The study by Mekler and colleagues doesn’t disprove the undermining potential of gamification: It shows that simplistic debates whether gamification “does” or “doesn’t work” are obsolete – as are mere effect studies. From this point on, without proper theories and mediation studies testing them, gamification research won’t learn anything new or important.
To make progress in our understanding of gamification, we need to step up our game. Why we see effects, what psychological processes explain how elements affect motivation and behaviour, under what conditions they occur, what specific elements (and element variations and combinations) produce what effects, and again why: that is nothing simple effect studies can tell us. We need to build on theories (like SDT) modelling what mediates between environmental event and behaviour, so that we don’t blindly replicate known findings, identify interesting hypotheses to test, and incorporate new findings into a systematic body of knowledge. We need to start running mediation studies and analyses that operationalise and measure independent, dependent, and mediating variables to see whether the hypothesised mediators do explain how, when, and why element X produces behaviour Y. We need to become more granular and look at isolated design elements, element variations, and element combinations, as well as specific conditions and moderators. We need to agree on operationalisations for the core constructs that interest us – independent design element X, mediating motive Y, dependent behavioural/self-report outcome Z. Otherwise, our studies won’t be able to add up.