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Beyond Gamification

by Federico Fasce on 11 July 2011

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Here are some thoughts about gamification. It became a buzzword very fast, and even here in Italy it’s a pretty debated topic. Having started myself Playful Design almost three years ago, I have some ideas about how to use games and play to improve UX in web application and various human activities.

Let’s start with a rant

This first half of the post is a bit of a rant, and I’m quite sorry for that. But I care too much about the concept to see it trivialized and distorted by people who have little to nothing to do with games. This could seem an arrogant position, but I’m willing to take the risk. After this I promise I will be more constructive and talk about how I see the games permeating our everyday lives (and I’m making a paper out of it, but that’s another story). I’m afraid to build you have to make room and to destroy something. And these will be clichés and legends about what gamification is. I won’t take prisoners, sorry, guys.

Hi, marketing guys

Point is, today gamification is already a marketing buzzword. Started by the controversial (and yet dramatically smart) talk by Jesse Schell at DICE, the gamification concept was a way to raise a discussion that never happened.

Instead, marketing people got the idea of a glorified loyalty program and put a shiny vest of novelty on it. A lot of game designers, quite obviously, started to raise objections on the idea, using terms like pointsification and exploitationware. The marketer guys answered saying that, after all, gamification is different from making an actual game, and thus, that game designers should not be involved in the process. Which is at least strange: you want to apply game design to everyday activity, BUT refuse to involve people professionally dealing with game design. I’m not saying marketing people are evil (well, maybe sometimes they actually are, but that’s not the point).

It’s just that human beings tend to simplify complex concepts to stuff they already know and can measure. So, marketing assumed that gamification is something like loyalty cards and they use those parameters. Game designers, on the other hand, are focused on what they deeply love, games, and prefer to mark all the movement as unuseful and misleading (and it certainly is, right now) rather than trying to go beyond it and explore a little more.

As Margaret Robertson puts it:

Gamification is the wrong word for the right idea. The word for what’s happening at the moment is pointsification. There are things that should be pointsified. There are things that should be gamified. There are things that should be both. There are many, many things that should be neither.

Please, stop talking and start thinking

The second problem is that everyone is talking about this stuff, so when reading about gamification, you should be extremely critic. When there is a lot of movement around a topic, it becomes really difficult to filter what it’s worth from what it’s not. And often, the words assuring you that gamification is easy, cheap and with a big return on investment are more seducing than the deeper, more thoughtful articles showing a complex and rather problematic scenario.

So, instead of trying how to direct intrinsic motivation with game design techniques, it is easier for some telling you that you just can’t, and that extrinsic motivation is the only way to go. They tell you in best-selling books, or in high profile conferences, deliberately ignoring the fact that game designers deal with how to direct and enable intrinsic motivation from the moment they started making games.

Then, they write articles talking about game mechanics or make absurd game mechanics lists, mistaking mechanics with dynamics, aesthetics, feedback systems and so on. They mix it up, adding random words they listened from game designers.

Some of them actually know something about games. But the time is not much, you know, and buzzwords come and go very fast. So they attach a few sentences about the hot topic to some old content, and there! They present you a book about gamification, with 10 page (of almost 200!) actually dealing with the topic.

All this stuff creates a whole mess of superficial thoughts, where more than often the noise cancels the few, precious ideas we have. And all this confusion won’t help to have a clear conversation about what is, to me, a fascinating idea. So, if you have doubt, please, ask a game designer.

Everything starts with behaviorism

So, probably you remember Pavlov’s dog. The whole story that you apply a stimulus (in the case of the experiment, a small electric shock) and you obtain an answer, that is a reflex developed from previous stimuli (salivation for the expectation of food). Turns out that it’s actually all the way around: you have a desired behavior and you apply a positive reinforce on it. Apply enough positive reinforcements and you make the behavior more frequent. This is, quite simplified, the theory of behaviorism brought to us by Burrhus Skinner. In the first half of the 20th century he built the Skinner box, a machine in which mice received food or punishment if they pulled levers. He saw that the right mix of rewards and punishment could draw the mice to pull the correct lever, and to follow a certain behavior. A lot of games are inherently behavioristic: the good old stick and carrot technique makes you wanting for more and continue playing.

Is that so? Well, of course a lot of games are based on these simple mechanisms. And probably all games have some kind of punishment/reward system embedded on them. Slot machines and a lot of gambling games use behaviorism to keep people attached to them. They kinda work. So, it must be a good idea to apply the same techniques to other environments. Do you like being treated like a mouse? Of course not. And that’s the first problem with achievement systems: it can become unethical very fast, transforming people in zombie-like creatures, longing for just another reward.

But you’re better than that! And of course the punishment/reward systems don’t work for everybody. Children can be conditioned like that, people with low self-esteem and high basic needs too. But the others? The others are far too complex, they need more to change their behavior. Punishment and rewards are extrinsic motivators: they don’t come from inside us, but from third agents. They work, sometimes and in certain conditions, but we grow bored of them very fast if they are not in sync with our intrinsic motivations. It’s proven that if you have a difficult task, a creative one, or even just a mechanic task that requires multiple steps and decision, rewards act in the wrong way, making you lose motivation. Watch this video for more. So, maybe the first step toward a better gamification would be toward our motivations.

Here comes the motivation

So, basically: rewards, point and achievements act as extrinsic motivation. But they rarely take into account what are the motivations that come from inside us. Take FourSquare, for example: do we have a real reason to check in variuos places? Of course not. Maybe we like to get a badge, maybe we could have a free drink if we get the mayorship. We go to a particular place just for that? Not at all: to a place are linked emotions, expectations, social cues. Nothing to do with a simple check-in.

My idea of gamification would put the person and its needs in the spotlight. I think games are great to empower people, to make them feel optimistic and powerful, and good at something. This has a lot to do with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, of course, and with positive psychology. So, rather than asking myself “how can I convince the user to use my crappy service?” I prefer to go with “how can I make my web application more useful and fun to use for the people? How can I make a person using it feel empowered? What are her motivations? How can I show her how awesome she is?”.

I believe games are pretty good in dealing with this kind of stuff. They are excellent learning engines, and being safe space they can make people feel engaged with a purpose. If it’s true that motivation is born from mastery, purpose and autonomy, well, the way games enable these three factor should be central rather than behavioristic gimmicks.

The ecology of gamification

Within the marketing view of gamification, lies a horrible trap. After all, if you can change someone’s behavior with a matter of stick and carrot, you don’t really need your product to be good. As long as you can persuade a certain number of people, then you’re good with it. And as I say, behaviorism can work with some people.

I’m not saying that the idea of convincing people to change a behavior is bad per se. With games we can try to make people make healthier choices, or to take unexplored path just to prove how good they are. And games are great in this. But games are also, as i said, great learning tools. They are excellent social catalyzers. They can be used in a lot of ways to make people better at something.

Making them subscribe to a service, selling them a product is of course not a crime. It can actually be good for them. As long as game content is useful to empower them rather than treat them like faceless numbers. It is, I think, not just a matter of what it works and what it don’t. But a more serious ethical problem. Which I think we can solve making gamification what it really should be: using game mechanics to make people feel empowered and optimistic, and give them the chance to actually feel better and be better.

Final remarks

I’m a game designer. When at first I encountered the idea of using games to improve social web apps, I said to myself it was a pretty good idea. And I still think that. But I also think that we should discuss it and experiment, and we should never stop asking ourselves questions. And I think we can respect the people we are talking to, because they’re human being, just like us. Not numbers in a spreadsheet we can play with. That’s all.

Alexandra July 11, 2011 at 13:47

Great article, thanks. :-)

Gian July 11, 2011 at 23:58

Dear Federico,
as Morpheus in Matrix says: “I know exactly what you mean”!
As a psychologist I have to face a similar scenario of trivialization more frequently than you. In design, in marketing, in consultancy, etc..
By the way, why did you study communication and not psychology at the university?

P.s. The Pavlov’s stimulus was the ring of a bell, if you have doubt, please, ask a game designer… ehm… a psychologist ;)

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