Me and my granny
When I was a little kid I was attracted by coin-op machines. Big cases with monitors spitting the luminous trails of asteroids and spaceships, little worlds telling little stories with glowing pixels, the mechanic sound of joystick and buttons and so on. So it seemed pretty logical to me to try to play with these machines as much as I could. It was something like having a glimpse of the future, it was (and somewhat still is) entering in a magical realm of dreams and losing myself for a while. So I kept asking my parents and relatives some coins to get those six-or-so minutes of pure enjoyment.
My grandma was a sweet old woman who raised three kids during the war. She came from another time, almost from another century. She was connected to the physical world. The concept of paying to have fun, for her, meant to get something physical, like a toy. She was an observant christian and obviously she was pretty much into the old system of rewards and punishment that western religions apply all the time. So, when I asked for coins to play video games she asked me the most logical question for her: “Are you going to win something? What do you get in return?”. My answer, as a kid, was just “nothing”, with a bit of shame. Fun wasn’t considered an acceptable good to be bought. Fun was free, for everyone. You could pay for a toy, not for playing.
And yet, today we know that it isn’t so. We often pay for fun, in one way or another. But what if we are paid for having fun?
From virtual to real
These days the web is all about gamification. Which is, and now it’s sadly clear, not game design applied to non-gaming activities, but just a glorified form of fidelity programs. Stuff we’ve seen over and over and that now is applied to the web. Simple like that. A user does something in a web platform, and she gets a reward. A virtual one, a small little digital trophy shining into her user profile. Jolly good. I’ve already shared my point of view on the matter and I won’t come back to it now. If you want my quick opinion, there: gamification as it’s intended right now is not taking what makes games engaging and fun, but it’s just treating people like small lab rats getting an insignificant reward for their not always significant actions. Nothing interesting. And yet everyone is trying it.
And there is a point when someone thinks “what if those virtual awards could be converted in something real?”. It is what Foursquare is doing, but it can be extended. What if, for example, we gamify the very act of playing games? And maybe we give real rewards to the best players? Wouldn’t it be great? Well, that’s what my grandma was thinking, back in the eighties. Turns out my nana was some kind of web genius. about 30 years ahead. Great news. So, if we admit that a lot of apps are used just for fun, and we start giving real rewards just for using them and for playing games, here’s exactly what we get: you got paid to have fun. That should be the gamification holy grail, isn’t it?
The problem with rewards
Except it isn’t. First of all, turns out rewards don’t work as we can expect. I already linked this RSA video, and it’s once again useful to explain myself. If you reward strong, creative and complex tasks with real world incentives, the motivation decreases. It may seem counterintuitive, but that’s the way it is. So, paying people for playing games could not be so great an idea: after all games are complex tasks. Then, I still think that choosing to play a game should be a free act (that dates back to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens). But if I play to get physical rewards, then this act will necessarily be less free. And playing suddenly can become more like working. Will I enjoy exploring a game world or just try to exploit the rules to get physical rewards? Will games become just glorified slot machines for people hoping to get some goods for free?
This is not the scenario I’d like for a game-based world.