As “Gamification” is on the top of the Gartner Hype Cycle, you can hardly have missed the term. The idea is captivating too. Games can motivate people to do boring and repetitious tasks over and over again. So, if you can harness these incredible powers of game dynamics, you can get people to do almost anything in real life as well: driving safely, exercise enough to stay healthy, working their buds off at your company, or simply buy more products. I like the idea of gamification, but I see drawbacks too. In this post I will discuss those drawbacks and propose “playification” as an alternative.
If gamification is new to you I recommend watching three TED talks. I was first introduced to the topic of gamification, by Seth Priebatsch’s 2010 TEDxBoston talk. In a nutshell he argues that we used the ‘00s’ to build the ‘social layer’ (Facebook) and he wants to use the ‘10s’ to build a ‘gaming layer’ on top of it. Priesbatsch explains some real world ‘gaming schemes’, such as price discounts and argues they are lame and ready for a redesign. In his TEDxBrussels talk, Gabe Zicherman comes up with such exciting examples. A ‘Tamagotchi’ game could encourage eco-friendly driving and a ‘speed camera lottery’ could reward safe driving – rather than punishing speeding. Finally, in his 2010 DICE summit, Jesse Schell predicts the real world will become a lot like Facebook and dreams up a life full of ‘scoring schemes’ that will support (or haunt) us from breakfast to bed. The takeaway messages of these talks are: that gamification is hot, that it will be big, that it will build on social media and that games can and will be ‘everywhere’. Gamification will make living ‘real life’ a lot more fun.
Or not. If you watched Jesse Schell’s talk and didn’t like the idea of a future where you can earn points for brushing your teeth, eat cornflakes against your friends and have ‘tatoogle addsense’ installed on your arm, you won’t be alone. In fact, Jesse Schell’s talk gives an excellent illustration of the drawbacks of gamification. I have two major concerns. First, I wonder to what extend games can be designed to blend into our lives as Schell proposes. The dominant interaction aesthetic in game design is immersiveness. Games draw you into a different world. They have their own story and rule set. What if, a lot of companies, competing for your attention, time and money, all try to draw you into their separate gaming schemes? What if multiple sets of game rules are imposed on all of your daily activities? It would be quite demanding. How many virtual worlds can knock on your door, before you try to escape to the real world? In the end, if marketers pick up gamification, you may feel gamed by the system.
To introduce my second concern let me ask you: have you ever bought a game because it had such an elaborate and innovative scoring system? Are games fun because they awards points to the player? Probably not, but Jesse Shell and other gamifiers seem to think so. They confuse game experiences with reward schemes. The paradox of reward schemes is that they motivate, by taking away the pleasure of the task. The classic example is the ‘gamified’ linked in profile, let’s look at it.
It isn’t rocket science, but filling out a professional profile can be a fairly free, rich and creative task. Among other things you try to express your identity and present yourself professionally. The ‘gamified’ version reduces this complexity into a single parameter “amount of completeness”. This is motivating: many people fill out their profile because of this % completeness bar. But it takes away some of the original meaning, freedom and pleasure of the task. Suddenly, what counts is whether the profile is ‘complete’, nothing else. And often, to make things worse, to be complete, you need to do things you didn’t want to do in the first place: like asking for a recommendation or telling all your friends about the service. Behavioral economics has shown that this reward oriented motivation can get in the way of intrinsic motivation, rather than enlarge it. So scoring schemes like the LinkedIn progress bar may have this effect too. I believe Gamification can only be successful if it outgrows its current focus on ‘points and badges’ and starts to tap into the part of the game experience that realy does make us tick.
The keywords for that may be purpose and play. In her TED talk, Jane McGonigal uses the image of an ‘epic win’ to show that games can be highly meaningful experiences. She remarks that in games, people are ‘better people’, in the broad sense of the phrase. In games, gamers are more motivated, more focused, more self-confident and more likely to help each other out. Part of this ‘better man’ feeling may come from the gradual challenges which games offer but another part could be the sense of purpose the game story gives to you: as main character in a story world all of your actions are meaningful. But meaning, epic or not, cannot be the whole explanation either. Apart from purpose and meaning in a story and a reward system, games have a third essential selling point which is play. In his 2007 TED talk Will Wright introduces ‘Spore’, a game which he calls a toy rather than a game. The distinction between toys and games is well known, but often overlooked. Games like chess, have fixed rules, and violating those kills the gameplay. Toy’s, like dollhouses or LEGO, allow users make up (part of) the story and rules while playing. Play is fun, creative and gives people a sense of control over their environment, while game provides the boundary box in which this mey take place. In organizational psychology, ‘play’ people tend to drive change, while ‘game’ people tend to drive quality and working efficiently by the rules. Computer games offer play opportunities, be it in different gradations, but most gamification design patterns don’t; really.
The great proposition behind gamification is that designers may succeed in making boring tasks more fun. But they may fail if they take ‘games’ and ‘game’ as the model, in particular when their focus is on clever scoring mechanisms. Rather the design focus should be on story and free play. Give the users the space to take part in sense and rulemaking. Offer the users toy’s: not just games. A Tamagotchi may encourage eco friendly driving, but if it offers noting more playful the fun may wear of quickly. It’s not fun to get points for brushing your teeth, but it may be fun to take part in a world record of collaborative teeth brushing or to create a joint brush symphony. Having a gun to shoot out the lights in your home may be a better gamification example than a speed camera lottery. In sum, I believe Gamification misses the point. Let’s Playify instead.
Many enthusiasts for gamification, claim kids who grew up with games are brighter, more social and have a different outlook on the world at large. This reasoning is similar to and similarly flawed as the net-generation argument which I discussed in my last post.
A fair critique of gamification is given by Judd Antin in “Avoiding the Faddish Side of Gamifiaction” http://www.technologyreview.com/business/39032/?mod=chthumb
Filed under: (re)thinking media, discussion, probe | 16 Comments
Tags: behavioral economics, Epic Meaning, Gabe Zicherman, Game, Gamification, Immersive, Jane McGonigal, Jesse Schell, organizational psychology, Play, Playifcation, Purpose, Seth Priebatsch, Spore, Toy, User Experience, Will Wright