Every year, digital marketers are delivered a fresh collection of new buzzwords, and one of the hottest in recent memory is ‘gamification.’

Gamification, defined simply, is the addition of ‘game mechanics‘ to a service. The rationale behind gamification is equally simple: by adding gaming components to a service, its operator can make the service as addictive as, say, Farmville.

But is gamification little more than a steaming pile of you-know-what?

According to Ian Bogost, a Georgia Tech professor who focuses on video games and who founded a video game studio, the answer is ‘yes.’ In a blunt blog post, Bogost writes:

…gamification is marketing bullsh!*t, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullsh!*t already reigns anyway.

He goes on:

Gamification is reassuring. It gives Vice Presidents and Brand Managers comfort: they’re doing everything right, and they can do even better by adding “a games strategy” to their existing products, slathering on “gaminess” like aioli on ciabatta at the consultant’s indulgent sales lunch.

Bogost’s conclusion:

I’ve suggested the term “exploitationware” as a more accurate name for gamification’s true purpose, for those of us still interested in truth. Exploitationware captures gamifiers’ real intentions: a grifter’s game, pursued to capitalize on a cultural moment, through services about which they have questionable expertise, to bring about results meant to last only long enough to pad their bank accounts before the next bullsh!*t trend comes along.

In my opinion, something rings true in Bogost’s no holds barred critique of gamification. There is a lot of hype and fluff around ‘gamification.‘ As we saw with social media, which has created the social media guru, gamification is a juicy buzzword for those interested in cashing in on the latest hot trend before others can easily discern that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

But writing ‘gamification‘ (the buzzword) off doesn’t mean that businesses shouldn’t reflect on the central notion behind it: that services can become more engaging and enjoyable to use. If you’re hoping your SaaS platform is going to become the enterprise equivalent of Mafia Wars, you’re probably going to be disappointed. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to make the use of a SaaS platform more pleasurable.

That may not entail trying to slap a points system and badges on a service for which points and badges are inappropriate, but it’s hard to argue that companies shouldn’t consider ways they can incentivize their users and lead them down paths that can promote greater, more productive use of the their services.

From this perspective, the more sophisticated approach to ‘gamification‘ is to consider that gamification really isn’t just about game mechanics but rather user experience. The former can be a part of a great user experience, in some circumstances, but it hardly constitutes the only toolkit for making sure your service is not the modern-day equivalent of MS-DOS.

There are plenty of ways to do that, and the sooner businesses shift their focus from semantics to substance, the better off they’ll be.