Is the Ice Bucket Challenge a game?

Is the Icebucket Challenge an example of “gamification”?

Philanthropy experts have had a field day pontificating on the Ice Bucket Challenge, but one term that recently entered the discussion is “gamification.” For example:

“Americans are probably not unique in the world in treating philanthropy as a sort of game, with the goal of making it go down painlessly.” – Michael Hiltzik, LA Times (8/18/14)

“[G]amified philanthropy may cause problems for charities.” – Anna North, NY Times (9/5/14)

“Leveraging the power of smartphones, video, social media and gamification, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a virtual chain letter that is easy, fun, media-friendly and psychologically shrewd.” – J.J. Rosen, The Tennessean (9/7/14)

… and so on. Many of these pieces toss the word “gamify” into the title but never really describe how, exactly, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a “game.” At the risk of slipping into pedantry, I think it’s worth considering whether the Ice Bucket Challenge really is a game, and also whether it matters.

I usually rely on Salen and Zimmerman‘s working definition of a game: “a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome.” Strictly speaking, I suppose the Ice Bucket Challenge is a game: (1) the conflict is the same as truth-or-dare –your willingness to accept the dare and/or make the donation; (2) the rules are to donate or dump water on yourself, though the game actually works when you “break” the rules and do both; and (3) the outcome is the video, which is also the means of the game reproducing itself.

But all of this is just pedantry. When analysts use the term “gamification” to refer to the Challenge, what they’re actually saying is that the Challenge is “fun” (which is how we used to think about Walk-a-thons, remember?). But making something fun, while helpful, isn’t the unique feature of games for change and “serious games.” Rather, to riff off Raph Koster’s analysis of “fun,” it’s in providing a meaningful system that can be learned and mastered. And in that sense the Ice Bucket Challenge is no more a game than is a chain letter.

If someone could just please coin the term “funification,” we would no longer need “gamification” to carry that water.

2 thoughts on “Is the Ice Bucket Challenge a game?

  1. Reposting this from the Games4Change group – I’m hoping that this is a more permanent location where the discussion can continue!

    Nice piece, Gene. I, too, have thought about the Ice Bucket Challenge as
    existing in the margin between games and fun/viral activities. A game
    theorist would assert that a game is any matrix of decisions involving two
    or more rational, utility-maximizing entities (“players”) in which the
    outcome (“payoff”) for any given player can be determined by existing
    institutions (“rules”) and the decisions of the involved players. Bear
    with me as I break down each of these components, and please point out any
    flaws or potential points of contention in my thinking!

    Players – anyone nominated to participate in the challenge through social
    media. (The IBC is interesting, in that individuals may unwillingly become
    players. Choosing to not participate is still making a decision within
    this game!)

    Decisions – There are four clear options to any given player 1) dump ice
    water on one’s self and share the video, propagating the challenge, 2)
    donate to the ALS association, 3) do both, or 4) do nothing.

    Rules – the rules are inherently tied to the decisions available to
    players, but in addition players must make their “move” within 24 hours (or
    must they… is there a consequence?)

    Payoff – This is difficult to define, and even harder to quantify. Payoffs
    may include: a sense of belonging to a movement, utility derived from
    making a charitable donation, the perception of improving one’s image
    within a social media network, and the fun/thrill of of being doused with
    cold water.

    Some complications arise when trying to fit the Ice Bucket Challenge to the
    traditional definition of a game. For one, the rules are only partially
    enforced – failure to complete the challenge by dousing or donating has no
    consequence. Or does it? Maybe there are negative payoffs associated with
    doing nothing – damage to reputation, potentially. Enforcement is
    inconsistent at best.

    As I mentioned before, choosing not donate or douse is still technically
    participating. One may be aware of the potentially negative payoffs, but
    choose to not participate because they can achieve higher utility by doing
    so – in other words, their time/money outweighs the negatives associated
    with not dousing or donating. How about those who are not aware that they
    have been nominated? Can a game’s rules be applied to someone who is not
    aware that they are “playing”? In this case the negative outcomes of the
    game can take a toll on a person who is not a “player” (as players within
    games are aware of their status as such, by definition).

    Another confounding variable is the assumption that players are rational
    (at least with regards to their in-game decisions) and informed about the
    rules and payoffs. With poorly defined rules and payoffs, and (in my
    experience) minimal-to-no awareness that the ALS IBC is a game rather than
    a social/charitable event, the border between game and activity is further

    As I see it, the ambiguity surrounding whether or not the Ice Bucket
    Challenge is a game can be somewhat reconciled by considering the
    definition of gamification to be an approach that “encourages motivation
    using game elements, mechanics and game-based thinking” (as per Prof. Kapp)
    The gamification of an activity (in this case donating to a charity),
    thus, does not necessitate turning that activity into a true game. There
    are certainly many elements of game-based thinking in the IBC, but with
    regards to the question of whether or not it is a game I’d give it a
    decided “maybe.” Gamified? Absolutely.

    Also, an interesting side effect of the Ice Bucket Challenge: large
    increases in Facebook’s Advertising Revenue
    Game or not, they’re making money!

  2. I think it could be considered a children’s game, but a silly and even dangerous one. I’ve read a few times on the press about kids dropping their buckets from elevated areas over other kids which sometimes could result in complications. Also, other variations, like the fire challenge, could have much more problematic outcomes.

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