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Sep 22nd

The de-gamification of online poker

Posted by with 7 Comments

One of my main gripes with the online poker industry has been the decreasing respect shown to the game as a game. I’ve seen this from the inside. I hate that the game in the eyes of many decision makers have been reduced to nothing but an addictive and somewhat skill-based click-fest perfect for marketing the get-rich dream. Even representatives of those who like PKR have gone off on their own with valiant ambitions have stated that in all essence they regard online poker as a game of marketing. One power player I used to work with and otherwise respect deeply had the unpleasant view that online poker was merely a commodity and hence needed to be sold and marketed like petrol.

That is little different from saying that first person shooter games are commodities and need to be sold and marketed like petrol i.e. it’s all about pricing, loyalty programs, security, availability, branding etc.
Fun, apparently, has nothing to do with it.

Last night on Quadjacks Radio, Dutch Boyd, who I’ve pinned down as a guy with respectable industry instincts, mulled over the fact that poker is ”negative sum game”.  I, and others with me, have been mulling over that for five years. Somehow the glorious lifestyles, the millions and millions in prize money, the sick stack games and the fairy tale Moneymaker stories still prevent people from facing reality:

Players in general don’t make money playing online poker. A vast majority can’t ever make money playing online poker. They’d probably stand a better chance at making money in World of Warcraft if they just had a lot of time on their hands and a sick trigger finger. The fact that the ability to make money is the predominant message in almost all marketing of online RMG (real money gaming) poker doesn’t change the fact that roughly nine out of ten players lose. I discussed this half a year ago in an opinion piece in Inside Poker Business.

The simple fact is that we’ve abandoned the intrinsic motivations for playing this great game in exchange for exploiting extrinsic motivation easily applied to the game. Mostly in the form of real money prizes. And in doing so, we’ve discarded one of the greatest opportunities to grow the game’s popularity and status in society. Until we come to peace with the fact that poker is a negative sum game (something basically any non-freebie games must – including most gambling games) by exploring the awesome game mechanics of poker to maximize intrinsic rewards, we’re stuck with building and selling an illusion based on extrinsic rewards.

What I mean by this can be explained by tapping into a current war of understanding of what gamification is and how it should be applied between self-proclaimed gamification expert Gabe Zichermann and renowned UXD researcher Sebastian Deterding. Gave has written a book that essentially tries to hijack the term “gamification” and apply it to the concept of making games out of things that are not games. As such he’s a useful frame of reference for the attitude held by many decision makers within poker about poker. Mr Deterding, in his criticism of the book which hails extrinsic rewards (like prize money) as enormously powerful forces of motivation that can be applied to anything, represents my point of view.

The funnest game ever invented if you are a follower of the Zicherman school of thought (my comment). Borrowed from the Sebastian Deterding and inspired by  Jakob Stjerning’s Progress Wars.

Here are some quotes from Sebastian Deterding’s review of Gabe Zichermann’s book:

“Intrinsic/extrinsic has nothing to do with “inside of me” versus “outside of me”. Rather, it refers to whether the motivation to do something is inherent in the activity itself, or whether we do something for a reason outside the activity. Intrinsically motivated are those activities we do for their own sake – dancing, cooking, playing, satisfying work, etc., whereas extrinsically motivated activities are those that we do for something else – to get paid, to avoid punishment or social pressure, to gain status, etc.”

”Hopscotch, Minesweeper, Scrabble, Sudoku, Risk, whatever – none of them feature nor require any rewards. Indeed, playing is one of the quintessential behaviors that got psychology to realise in the second half of the 20th century that there are things we enjoy doing for their own sake, without any reward or punishment attached – things that are intrinsically motivating.”

“…global surveys done by Monster.com, the Kelly Global Workforce Index and others show time and again that interesting, satisfying work and the personal aspiration to do a good job are the most important motivators at work, more important than salary or promotions (i.e. status in the organizational hierarchy). Sufficient and fair pay and promotions are ‘hygiene factors’ – we are greatly demotivated if they are missing. But they do little to actively motivate us beyond that.”

“We habitually overemphasize the importance of extrinsic incentives for other people (like salaries or promotions), since we can readily observe these incentives, but cannot ‘look inside the head’ of people to see what else drives them ‘inside’.”

So this is my first challenge to the online poker industry:

Make the game fun to play even if it is impossible for players to ever withdraw any money, feature on a leaderboard, win a badge or earn virtual points.

There. Now you’re working under the same conditions many game developers work under. And have succeeded under. If you don’t think you can, if you think the game mechanics (an important terminology discussed in a later post in the series) of online poker are less entertaining, less intricately exciting than those of Sudoku, Risk or Minesweeper, please leave the industry.

If you think online poker as en entertaining and fun game stripped of extrinsic incentives has already been optimized in terms of user engagement, interactivity, audiovisual stimulation, useability and accessibility to name a couple of variables, please leave the industry.

If not, you earn five points and an invitation to read the next entry in the series. Clues on where to find it will be revealed on my twitter, facebook and as a geocash treasure outside my garage…..


  1. goodforpoker
    September 22, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    This is a great post. We are mulling similar things in our head, thanks for putting it on paper. One thing we are wrestling with is: can poker be fun, interesting, and entertaining without money attached? Basically can status or glory be enough to invest players in every hand of a tournament? Conventional wisdom is that play money poker is a joke…but if only play money is available, that truism certainly degrades.

  2. Kim
    September 22, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    #1 Thanks!

    ” can poker be fun, interesting, and entertaining without money attached?”

    In my post I am stretching that question even further by also eliminating status etc. Not because that is necessary (there is nothing wrong with exploiting certain extrinstic rewards that come natural to the game, I’ll deal with that in later entries) but because I feel the discussion requires that the game is stripped down its bare essentials first.

    Once that is covered, I’ll add more layers to the discussion.

    Even under bare-bones conditions, however, my answer to your question is a resounding “yes”. Poker is a marvellous game in itself.

    “Conventional wisdom is that play money poker is a joke…”

    I remember countless meetings I’ve been in where the topic more or less has been “what are we going to do with the masses of play money players that are hogging system resources?”

    It’s fascinating how decision makers can reach the conclusion that play money poker is a joke while serving it to thousands upon thousands of players who aren’t in any way being tricked into playing.

    Play money is a joke because the RMP industry has decided that it is a joke since it has not found ways to monetize it. And because play money poker goes against the mantra of skill and money making potential that is being repeated in ad after ad, promo after promo.

  3. Simo
    September 23, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    Hi Kim, many thanks for the post, I think it’s really interesting, although not my domain of expertise so I’ll pass the buck on any specific comments on this one. One thing – you should never apologise for your posts, they capture your thoughts and experiences, and credit to you for sharing them, not enough people do. Read today’s post from Seth Godin, my favourite blogger, he agrees :-) : http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/09/talkers-block.html

  4. Chaz
    September 24, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    What drew a lot of my generation to poker was the (pipe?)-dream that you could make eye-popping money using your wits alone playing what essentially is a video game. It felt cool, fun, and exhilarating. That poker was played for real money was the hook, the thing that made it exciting and different from everything else. You can’t separate that from the fun of the game. After UIGEA that dream started to fade as many learned that the fish had left and all that remained were shark infested waters. We always knew that if someone was going to win, there would have to be losers, but I don’t think it was clear initially that there were going to be so many losers. I think part of why you see so many *serious* players now is that you have to take things very seriously these days to keep the dream alive. When more casual players see this, it makes them less likely to deposit, which can create a vicious cycle.

    If you’re trying to make poker fun again, I think the better strategy would be to pump air into the deflated dreams of 2005 rather than fundamentally change the appeal of the game itself. For example, do away with the rake and limit multi-tabling and all of a sudden 30-35% of players would be winners. This would almost certainly draw more casual players back in. Instead of making the game fun to play even if it’s impossible to withdraw money, the challenge here would be how do you make your poker room profitable even if it’s impossible to collect rake.

  5. Kim
    September 25, 2011 at 12:34 am

    Thanks for the link and nice words, Simo. Seth is always a source of much inspiration.
    #5 Thanks for chipping in Chaz.

    I don’t want to get ahead of myself since a lot of what you mention will be covered later in the series, but I do have a few comments:

    “You can’t separate that from the fun of the game.”

    That’s a statement that is too definite for my taste. Again I turn to play money games to refute it.

    You definitely have a point in that making it more easy to win is a good move for the game. But one has to be careful with how that is done. I’ve been part of playing around with some algorithms designed to test how different business model and room setups will affect the percentage of winning players. Unfortunately I can’t exactly remember the outcome, but I will bring it up next week with some game theory nuts who can. I’m sure other people out there has done likewise.
    Since it’s people winning pots that pay rake, removing rake leaves more money to the people who wins the pot – who are exactly the same people it was before rake was removed. Obviously many fringe players would get their heads above water if no rake was removed, but if all I was trying to achieve was to increase the amount of players who can win, I doubt removing rake entirely would be my first action.

    You’re also right that rake as a business model and the amount of rake raked should be questioned. I’ve done so repeatedly. Like here:

    But if all you keep selling the game on is the opportunity to profit, then you are supporting an unfortunate arms race between players that in the current market has led to a lot of players stepping beyond the acceptable to get their piece of the pie. The amount of money being made at the moment from players who breach site t&c’s and violate policies is larger than I think anyone would ever dare guess.

    Even if the “ (pipe?)-dream “ is the only viable angle to market the game, has the game really been developed to optimize the exploitation of that angle?

    More on this later in the series.

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