the platform offer better heuristics for the activity? How might the design of the platform better promote or preserve the original values? How might the design of the platform help users keep value capture at bay?


Introduce Case Study – Instagram Gamification. In April 2019, Instagram tested an update to its platform design that would hide the number of “likes” on a photo or video. Instagram explained that the reasoning behind this update was to motivate users to “focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get.” Nearly two years later, after the initial testing of this update began, Instagram decided to take a slightly different route: rather than hiding the number of “likes” for all users by default, it would offer users the option to opt-out of publicly available “likes” either for their whole feed or on a per-post basis.

Class Discussion. (a) How does the number of “likes” being publicly available information shape users’ motivations for posting on the platform? (b) How would hiding the number of “likes” shape users’ motivations for posting content on the platform? (c) Why do you think Instagram made the decision to make this update an option for users to opt-in to rather than the default design of the platform?

Small Group Discussion (3–4 students per group). Have students read “Inside Twitter’s Ambitious Plan to Change the Way We Tweet” by Kurt Wagner. Discuss: (a) What design features are discussed in the article and how do these shape users’ motivations for posting on the platform? (b) Reflecting on Twitter’s effort to improve healthy communication on the platform, how would you define “healthy communication”?

Class Discussion. Debrief questions (a)–(b) as a class. Brainstorm a list of options about healthy communication. Select a few options from this list…

Small Group Activity (3–4 students per group). Imagine yourselves as an employee at Twitter tasked with developing gamification toward “healthy” communication. (a) What metrics would you use to measure healthy and productive discourse? (b) Could these metrics be implemented as a part of Twitter’s platform design to incentivize healthy communication? How so?

Activity 3: Gamification of One’s Life

Learning Objective: Use philosophical concepts to reflect on oneself and one’s own life

Step 1: Self-assessment

The optimistic view of gamification is that it can help increase our motivation by making tasks and self-improvement fun and exciting. Is there a habit you would like to cultivate? A goal you would like to accomplish? What obstacles or challenges have you encountered in cultivating this habit or accomplishing this goal? Would introducing gamification help? How so?

Step 2: Gamification Design

Based on the habit or goal that you identified in your self-assessment, your task is to gamify the cultivation of the desired habit or the pursuit of the desired goal. The table below outlines some important considerations that should inform your design process.

Table 1


Identify what will count as success. How will you know you’ve cultivated your habit or accomplished your goal?


Explain the mechanics of the gamification. What are the rules? What are the game-like features (e.g., points, streaks, achievements, badges, leaderboard, etc.)? How will these mechanics help you monitor your progress? How will they increase motivation?


What about the gamification supports accountability? Accountability might be incorporated directly into the mechanics of the game (e.g., losing points or breaking streaks) and/or you might include a dimension of social accountability (e.g., posting your progress to a social feed).


Decide how often, and by what means, you will have reminders or nudges to help you stay on track.

Step 3: Implementation

Put your gamification into practice for two weeks. Document your progress at the end of each day accompanied by a short journal entry reflecting on your experience.

Step 4: Self-reflection

At the end of your gamification’s fourteen-day trial period, please write a self-reflection that addresses the following questions: (a) Were your efforts in self-cultivation successful? Why or why not? (b) How effective or helpful was the gamification in assisting you with your efforts? (c) After rereading your journal entries, did the gamification alter your motivation, experience, or relationship to the activity (negatively or positively)?


Brady, William J., Julian A. Wills, John T. Jost, Joshua A. Tucker, and Jay J. Van Bavel. “Emotion Shapes the Diffusion of Moralized Content in Social Networks.” PNAS 114, no. 28 (2017): 7313–18.

Center for Humane Technology. “The Attention Economy: Why Do Tech Companies Fight for Our Attention?” August 17, 2021. - question-1.

Espeland, Wendy Nelson, and Michael Sauder. Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2016.

Frost-Arnold, Karen. “Trustworthiness and Truth: The Epistemic Pitfalls of Internet Accountability.” Episteme 11, no. 1 (2014): 63–81.

Gabrielle, Vincent. “How Employers Have Gamified Work for Maximum Profit.” Aeon Magazine, October 10, 2018.

Hong, Lu, and Scott Page. “Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers.” PNAS 101, no. 46 (2004): 16385–89.

Hong, Lu, and Scott Page. “Problem Solving by Heterogenous Agents.” Journal of Economic Theory 97, no. 1 (2001): 123–26.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Reprint edition. Beacon Press, 1971.

Jackson, Daniel. The Essence of Software. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021.

Landemore, Hélène. Democratic Reason. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. 

Lugones, Maria. “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Attention.” Hypatia 2, no. 2 (1987): 3–19.

Madrigal, Alexis C. “The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can’t Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook.” The Atlantic, July 31, 2013.

Marwick, Alice E., and danah boyd. “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media & Society 13, no. 1 (2011): 114–33.

McGonigal, Jane. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Merry, Sally Engle. The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Miller, Boaz, and Isaac Record. “Justified Belief in a Digital Age: On the Epistemic Implications of Secret Internet Technologies.” Episteme 10, no. 2 (2013): 117–34.

National Public Radio. “Stuck in the Machine Zone: Your Sweet Tooth for ‘Candy Crush.’” NPR, June 7, 2014.

Nguyen, C. Thi. “Competition as Cooperation.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 44, no. 1 (2017): 123–37.

Nguyen, C. Thi. Games: Agency as Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Nguyen, C. Thi. “Games and the Art of Agency.” Philosophical Review 128, no. 4 (2019): 423–62.

Nguyen, C. Thi. “How Twitter Gamifies Communication.” In Applied Epistemology, edited by J. Lackey, 410–36. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Nguyen, C. Thi. “Philosophy of Games.” Philosophy Compass 12, no. 8 (2017): e12426.

Nguyen, C. Thi. “Playfulness Versus Epistemic Traps.” In Social Virtue Epistemology, edited by M. Alfano et al., 269–90. New York: Routledge, 2022.

Nguyen, C. Thi, and Bekka Williams. “Moral Outrage Porn.” Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 18, no. 2 (2020): 147–72.

Porter, Theodore. Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Rini, Regina. “Fake News and Partisan Epistemology.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 27, no. S2 (2017): 43–64.

Schull, Natasha Dow. Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. 

Schwedel, Heather. “‘Dunking’ Is a Delicious Sport, but It Might Be Making Twitter Even More Terrible.” Slate, December 4, 2017.

Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Seymour, Richard. “The Machine Wins: What Drives Our Addiction to Social Media.” The Guardian, August 23, 2019.

Strohl, Matt. “Against Rotten Tomatoes.” Aesthetics for Birds (blog), September 21, 2017.

Suits, Bernard, and Thomas Hurka. The Grasshopper - Third Edition: Games, Life and Utopia. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2014.

Sunstein, Cass R. Republic.Com 2.0. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Tufekci, Zeynep. Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.

Turk, Victoria. “Twitter Is Hiding Likes and RTs Because It Wants You to Tweet More.” Wired, March 16, 2019.

Velleman, David. “On the Aim of Belief.” In The Possibility of Practical Reason, 244–81. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Walz, Steffen P., and Sebastian Deterding, eds. The Gameful World: Approaches, Issues, Applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.

Wedgwood, Ralph. “The Aim of Belief.” Philosophical Perspectives 16 (2002): 267–97.

Williams, Bernard. “Deciding to Believe.” In Problems of the Self, 136–51. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

No comments here