All Games Are About Death

If you’ve read here long, you’ll know gamification is one of our hobbies. Like it or not, gaming is the future, and not just in consumer software.

All Games Are About Death

This post sounds morbid at first blush, but it makes some great points about death as a game mechanic, namely that death isn’t a bad thing in games and it should be used as a learning tool.

Imagine a version of Angry Birds where you have infinite shots, and therefore you will complete every level to 3 stars. Imagine a farming game where crops never die and there are no Energy costs. Imagine, as John does, the prospect of playing an immortal character. These are all non-failure scenarios. And you know what? They’re boring. Not just from a fun perspective either. Artistically, experientially and thaumatically they are jejune.

Bonus points for using jejune correctly in a sentence.

When applied to enterprises, death as a game mechanic is scary, but it makes sense. We all have jobs to do, and if we fail, we get fired. We perform tasks that can be done correctly and incorrectly.

Sure, it’s heavy-handed to use termination as a motivational tool, but if applied properly, the death game mechanic could help educate people more quickly by providing a clear result and removing any gray areas.

I know it doesn’t apply to everything, but it’s an interesting concept to ponder.

Find the comments.




  1. There’s another interesting point in the original article. Perhaps the AppsLab blog has already covered this, perhaps not:

    While in our day to day lives that sense of focus comes and goes because reality is complicated, in a game it is much more present. Games are simpler, fairer and more empowering than real life, which by definition implies that the levers of success or failure are considerably easier to understand. 

    The same could apply to different types of work – if you are able to boil down work to some easy-to-understand essentials, then it is easier to manage. In my current proposals job, my company submits a proposal, and in many cases we either win or we lose. Those cases in which we don’t win or lose (for example, when the customer subsequently cancels the bid) are treated as strange anomalies (or, depending upon your metrics, are treated as additional losses). This allows quantization, thus allowing metrics (dollars awarded, win rates) which allows the establishment of incentives to spur greater achievement of the desired outcome.

    Perhaps the AppsLab could answer this better than I, but it seems to be that research is harder to quantify. Sure there are ways to do so – number of patents, number of “commercially viable” research projects – but are we quantifying the right behavior in such instances?

  2.  “Sure, it’s heavy-handed to use termination as a motivational tool”

    On the flip side, if you don’t have termination as a motivational tool, how or why would you ever bother to get any better? As you are aware, I am keenly affected by this dynamic; fired, laid-off, furloughed, fired again all in a little over a year. In the time since then, I’ve witnessed environments where no one gets fired, for anything, even the most egregious of acts. 

    Where’s the motivation for those people to ever get better? Unless highly motivated, there is none.

  3. I’m not the right person to answer that, but here goes. Research is too broad to quantify, so any R&D organization will have smaller units of work for that, so build the game around those.

  4. I don’t think I said termination was removed entirely as a motivational tool. The game provides the motivation through its mechanics. You know there are heavy-handed managers who insist that work needs to be done, or else. That’s what I meant. Games offer other ways to get that point across.

  5. Far too deep. I am a Samuel Beckett fan, but I was expecting something about the rapture to be honest. Oh well.For those in EMEA, there’s a summer school in Ireland about games localization (hot topic): Come on over – Obama’s just been (he says sitting in Starbucks in Half Moon Bay).

  6. Disagree with the premise. Taking the Angry Birds example, hasn’t the author ever heard of golf ? As a golfer you’d begin by taking lots of shots to get round a course. As you get better, you’ll take fewer shots. You’ll have good days and off days. Your handicap may plateau and never improve (or even diminish), but you still play for the enjoyment. You may sometimes go to a different course for a change. Death doesn’t come into it.

    There doesn’t have to be a disincentive to being ‘bad’, simply an incentive to be better, which can be purely self-imposed.

    Also worth considering is that retail games want you to get bored eventually so you go out and buy a new game. Subscription games, and the gamification of work, need to focus more on continued ‘infinite’ play. If people are motivated by avoiding failure, the simplest solution is to stop playing the game. You don’t want people to say “I got my handicap down to 7 and retired”, but “I’d like to get my handicap back down to 7 again”

  7. Golf fits the death paradigm too. The objective is to be at or below par, which establishes a mark for the golfer; most people play a 10 strokes max on holes too, which equates to death. Just like Angry Birds, you don’t have an infinite number of shots, and it’s played vs. others and vs. the course number. If you score higher, you failed or died. 

    Golf is so difficult, that it has been adapted to accommodate play that doesn’t account for death/failure 🙂

    You make an excellent point about infinite play, especially as applied to work. In fact, extending, most sports fit infinite play, so perhaps we should refer to work gamification as sportification.

    Interesting, you’ve got the wheels turning, perhaps a post will follow. Thanks.

  8. Ha, this is a no rapture zone. I was wondering how that was perceived in other countries. I’ve seen several gamification conferences/seminars that look really interesting this year, but having a baby keeps me close to home. 

    Next year will be the tipping point for gamification conferences, followed by wide adoption in two years, at which point I’ll get bored with it 🙂

  9. Or only the saved to access Heaven. Maybe St. Peter automated his work. Pearly Gates captcha. There’s a cartoon there. 

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