Gamification: First Impressions

Only a few days into my study of gamification, I have already discovered a diverse range of expert opinions. Following a brief summary of some of these different views, I will share my own initial thoughts on the matter.

Jane McGonigal. McGonigal believes that games will change the world. People currently spend 3 billion hours a week playing online games. In some industrialized nations, children spend 10,000 hours gaming by the time they are 21. This is as much time as they spend in school between 5th and 12th grade. But what traits are we developing with all of this gameplay? McGonigal argues that games engender a sense of urgent optimism: a feeling that anything is possible and a willingness to start tackling problems immediately. Games can impart an important and epic narrative that gives meaning to our mundane actions. They weave a fabric of trusting social ties between users. In games, we're willing to spend long hours in blissful productivity. McGonigal argues that if we can use gamification to commute these same experiences to services and activities that affect the real world, they will be an incredible force for positive change in the world.

Ian Bogost. Bogost takes an opposing view of gamification. He agrees that games are nearly magical in their ability to invoke powerful experiences in us. But at the same time, playing games is commonly considered to be a rather trivial or base pursuit, much like any art form with mass appeal. The term serious game is a trick of rhetoric used to capture the potential power of games while downplaying this trivial aspect. He argues that serious games is essentially a marketing ploy to make games more palatable to those that don't really like games as they are: big business and (I would add) academics. With the growing interest in games, gamification has become a requisite business strategy. Thus, gamification has become a simple rote application of game mechanics to other services without any real value or true vision.

Tadhg Kelly. Although gamification is often presented as this complex and mechanically-applied endeavor, Kelly argues that it is fundamentally not that complex. Aside from some basic guidelines--such as first understanding your users' motivations and determining what your success metric will be--he boils gamification down to three basic mechanics. The first is validation, which means providing positive social feedback for the users that create content for you. Examples include upvotes, likes, retweets, followers, etc. The second is completion, which means making clear how far along the user is on some important task and encouraging them to continue with specific goals. Examples include LinkedIn's profile completion progress bar or badges that you might earn. The last is prizes, such as upgrades, redeemable points, lotteries, etc. These provide extrinsic motivation to your users.

Sebastian Deterding. Deterding suggests that gamification efforts so far have been fairly successful at pilfering valuable mechanics from games but that such efforts usually miss three key ingredients: meaning, mastery, and autonomy. (These are essentially the three intrinsic motivations described in Dan Pink's Drive.) First, even if the gamification elements were stripped away, the underlying service must have some intrinsic meaning or value to the user. It must satisfy some personal goal they have and fit into their real-world social context. Secondly, the games should engender a flow state where challenge and ability are well-balanced, though that balance may fluctuate somewhat. Over time, the challenge level must rise as the user masters the mechanics of the game. "Juicy" positive feedback helps here too. Finally, users need a sense of personal choice and autonomy. Within the bounds of the system, they need to be able to choose their own goals to pursue. Deterding concludes that, to succeed, gamification must focus on the design process, not just on game features. This means understanding how games and game rules work; knowing your users and their goals; iteratively prototyping and testing; and using empirical feedback to improve the design.

After reviewing these different stances, my general impression is that the gamification field has performed a classic academic blunder in assuming that the whole is simply a mechanical construction of its parts. In my experience, this is a common mistake whenever trying to understand the human experience that arises in response to a work of art. Like most of the experts above, I too believe that play and games are an important part of the human experience. Especially when mixed with narrative, I believe that games hold a powerful potential for memorable and transformative user experiences. To me, the essence of games is fun and play. Yet these central concepts have been explored surprisingly little in the literature above, probably because they are rather vague and intangible.

Instead, theorists focus on the more tangible aspects of the experience. As with the other arts, most of this theory is constructed after the fact by people who are not creators or artists. Dissecting a narrative or a game into is component parts is useful to focus our attention on those parts and how they each contribute to the final experience. But too often, we then think we understand the whole, that we can just grab parts off a shelf, stitch them together, and produce a quality experience for our users. When this approach fails, we assume that it is because, as theorists, we simply haven't mapped out all of the essential components of the art form yet.

Instead of this mechanical bottom-up approach to gamification, I believe we need to create top-down based on an artistic vision. As Deterding and Kim put it, we need to focus on designing the intended user experience, rather than cobbling together gaming features like leaderboards and badges. I think this is especially true since "gamifying" implies bolting gaming elements onto something that is not a game. The result of this approach will not be a game in the traditional sense but some sort of hybrid experience--part original service, part game. If the final product is not going to be some monstrosity, it has to be designed from the beginning as its own creature, inspired by but not directly derived from these two different sources.

I realize I've just painted the entire gamification endeavor with very broad strokes based on a very small sample of articles and talks, but such are my first impression. Gamification should not be about adding game features to existing services. Instead, inspired by a study of games and how they work, it should be about designing new forms of non-game or game-hybrid experiences that are fun and play-oriented.