Pixie Dust & The Mountain of Mediocrity


[NB: Today’s guest post is by the world’s most famous ex-blogger, the great Kathy Sierra.]

We’re always searching for that secret formula, that magic pixie dust to sprinkle over our products, services, books, causes, brands, blogs to bring them to life and make them Super Successful. Most marketing-related buzzwords gain traction by promising pixie dust results if applied to whatever it is we make, do, sell. “Add more Social!”. “Just need a Viral Video!” “It’s about the Storytelling!”. “Be Authentic!”

The rise of social networking and media opened up a world of new possibilities, yet most Marketing 2.0 is basically:

“If you cannot out-spend the competition, you can out-friend them!” He who has the most Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and blog commenters Wins! It’s all about Social Capital now!

Sure, you can try that. You can work your ass off to be, as one marketer put it, “the person your customers want to party with.”

I never understood how any of this made sense, given that very little of what I see “brands” (or their human spokestweeters) do on social media is changing the fundamental nature of how users interact with their products. “But that is not the point! It is about being human!”. Nope, I still don’t get it. Why would anyone want to compete on *that*? It felt fragile to be in essentially a marketing arms-race of who-is-the-most-engaging-social-media rock star. What does that really have to do with what users do with the product?

And I saw examples over and over of social media rock stars with tons of followers, yet they were not able to convert those followers into Actual Paying Customers unless the product was what people really wanted. Being super-friendly, “liked”, etc. has limits when it comes to *paying*. I will follow your blog, but no matter how awesome I think YOU are, I won’t be paying for your book unless I think it’ll make ME a little more awesome.

So, why are people still so convinced that social media and all related buzzwords are The Answer? It has always appeared that if the product is truly crap, “your social media strategy won’t save you.” Even the social media gurus agree on that one. But it seems the opposite end is true as well… If the product makes the users awesome (at whatever the product is helping them do), no special secret magic pixie dust sauce is needed either.

Oh, social media does play a massive role in the success of a product that people love, but it is not the product-to-users “engagement” that matters, it is users-to-users (and users-to-potential-users). If people love what a product, book, service let’s them *do*, they will not shut up about it. The answer has always been there: to make the product, book, service that enables, empowers, MAKES USERS AWESOME. The rest nearly always takes care of itself.

Which brings me back to, why are so many so convinced that [insert favorite buzzword] is the answer vs. just making a product that helps people kick ass in a way they find meaningful?

And then someone I trust said this: these [insert favorite new buzzword] approaches are not about saving a crap product or marketing an awesome one… where these tools really DO make a difference for a brand is when the brand has little or no other compelling benefit over the competition. If the product is mediocre, or even really good but with too many equally good competitors, these things can make a difference. If you have little else to compete on, then out-friending/out-viraling/out-gamifying can work.

At least until your competition out-hires a good social media strategist or compelling extroverted social media star and out-friends you.

You do not want to be That Brand. You do not want to be That Product. That Book. That Consultant. You do not want to be in that arms race because it is an exhausting and fragile place to be. You want to use social media not because you *must* but because you can add even more value for your users by doing so. You do not want to be the guy that must ask constantly, “how can I get more comments on my blog? how can I get more followers and fans?”

The real pixie dust is when you ask yourself, “how can I help my users get more comments on THEIR blog?”. You want to be the guy who asks, “How can I help my users get more followers and fans?” And that is why I have always been such a fan of Hugh and Gary V and Tim Ferris, for example. Not for the comments their followers make about Hugh, Gary, and Tim… But for the comments their followers make about themselves. In a nutshell: Hugh, Gary, and Tim might well be the people you want at a dinner party, but what matters is that they help people become more interesting at their OWN next dinner party.

What prompted me to write this is the latest magic pixie dust buzzword, one that I am passionately against: gamification. Applying principles of game design to non-game activities can be done carefully, artfully, and with wonderful results. We use principles of game design in our programming books, for example, and you may have heard me at SXSW talk about using aspects of game mechanics to help create passionate users. But the current crop of “gamification” experts are doing nothing more than “pointsification/badgification”, taking the most superficial, surface mechanics of games and applying them out of context to areas where they are, as I have referred to it, “the high fructose corn syrup of engagement.” Once the sugar-rush novelty has worn off, there will be a substantial crash from the high. And it may be one from a which a brand cannot recover.

Don’t be that brand.

Don’t be that product.

Don’t be that book.

Be the one people talk about NOT because of your latest gamification and WOM campaign, but because it is obvious to your users and those they influence that your brand, product, book has made them better at something. Something they care about. Don’t be the slot machine of your industry. Give people an experience that leaves them feeling a little better about their own capabilities, not better about the faux-status awards they know, in their heart, are not examples of anything more awesome than a marketer’s attempt to use them.

Just make people better at something they want to be better at. When your goals and your user’s goals are truly aligned, you don’t need pixie dust. Don’t out-spend, don’t out-friend, and please don’t out-badge. There is a world of difference between helping someone *appear* more awesome and helping them actually BE more awesome.

-Kathy Sierra


  1. I miss you, Kathy Sierra. Just last night, I was working on something that caused me to google up an old post of yours. I do that often as I have to remind myself and those I work with and the clients we serve what you’ve just summed up in a wonderful way: “Just make people better at something they want to be better at.”

    • Thanks, Rex. I was about to say, “your clients are lucky to have you.” but then corrected it to, “your clients’ users are lucky to have you.” You have inspired me much over the years!

      • Thanks, Kathy. You’re too kind. I remember running into you at SXSW a couple of years ago and you saying something like that, to which I responded something like, “Surely, you’re confusing me with someone else.” Not to make this a mutual-appreciation thread (but hey, I can think of worst threads I’ve experienced in comments), you’ve always help me get better at something I want to be better at — helping explain how relationships between buyers and sellers (or all the other terms that describe the roles we play in marketplaces) are best when they are a journey of growing better together than as merely a series of transactions.

  2. I, too, have resisted the idea of “gamification” of our web app. I haven’t been fully able to articulate why I was uncomfortable with the idea. Thanks for saying what I couldn’t quite put into words. Like, Rex, I miss your blog…..maybe posting here on gapingvoid could be a semi-regular occurance? (hoping)

    Thanks again.

  3. Kathy thank you for writing this and thank you Hugh for giving her the platform.

    I think simple ego is the reason why most of the ‘social media rockstars’ want to put the focus on themselves, versus focusing on others. Too many people buy into their own hype, and think that having 50K followers on Twitter makes them ‘more awesome’.

    Social media is great at making things happen indirectly. I think Hugh was making this point here a half a decade ago. This is what I loved about Creating Passionate Users, you taught others how to ‘be awesome’, and they thought you were awesome as a result. Somewhere along the way, the ‘gurus’ stopped teaching how to be awesome, and just kept banging over our heads that we just need to ‘be awesome’. That the rest will take care of itself. Unfortunately, tweeting ‘Just shut up and be awesome’ will get you a lot of RTs, even though it won’t TEACH anyone how to actually ‘be awesome’.

    We need more teachers and fewer egos. And we need more posts from Kathy Sierra 😉

    • Mack, since I stopped blogging in ’07, nobody has kept the spark alive for me more than you have. Can’t say it more clearly than that. Thanks for all that you do and say.

  4. Wonderful and true. And yes–there will probably always be the cottage industry of pixie dust for those stuck in the fat middle. C’est la vie.

    If I had three hands, I would give this post 3 thumbs up. Consider this two thumbs and both big toes up.

  5. HOLY CRAP this is good…with one caveat:

    Most of the people this is directed toward live in the freaking bubble. Hugh, Gary and Tim aren’t in the bubble – but there’s this whole cliquey culture of reciprocal “you’re awesome” no “YOU’RE AWESOME” attached to the averageness – that it’s gonna be tough to overcome.

    And this whole echo chamber of pseudo-awesomeness will read this and say…”Screw em, I have more fans! Awesome! Buy my book!”

    Actually, the people who really need to read this are too busy checking their Klout scores.

    • Great point – people who most need this are looking at something else that is totally meaningless and arbitrary instead of paying attention to something that really matters.

      Although I believe that the way to pierce the bubble is to make what’s happening outside the bubble so incredible that people want to venture outside it.

  6. Love the sound of the signal breaking through the monotony of noise out there once in a while – thank you Kathy / Hugh… this will become a go-to article for a long time to come!

    • Same here. And now I love Gapingvoid even more for sharing Kathy’s insight. Because she said what I have felt but until now couldn’t quite pinpoint the source.

      Thanks Hugh!

  7. Hi Kathy,

    Nice rebellious piece! Like Damian above I too love “pixie dust.” My philosophy has always been to encourage others to live juicy. What goes around comes around, always.

    Give others a leg up and they’ll give you one.

    Thanks, G.

  8. This message is more relavent now than ever. It is so easy to get lost in the “Pixie Dust”.

    Kathy – Been missing this for a long time. Glad you are back writing. Hopefully more ahead!

  9. Your post made me think of the folk tale stone soup. The clever stranger creates a social object to get the villagers cooperating.
    You inspired me to write about it, thank you.

  10. Awesome post! what stood out was the undertone of how important being genuine and generous is to the whole equation. thanks for sharing!

  11. Kathy:

    Your words, “Just make people better at something they want to be better at” so perfectly describe the task at hand that it’s hard to believe that so much focus is on the banality of things such as “follow” and “like.”

    I appreciate your clarity of thought and delivery. Good of you to write, and good of Hugh to post. Thanks to both of you.


  12. Fantastic.. Haven’t read anything better in years… a joy to read a piece that REALLY makes one reflect, that you know is 100% spot on, and brings a call to action and change. Thank you for writing such an open and inspiring post. Loved it all! x

  13. […] blog titled, Creating Passionate Users.  Today’s guest post at Hugh’s was titled, “Pixie Dust And The Mountain of Mediocrity”. Look’s like Kathy has many of the same insights, but perhaps explained in a […]

  14. Thanks Hugh for giving us a piece of Kathy when we really need her!
    Thanks Kathy for taking the time to write this. “pointsification/badgification” will be cracking me up every time I hear ‘gamification’ now.
    I get unpopular every time I ask “but why do your customers want gamification?” ‘Why?’ doesn’t work well with ‘shiny’ and ‘pixie dust’ does it?

    Your voice is so needed Kathy, thanks for stepping back into the morass even just this once. I was all sad that Twitter had gotten so noisy that I didn’t realize you had stepped off of there and it’s been more than a year since I saw anything about your beloved Icelandic horses. I feel like an idiot for having missed your exit there. :(

    This post made my day.

  15. Kathy – great to hear your voice again – missed it!

    Hugh – thanks for getting Kathy to guest here … more coming?

  16. […] on Gaping Void, Kathy Sierra had a stirring post, “Pixie Dust & the Mountain of Mediocrity” to this effect: “If people love what a product, book, service let’s them *do*, they […]

  17. I’m a big Kathy Sierra fan, because of just this type of insight… and just love what Dave Van de Walle had to say, so I will simply ditto that.

  18. “magic pixie dust” is such great analogy because all your examples (Social!, Viral Video!, Storytelling!, Gamification!) just sit on the surface making things sparkly. We can tell when the core product isn’t anything special underneath.

  19. Kathy: Your observations ring equally true about the current craze to apply gaming principles to learning activities. There is in fact much potential value in making the learning interaction self-motivating, just rewarding enough to attract and just challenging enough to keep the learning engaged and motivated.

    We’re building pharmacology simulation right now and there are legitimate interests to make aspects of the interactions presented more ‘game-like’ – to keep interest up and more importantly add ‘levels’ of interaction that the more enthusiastic learner might be challenged and rewarded with more opportunities to explore and gather icons of their success.

    This may be gratuitous badgification of the learning story. We’ll find out more shortly when it goes into a test. Thanks for pointing out the cautions that we need to be attentive to in the learning technology development space.


    • Phillip, applying gamification to education is the part that scares me the most. Studies suggest we do not get a second chance at recovering the motivation that (counter-intuitively) external rewards suck from a potentially intrinsically rewarding area. The kids that begin drawing *less* once they are given ribbons for their drawings, or even the monkeys that solve fewer puzzles and make errors once rewarded for solving what they — pre-gamification — happily did for the intrinsic pleasure.

      But I am encouraged because you are already aware and taking care. The fact that you are doing a simulation already puts it in my default “potentially awesome” category as a form of game (or today’s term, “serious games”, of which I am a fan). And the fact that you are talking about maintaining the challenge level is key. Have faith that flow alone (by balancing the challenge and their ability in a continuous progression up and to the right) is usually ALL the motivation you need for engagement.
      Sure, you might need a little encouragement to get them started, but that is usually more about making it incredibly easy to get started, but then go deep, immediately.
      The problem with most gamification is it treats people like they just aren’t that smart (rats in a skinner box, or people who wouldn’t otherwise find something deep and compelling), when that is almost the polar opposite of good games. Actual games — the most popular games of every form from chess to Settlers to nearly every digital game — make the assumption that the user is quite smart and capable. Most games ask you to figure out what is going on without being told, and expect you to work hard. When considering why we are borrowing from “game mechanics” perhaps we should consider the most important game attribute of all… that successful games leave people feeling smarter, in part because games ARE challenging *for real*.
      Trust your users. Simulations are wonderful.

  20. […] don’t intend for this blog to suddenly become all social media but this post by Kathy Sierra on gapingvoid.com seems too pertinent to […]

  21. […] a pleasure reading Kathy Sierra’s post yesterday at gapingvoid.com. One thing lead to another and the next thing you know, I’m […]

  22. Fans, Friends, Followers, and the Reason Why None of it Matters | MackCollier.com - Social Media Training and Consulting says:

    […] PluginI’ve tried to stay off the soapbox for the most part here the past two years, but the first blog post from Kathy Sierra in 4 years has got my mind […]

  23. […] passed along  the blog post “Pixie Dust & The Mountain of Mediocrity” to me today and I thought it was worth sharing  for a few […]

  24. […] Pixie Dust & The Mountain of Mediocrity | gapingvoid […]

  25. Excuse my cynicism. Of course, much of what Kathy said is true, but much is also meaningless. Be awesome, yes, but can every product be awesome? How many non-awesome products have made millions? In Kathy’s world, how does that work?

    As a marketer, I know that traditional media aren’t working enough to justify the cost. I also know that consumers don’t like to be told, they like to be informed, two-way conversation versus ‘broadcasting’ a message. Now I’m told that social media doesn’t work, I’m making friends but not sales according to Kathy.

    So what’s left? I need to be seen and heard in a crowded marketplace but neither traditional nor social media works. OK, now what? According to Kathy I should just increase my awesomeness or my product’s awesomeness. Using what means?

    Please remember, successful products are rarely the best. All the awesomeness of Beta (still used by TV stations everywhere) couldn’t beat crappy VHS.

    Explain that to me, would you Kathy? The concept of awesomeness is meaningless, is undefinable and is in its own way pixie dust.

    • It is never about Prodict Quality or which product is best, etc. I could not agree more. If you look at my chart again, you’ll see just how this works in (as you referred to it) “Kathy’s World”– it is all and only about what makes the USER awesome. On a venn diagram, the overlap between Prodict Quality and User Result Quality is not always as large as we might imagine.

      In the extreme, it could be that in a crowded field the product that “wins” is potentially below-average in traditional definitions of “quality” but exceeds because it does the best job of helping users actually DO something wonderful. In a crowded field, I would use social media and every other possible means (community discussion forums, manuals, FAQs, etc.) to help teach, enable, inspire users to do more.

  26. […] post by Kathy Sierra on gapingvoid.com, “Pixie Dust & The Mountain of Mediocrity.” If you’re in marketing, then you […]

  27. Social media serves 2 fundamental purposes in business: amplifying your message (by incentivizing users to disseminate your message through their own channels) and, in the case of a startup, helping you to keep in touch with a community that supports you. No company gets their product right out of the gate but keeping in touch with users that back you (and not just the product) and iterating on the feedback you receive is invaluable. Or so I think ;-P With that said, I really appreciate your insight, and you definitely identified the BS that everyone else is stepping in =P

  28. As a positively ancient guy we used to call “pixie dust” snake oil. “Social Media” used to be the PTA, Rotary, Lions, Etc. Amplifying your message was called advertising, and incentivizing users was simply giving someone a good deal and asking them to recommend you to their friends. Kathy’s message was great and something I sorely needed hear however and I thank her. The sound and the fury will abate and this years “Rock Star” will yield to next years, businesses will adjust and things will even back out. “Social Networking”, “branding” “gamification” and all the rest are just the same old breakfast cereal in a brand new and improved box. The main reason for the pervasiveness of the current hucksters is the boom/bust cycle of the economy. As things slowly improve and reach a period of equilibrium there will be a return to a more mainstream business proposition called “Value”.

  29. […] mystery, anticipation, and fever around the release of your next product by building something that does so much for customers that they can’t wait to get their hands on […]

  30. […] mystery, anticipation, and fever around the release of your next product by building something that does so much for customers that they can’t wait to get their hands on […]

  31. […] online this week about how evil and bad gamification is. Really? Here we go again. While the recent anti-gamification blog post raises some interesting points most of it sounds like same old same […]

  32. […] Pixie Dust & The Mountain of Mediocrity – This may be my new favorite analogy for social media. In general there is no amount of magic or spin that can make you rock or be successful in the space it is all about hard work and making meaningful connections that translate into action. This post calls that out in some lovely terms. […]

  33. Perfect, I was looking for similar information. I have bookmarked your blog. Please post more about.



  34. Nice to read something that validates my own scattered thoughts. I’m not a Rock Star and I don’t want to be.
    I want to be recommended to others because I did a great job helping someone buy or sell a home. Social Media just helps the message pass along more quickly and on to the extension of everyone’s hand, their smartphone.

  35. […] picked this up via a tweet from David Jakes yesterday — a post on Hugh MacLeod’s blog that, from the perspective of someone who works for a company that develops technology for […]

  36. Great to read you again Cathy. Agree totally about gamification, and also that hopeless idea of socialisation or viralisation.

    As I’m sure has been said before, viral was never a tactic, it was a measure of popularity; it’s not something you could do or add to a product but something that happened if your product was good.

    Similarly, the characteristics of successful games that need to be copied are that they are brilliant, not just that they award points.

  37. […] mystery, anticipation, and fever around the release of your next product by building something that does so much for customers that they can’t wait to get their hands on […]

  38. […] Pixie Dust & The Mountain of Mediocrity: This one hits home with me because it contends that making users more awesome is something you should be paying attention to. And… you know… I agree. […]

  39. Kathy. Haven’t read any of your posts before this one. I got one question: where did you go and why?

    P.S. do you have an archive?

  40. […] what they really want: rat pellets! Or, er, something else maybe. Then this morning I saw a link to this article by Kathy Sierra and knew I needed to link to it here. Kathy gives some cogent arguments about why the latest […]

  41. Oh! THAT Kathy Sierra!

    Sorry, Kathy. Been on the other side of the Planet most of my life.

    I’ll be looking forward to your next guest post.

  42. […] Pixie Dust & The Mountain of Mediocrity | gapingvoid – I’ve got some notes in various places that I should pull together for a semi-related post. […]

  43. Great read, totally agree, but can we all move on please? The hype cycle will eventually run its course.

    However let us acknowledge that “gamification” has helped to raise awareness of the awesomeness of games and game dynamics to strengthen meaningful engagement.

    If the two warring camps focus their efforts here, then maybe together we can fix broken systems in health, education and community building.

    • Marigo, I appreciate the comment and I have seen your posts in the past making the good case in the same way Amy Jo does… for smart/good approaches using gamification.

      But can we “all move on”? No, I don’t think so. When marketing consultants who are considered the “thought leaders” and “experts” in gamification are speaking at conferences for parents, educators, health, and sustainable business practices, we are in trouble. Because as awesome as *games* are, the misapplication of operant conditioning to areas where we need more than simple reinforced behaviors can be devastating.

      When marketing folks cannot or will not make distinctions between chores/tasks and, say, *reading*, that’s a problem. When peer-reviewed, robust research shows a counter-intuitive but dramatic potential for extrinsic rewards to DE-motivate otherwise intrinsically motivating activities, that’s a problem. When marketers cannot accurately define the difference between rewards and behaviors that *are* themselves rewarding, there’s a problem. When marketers/gamification gurus do not appreciate the studies of Ryan/Deci or even those mentioned at the beginning of Drive, that’s a serious problem.

      Because as fun-sounding as gamification is, we’re dealing with the most manipulative forms of behaviorial psych, and the marketing people certainly KNOW that. I assume you’ve read, for example, “Game-based Marketing” by the person now currently referred to as “The Expert in Gamificaiton”. He is quoted in several places, including his own book, as promoting the “exploitation of psychological conditions” to cause people to take action for a brand against their own best interest. He pretty gleefully describes loyalty programs that have been so powerfully implemented that they cause people to destroy their own relationships in favor of what’s good for the brand.

      To claim that it’s OK to use these exploitation techniques as long as they for the “greater good”, is a slightly separate topic, because even if one is in favor of that, the techniques themselves can have the OPPOSITE effect in some cases, leading people to permanently have LESS interest in the thing we’re trying to “reward” (e.g. reading, recycling, civic engagement, etc.)

      Skinner taught us that we can make extremely powerful, extremely robust behavior changes using operant conditioning. Slot machines and some of the darlings of gamification are good examples. However, while Skinner produced behaviors that *appeared* quite complex, they were nothing more than a long series of very simple behaviors chained together.

      The one thing Skinner never ASKED of these animals was to be truly creative or innovate or, for example, to actually CARE about what they were doing. Had he done that, there’d have been a lot more awareness of the counter-intuitive problem of operant conditioning leading to “phoned-in” behaviors or, worse, de-motivation for the very thing being rewarded. Education has enough problems without hammering in the final nail.

      Until I hear the gamification pushers actively and with intellectual honesty describing the ribbons-for-drawings-inhibits-kids-from-drawing studies or the monkeys-rewarded-for-puzzle-solving-make-more-errors-than-those-NOT-rewarded research that kicked off Dan Pink’s book, we cannot even begin to have a conversation, let alone work together in a meaningful way. The “other side” is either unaware of the deeper implications of this work, or just not willing to put their current success at risk to acknowledge it. Either way, trouble.

      I will say, this has disturbed me enough to write for the first time in four years. So, there’s that. And on this topic, I am only just getting warmed up.

      • Hey Kathy, Thanks for that…

        The Internet has the same problem as TV does IMHO: people (usually professional marketers) pretending that what they’re offering is a meaningful way to send time and energy.

        The only way to fight it IMHO is to create meaningful work oneself, WITHOUT having relying on somebody else’s “content” in order to do so.

        Everybody is born creative. The trick is not letting the world take that away from you.

        • The beautiful diversity (of each) is subsumed in the structure of the system, leaving us poorer. And also leaving us indirectly, in debt, as one of the premises of stuff that is hollow, is the value is extracted out. There is no equitable exchange of value. We cannot give of ourselves, and we get in return, food without nurture.

  44. […] a good thing when I’m reminded that my projects need a little more Kathy Sierra, and she dismantles unneeded social networking and gamification in a blog post this week. The takeaway is that you don’t want to be the kind of product […]

  45. […] hard to actually do is build a great product or service. Until you actually have a product or service that beats the daylights out of the competing […]

  46. […] Last week, Kathy Sierra wrote a guest post for Hugh McLeod’s “gaping void” blog ab…. (FYI, Hugh McLeod is famous for some outrageous marketing ideas for wine and tweed as well as drawing insightful cartoons which he also uses in his best-selling book Ignore Everybody.) In her guest post, Kathy Sierra asks, “why are people still so convinced that social media and all related buzzwords are The Answer?” when, if the product is truly crap, “your social media strategy won’t save you.” […]

  47. 1. There is no magic pixie dust.

    2. Marketing is about influencing behavior.

    3. Companies competing on “Likes”, etc. are missing the point. It’s only useful if it’s a proxy for revenue. This article is a good case in point:

    4. Making a Great Product and Making Users Awesome are two different things. You can only Make Users Awesome or “make people better at something they want to be better at” if your product is an enabler, but that’s a very small class of products, like your books. You’re looking at the world through a very narrow lens.

    5. Not all products can be made “great” enough to stand out. Which is one of the reasons marketing exists. To add an intangible to the tangible, that makes you want the product. Coke is carbonated sugar water. It can’t stand out on that metric. And as a business, they have no choice but to compete on the intangible.

    6. Game mechanics divorced from any core content or intrinsic value have no longevity. We tell our customers that all the time.

    7. Plenty of people have read Deci, Pink, etc. It’s naive to think that intrinsic motivators are enough. If they were, we’d all be skinny, healthy and smart. To quote Roland Fryer Jr. from Harvard: “Kids should learn for the love of learning,” he says. “But they’re not. So what shall we do?” He’s doing studies that show that incentives can work in education:

    8. Incentives can also work in health. HopeLab has shown a 30% increase in tween physical activity with their Zamzee product, the equivalent of running an extra marathon a month.

    9. Implicit in your arguments, and that of most gamification critics, is a belief that people are dumb and easily manipulated into doing things that are counter to their best interests. I disagree. I think people figure out pretty quickly if they’re not getting value, and they disengage. So you need to provide them meaningful value. We wrote about this here:

    10. You have a problem with one person’s point of view on gamification, and you’re attacking the whole concept because of it. And doing it in a similarly hyperbolic manner. None of which seems productive.

    – rajat
    Founder, Chief Product Officer

    • Rajat, you make some good points, but we are both falling into the problem I have with gamification in the first place: the issues around it are subtle and complex, and can’t BE explored deeply in posts, comments, slide decks, etc. There are just too many conditions that *matter*.

      I will address a couple things you said, though:
      “You can only Make Users Awesome or “make people better at something they want to be better at” if your product is an enabler, but that’s a very small class of products, like your books. You’re looking at the world through a very narrow lens.”

      Wow, really? A “very small class of products”?


      I am trying to imagine how this makes sense… a world full of people creating products and services that do not enable ANYTHING?

      To quote Hugh, year’s ago, when this SAME point came up: “If you think this, then you’re not being creative.” As I’ve said in the past, ANY brand can become an enabling “tool” even if the product itself isn’t. It requires asking, as I learned from Tim O’Reilly, “What is your product, or the solution you’re giving, a SUBSET of?” In other words, what is the bigger/cooler thing your tool, product, solution exists within? And you can expand that sphere as far as needed.

      Start-ups are always asked, “What problem do you solve?” And while I agree that this question alone does not immediately get you to the “enabling” part, a very simple *follow-up* does: “What would having that solution mean to your users?” In other words, what WOULD be enabled if the user had that solution? Any start-up that cannot make that simple next link may already be in trouble.

      As for everything else you said, I will add these three points:

      1) Gamification claims to be using “game mechanics” but virtually all concepts in the gamification sphere were used *FIRST* by sports/performance. So yes, we DO see very effective use-cases within sports and fitness, and of course these things can work. I never said they weren’t effective. I said that gamification marketers were not making the appropriate and subtle (but powerful and crucial) distinctions.

      Like the stunningly bad Saatchi and Saatchi “study” that asked employees a question about “games” and then sparked a headline heard ’round the blog/tweet-sphere that people wanted “gamification”. Games != gamification, and if the Big Guys cannot get that straight, we cannot expect them to get any of the rest of it straight.

      2) Your company markets, sells, lives and breathes a gamification solution. Your future depends on people *not* listening to people like me, and I believe you’re safe there. I’m not even a real blogger. Further, I asked Dan Pink why he hasn’t really spoken out on this, and his response was that these are subtle issues and, “once greed is involved”, subtlety disappears.

      I find it even more disturbing that the moment the gamification marketers are pushed about potentially ethical questions, they bring up health. But in marketing spheres, they bring up Playboy’s gamification success in getting more college girls competing for Playboy spreads, and Miller getting more people to buy beer.

      Just be honest about it. It’s about exploitation which, by the way, I am often in FAVOR of. If I thought I could get kids to actually “get” math by using a world of brain hacks, nothing would stop me.

      But if those same hacks would eventually lead to LESS interest in the actual behavior, then we must tread very carefully. I’m asking for caution. A big fat PAUSE button, not a NEVER GO THERE.

      3. As for kid’s/education:
      “Kids should learn for the love of learning,” he says. “But they’re not. So what shall we do?”

      Wow. Again, really? I cannot imagine anyone even remotely connected to education who would frame this with such simplicity. Those two sentences are so far off the rails I can barely imagine how anyone could take that seriously. If you have studied the deep implications around theories of self-determination, then to frame it in this way makes no sense at all. Of COURSE we are not trying to inspire a “for the love of LEARNING”. But as for the “so what shall we do?” there are about a thousand other answers that have NOTHING to do with gamification in *any* form.

      For just one example:

      Question: what do Jimmy Wales, Jeff Bezos, Will Wright (game designer god), Google’s Larry and Sergey have in common?
      Answer: they all got their start in schools that did *not* use any form of extrinsic reward for performance… no grades, no tests. no homework, and sure as hell no gamification. Yes, yes, correlation/causation and all that.

      I agree that incentives will work *extremely* well if it’s about getting kids to “learn” enough to pass more tests. Of COURSE it’s easy to find ways in which incentives seem to work. Just stroll down any gaming hall and look at the slot machines. My point is NEVER that reward incentives do not *work* for increasing behavior. My point is that they DO. The issue is that not enough people are asking the deeper question of whether the rewarded/reinforced/strengthened behavior is the behavior we actually want, in the long-run. And in the meantime, the danger of destroying the deeper behavior we really DO want is clear. (“writers rewarded for their poetry begin writing lower-quality poems”, etc.)

      Anyone who can so easily dismiss decades of research by multiple scientists on multiple fronts does not appear to have much respect for science. Whole ‘nother issue…

      • Thanks for engaging in conversation Kathy. I’ll make a few final clarifications/responses and then stop, because you’re right that this isn’t a good forum to explore the depth and subtlety involved.

        There are a class of products that intrinsically are enabling/empowering, like educational books. There are large classes of products don’t fit in this category. Coke, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Twilight. Or that are enablers but undifferentiated from every other product in their class: credit cards, airlines, lawnmowers. Your post talks about products, not about brands: “If the product makes the users awesome (at whatever the product is helping them do), no special secret magic pixie dust sauce is needed either.” All the products above by themselves can’t make users awesome.

        “ANY brand can become an enabling “tool” even if the product itself isn’t.” – absolutely. Coke can help people make their way through law school, run marathons, and speak a foreign language. This is all marketing, creating the intangible, and has nothing to do with the product, which could be sugar water, makeup, or chickens. The product is irrelevant if you expand the sphere enough, and every brand can make people awesome, even if the product can’t. And that is an arms race – that you can win until someone does you one better.

        I loved “Drive”.
        – Dan Pink did offer an opinion on gamification here: http://gametuned.com/2011/05/gamification-and-motivation-3-0/

        “Gamification could go either way — towards 2.0 if the rewards are the point of the exercise, towards 3.0 if the rewards are a form of feedback, information, and a way to make progress and achieve flow.”

        – He’s doing a webcast later this week with the aptly named company – I Love Rewards: http://bit.ly/j8t9Hs

        I don’t understand how you can call anything exploitation that provides value to both the business and the end user. If the end user receives no value, then they’re getting screwed. As I said before, they’ll figure this out quickly and disengage.

        I’m sure Jimmy Wales, Jeff Bezos, Will Wright, and Google’s Larry and Sergey are all brilliant. As are a lot of people who didn’t go to Montessori schools. And a lot of people who went to those schools aren’t so brilliant. I don’t understand the point you were trying to make.

        It’s been hard for me to parse out your key themes, but here’s what I think you’re saying in the end:

        1. Products should be enabling/empowering. In the absence of the ability to do that with your product, then your marketing should be about enabling/empowering. I think that’s a great aspirational goal.

        2. Extrinsic rewards negatively affect intrinsic motivation. This is known. As you said, it’s a subtle issue. What if there is no existing intrinsic motivation? What if it’s for the person’s own good? What if it’s algorithmic work instead of heuristic work? Why do we expect kids in school to have intrinsic motivation to learn, when a good chunk of the population has only extrinsic motivation (a paycheck) to work?
        Your advice: proceed with caution.

        3. You don’t like gamification, how it’s being used and some of the people promoting it. Fair enough.

        Going forward I’d love it if you could highlight when you see what you think are stellar examples of game-design principles used in non-gaming contexts – it would be a great learning experience for me, and I’m sure for others.

        – rajat

        • I think you have the extrinsic / intrinsic school / work backwards. People of jobs that are only extrinsically motivating because they didn’t grow up in an environment that encouraged them to explore those things that had intrinsic value to them. If more people had intrinsically motiving early educational experiences, there’d be more people in jobs that were intrinsically satisfying. That’s kind of a side-point of the list of people Kathy mentioned and the fact that they have *created* those jobs for themselves, because they knew they wanted them and knew they could.

  48. Hi Kathy

    This post made me go back to the first archives of Creating Passionate Users and start reading.

    One of the things that stands out for me about your work is that your writing is structured to reward the reader to (a) continue reading but also (b) to go and take action, be successful (or not) and come back to read more.

    ‘Gamification’ (bleurgh) seems to want to keep people in the system and away from the world.

    And that’s before getting into the moral side of things, as discussed above.

    Seems to me (and as a meditator, I would say this) that one way is awakening whereas the other way is deadening.

    (Sidebar: I ‘discovered’ you just before you left Twitter, and haven’t had a way of saying thanks before. Every time I read a few sentences of yours, I sit, stare, then get my keys on the keyboard. So, heartfelt thank you and a grateful finger wave from across the sea.)

  49. This post inspired me to share the link on my blog and to review a blog post I wrote about what Kathy Sierra had to say at WordCamp 2008.

    Now it seems like everything I read is related to this topic. (OK, an exageration but there’s a conversation about gaming and wine at Good Grape and another on Robert McIntyre’s wine blog about wine education that related for me too).

    Thanks Hugh for getting Kathy to guest blog here! I hope she visits again!

  50. Ohhhh please everyone, if you are at all interested in the gamification discussion, go read this quick post by “Theory of Fun” author:


    But then please WATCH the entire (long) slideshare deck by Sebastian Deterding, game scholar. He is often cited, like Amy Jo Kim, as a person embracing “gamification”, but both of them are not afraid to tackle the subtleties. I’m still in Ian Bogost’s camp that the whole word “gamification” has already been burned and cannot be rehabilitated. But whether you use that word or not, the points these folks make are deep, thoughtful, accurate, and totally useful.

  51. Tremendous article. This should cause folks to look back and consider some true reasons for employing social, gamification, , and their impacts vs just “trending with the market/customers”.

    Yesterday, I blogged about how I think the learning community is largely missing a huge potential area of “gamification” to explore.

    As a group, I think we still are stuck on discussing the “sizzle” (3D, interactive, engaging, mobile, motion-control, augmented reality…). Even the “motivation/incentive” discussions tend to focus on “sizzle”.

    But I’m interested in the “steak”. Today’s work landscape is dynamic and team-based. MMO game mechanics seem to have more of the secrets to measuring and individual’s performance given these factors worked out than any traditional training development tool or measurement construct I have seen. I think exploration into these techniques can allow training designers to more fairly assess performance in a way that reflects the reality of today’s workforce.

    Any insights into these thoughts, I would be eager to hear.

    Kathy has certainly given me a whole new layer of factors to consider while exploring. Thanks to opening my mind to these additional insights.

    • Agree that games excel in feedback loops, and THAT is essential to learning and improvement of any kind. The current issue of Wired has at least two excellent pieces on feedback loops, and that’s the part we need. And while feedback is essential in a successful game, we also find feedback in virtually ANY strong performance improvement environment. Performing artists, martial artists, dancers, chess masters, athletes, all have coaches and systems for real-time *useful* feedback.

      So yes, I agree we can learn quite a lot from the way games do this, but we can learn even more from environments that successfully build expertise. Sportsification 😉 (kidding)

      Some of the most successful coaches are known for providing *useful* feedback while being very light on “praise”. It is all about the intrinsic motivation.

  52. Wowza! Kathy. good article, good comments and good replies…the learnin’ never stops. Win-win-win. So let me get this straight-I GET TO use Venn diagrams (which i secretly think are kinda cool) to discover where my stuff and my clients needs and stuff makes THEM LOOK BETTER? Woohoo! I’m a creativity coach who works with life’s deeper issues…my ‘game’ plan as a creativity coach? “YOU! that’s it. YOU’RE IT. What can i do to help make YOU feel more YOU?” Pixiedust and ‘How may i serve you’ ala`Venn diagram here we come.

  53. […] Rangaswami, chief scientist of Salesforce.com, mentioned this post by Kathy Sierra that caught my attention: “why are so many so convinced that [insert favorite buzzword] is […]

  54. […] Rangaswami, chief scientist of Salesforce.com, mentioned this post by Kathy Sierra that caught my attention: “why are so many so convinced that [insert favorite buzzword] is […]

  55. […] Rangaswami, chief scientist of Salesforce.com, mentioned this post by Kathy Sierra that caught my attention: "why are so many so convinced that [insert favorite buzzword] is the […]

  56. […] Rangaswami, chief scientist of Salesforce.com, mentioned this post by Kathy Sierra that caught my attention: "why are so many so convinced that [insert favorite buzzword] is the […]

  57. […] blog lezen we van voor tot achteren. Een lezing gameficaction? Been there, done that, door een blogpost van Kathy Sierra op Gapingvoid.com. […]

  58. […] Sierra wrote a wonderful post recently called, “Pixie Dust and the Mountain of Mediocrity“. It includes these […]

  59. […] TEACH anyone how to actually ‘be awesome’. -mack collier – comment from Kathy Sierra’s guest post on Gaping Void via […]

  60. You’re right about having an awesome product. There’s no shortcut around that.

    The gamification aspect of Code School has made learning to program fun for over 40,000 users who have gone through our free Rails for Zombies course since we launched in November of last year.

    Sure, you have to have great content. But points and fun screencasts really help to take dry, sometimes intimidating material and introduce it to a wide audience.

    • Violette, I would argue that Code School does not *need* the gamification precisely BECAUSE it is already doing so many things so much better than competitors. Nobody is coming to learn Rails for Zombies *because* you have those elements… they are coming because the course is (from all that I have heard) an outstanding way to learn. I think Rails for Zombies is getting away with what might otherwise be a really bad idea (the what-looks-like-gamification parts) because of both the context in which those gamification elements are used, and because it is more like an extra layer of design icing rather than ANY attempt to provide motivation.
      So far, it seems Rails for Zombies passes the “make users more awesome” in spectacular ways. The gamification-like elements appear to me a reflection of Code School’s desire to craft an experience that best supports an engaged learner. They are not needed, but given the context, I doubt they are doing any damage. I wish they were not using them, though, because it is just one more way for people to see a gamification=success story missing the deeper (and I hope more obvious) benefit Code School is providing, and one that so far sets them apart. Nothing mediocre there!

  61. […] Kathy Sierra recently said on the Gaping Void blog that your work is great because you make others better. [How] do you hope the industry will improve as a result of these conversations and The Thank You Economy? AKPC_IDS += "3571,";Popularity: unranked [?] […]

  62. Also:

    BOSE sold speakers for decades that really kinda sucked.

    But their Pixie Dust marketing seemed to do the trick.

    I have never heard ANYbody mention KEF, Paradigm, Focal, and Monitor Audio as much as I’ve heard mention of BOSE.

    Proof that Pixie Dust can sell crap for a long time.

  63. […] I’ve read recently on Hugh MacLeod’s gapinvoid site earlier this month. It was about Pixie Dust and The Mountain of Mediocrity, or how companies go about representing themselves online. The answer has always been there: to […]

  64. […] Rangaswami, chief scientist of Salesforce.com, mentioned this post by Kathy Sierra that caught my attention: “why are so many so convinced that [insert favorite buzzword] is […]

  65. […] de las redes sociales (y sin depender siempre de los medios pagados). Como dice Katy Sierra en este excelente post, no seas la marca de la que la gente habla por tu última estrategia de gamification o social o de […]

  66. […] Pixie Dust & The Mountain of Mediocrity gapingvoid, 6/7/2011: A counter from Kathy Sierra to the current gamification buzz. I agree with many of the points, and hope that we can continue to develop tools and services that help online publishers make their users awesome and create passionate users. But I also know we won’t cut out the high fructose corn syrup completely – it’s ok to add a splash here and there. […]

  67. Can we start a “we want Kathie back” movement? Awesome article. Love it. Now where was my jar of pixie dust?

  68. […] Kathy Sierra recently said on the Gaping Void blog that your work is great because you make others better. [How] do you hope the industry will improve as a result of these conversations and The Thank You Economy? […]

  69. […] Sierra wrote a wonderful post recently called, “Pixie Dust and the Mountain of Mediocrity“. It includes these […]

  70. […] Kathy Sierra wrote a great post for Hugh McCleod’s Gapingvoid blog. In it she said,    ” Just make people better at something they want to be better at. There’s a huge difference between helping someone *appear* more awesome and helping them actually BE more awesome.”  It’s easy to get caught up in the science of testing and lose the performance of the player. It’s also easy be enamored of  the sparkle and shine of a fast time or a big jump. In the end though it comes back to that one simple thing – did I help someone actually get better at something they wanted to be better at. […]

  71. Absolutley, wholeheartedly agree. Social media’s transparency and authenticity will eventually separate the doers from the posers. The pixie dust may blind us momentarily, but not forever.

  72. Kathy, you have just made my week!
    You’ve just added another page to the long list of your work that I regularly direct people to read.
    It’s fantastic, and refreshing, to see that you’re still writing and still sharing.
    A very sincere “Thank you” :-)

  73. […] TEACH anyone how to actually ‘be awesome’. -mack collier – comment from Kathy Sierra’s guest post on Gaping Void via […]

  74. […] with a poke at ‘gamification’? Well, Kathy Sierra offered up a dandy entitled “Pixie Dust and the Mountain of Mediocrity.” Literally the heart of what she wrote about is contained in these words: Which brings me […]

  75. Reflections on Culture, Consumer, Style, Tech and Green Trends for 2012 | EcoSalon | Conscious Culture and Fashion says:

    […] Void: Hugh Mcleod’s prescient insights into mediocrity (including Kathy Sierra!) and […]

  76. […] mystery, anticipation, and fever around the release of your next product by building something that does so much for customers that they can’t wait to get their hands on […]

  77. […] They recommended our research techniques could be improved over just sitting around reading blogs and checking our Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest accounts, such as considering input from alternate viewpoints on topics such as gamification. […]

  78. Thank-you for reminding us that if “Perception is reality” suggests a marketing strategy, the concept that “Reality is reality.” is a far better beginning.

    Also, let’s mention behavioral psychology and its insights into rewards affecting behavior change as the fundament of “gamification”. My guess is that these research pioneers would be appalled at the trivialization of their work to the present corporate ends. Corporate branding through gamification transforms altruism onto exploitation.

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