Viagra for marketers? MSG for consumerism? Solution to all our woes? Erm…I don’t think so! Why Gamification bugs me…

The hype around ‘Gamification’ has been gaining momentum for the best part of this year and seems to be more acceptable than Serious Games ever was/is as an industry label. However; as with all fads, they don’t all stick, and they’re not all good for us. And yes, at the moment I see Gamification as a fad, similar to the early days of social networking. In my mind it is yet to be proven to be anything more than a slick buzzword. Now social networking has taken off, in a big way, but will gamification do the same?

As a serious game designer I love the idea of more game mechanics in our lives and it looks like gamification is becoming an ‘acceptable term’ where serious games has failed to gain a footing. However; without trying to be melodramatic there may be trouble brewing by  confusing the market by 1) mixing these two terms and by 2) damaging the quality, or perceived quality, of true game mechanics and designs (not everyone can be a designer – fact). When I first entered the serious games world I met with commercial game designers and they often were pretty negative about what we were trying to do, that we would simplify the mysterious and secretive art of game design and damage their industry as a result, well that hasn’t happened and my argument could be seen as a continuation of that negativity but IMHO my concerns over gamification run deeper than that.

So what is Gamification?

Gamification is the application of (simple) game mechanics to typically non-game based activities. What the methodology tries to do is to distil, what some call ‘the art of game design’, down into points, badges and leader boards to modify user behaviour through extrinsic reward mechanisms. But surely this is good I hear you cry! And yes it has its uses; I recently heard a friend of mine talk about potty training their young boy; every time he uses the potty correctly he gets a chocolate button and it seems to be working a treat! This is basically what gamification is. You check in at a certain place, you move up the ranks, you click a link, you win a badge! It is providing a reward for certain desirable behaviour. However human behaviour is not that simple and that is where most gamified systems fall down; they treat the problem as simple, they treat the solution as simple and ultimately who wants to be treated like a 2 year old getting a chocolate button every time they go to the bathroom…actually perhaps not my strongest argument 😛 Anyway chocolate aside, what gamification is doing is taking the reward system from the successful games industry and applying a layer to interactions where users focus on these rewards rather than the interaction itself.

Now, I’m not against gamification but the ‘industry’ needs to evolve if it is not to fall by the way side of ‘innovation’. At the moment it is wholly flawed and completely misunderstands human behaviour game mechanics. To understand why, we need to go all the way back to the basics of psychology, motivation, reinforcement and developmental theory and review why we use simple game mechanics in the first place.

The simple answer, beyond the fact that they are fun, engaging and have mass appeal is that they reinforce behaviour. Often referred to as the ‘grind’, games are great at getting us to perform repetitive behaviour for rewards, and remember these are perceived rewards << very important. In games the rewards are in context of the activity, for example you gain more power, more lives, a bigger sword etc, they help you play the game. How does a badge help you access a brand? Are you going to lock your products away on your website until a customer has earned the right to view it? No, of course not. So rewards in gamification can be completely out of context – this is bad.

So, more on reinforcement…

Reinforcement theory states that reinforced behaviour will be repeated, and behaviour that is not reinforced is less likely to be repeated. Sounds simple!

Reinforcing positive behaviour we want to see in our employees is a core function of serious games, and of course this is how our society generally operates. Of course most people aren’t social psychologists, game designers, or learning geeks therefore…and this is important for why it has taken off so quickly…Gamification makes the big black box of game design accessible! The serious games industry has done a pretty good job of convincing people that there is something special here, something that will grab people’s attention and retain it! Pat on the back all round people. However, even though we have their attention, they still don’t really understand what ‘it’ is. Now gamification comes along and says it’s all about badges, rewards, points; all very simple and suddenly, everyone gets it; everyone has experienced the ‘chocolate button’ reward system, everyone can now be a gamification designer.

BUT games are very much not just about points and levels! Yes points, stars, lives, levels are key components to games and we all love to be rewarded it’s in our nature; but what is at the core of a good game is good interaction. Let me put this into perspective, if I gave you a button and said every time you click that button you will get a sweet, how many times would you click it? 10, 20, 30 times? I bet there would be a few of you who would keep going until there were no more sweets but the majority of people would get bored and wonder off quite quickly; this is normal human behaviour. The act of pressing the button is not engaging you, but the reward was, if that never changes, evolves or requires your personal mastery then beyond the initial gratification of the sweet there isn’t much happening, nothing to drive me forward, nothing to keep me engaged.

To understand gamification it is important to understand rewards and motivations; A reward simply put is a process that reinforces behaviour — something that, when offered, causes a behaviour to increase in intensity. Gamification is concerned with secondary rewards (those not essential to human life) and covers gratification based rewards. The function of rewards are directly to modify behaviour. Rewards induce learning, approach behaviour and feelings of positive emotions. Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself and Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of the individual. Social psychological research has indicated that extrinsic rewards can lead to over justification and a subsequent reduction in intrinsic motivation. This is pretty bad for continued engagement, fun, and learning.

This is one crucial differentiation between serious gaming and gamification. Serious games focus on intrinsic motivation and reward and gamification is all about the extrinsic elements.

Meaningless rewards for simple actions will fail. There are so many systems out there that reward against this type of action, Blue Door for example allow you to allocate badges to links on your website… so if someone explores your site they earn more badges…and…so what? Big deal, they haven’t really earned the badge, all they did was click a link, it is 100% meaningless. Gamification focuses on instant gratification for simple actions from external sources and will not lead to long term behaviour change: I click, I win, and I’m rewarded; guaranteed. This form of behavioural reinforcement is shallow and short lived as it is expected and the interaction and reward will become meaningless.

Shigeru Miyamoto the famous Nintendo game designer says;

I’m not a big fan of using the carrots to motivate people to play. I want people to play because they enjoy playing and they want to play more.

There are those that argue air miles, club cards, friend counters, likes are all games but what really makes an activity gamification? When does feedback stop being feedback and become a game?

What seems a common thread through all the examples out there is that they are feedback mechanisms first and foremost. Add to that public feedback and we begin to build on our innate competitive nature. Granted this is more appealing to certain societal groups, but competition does drive a lot of human behaviour. Is having friends 1000 on Facebook, or reaching the 1000 tweet mark a game? No, not to the majority. It is feedback to myself and others on my contribution and network. There is no imposed goal, no consequences for action. There is the warm fuzzy feeling of being part of a network but it is not a game.

1 game mechanic alone does not a game make. Feedback alone cannot give you a game. Perhaps it is the terminology that has the world so divided about this topic. In essence what gamification boils down to is simple human psychology to be part of something and to be rewarded for the least amount of effort linked into our digitized lives. Phill Cameron recently noted;

Tongue-in-cheek as it may be, there’s a point here. And while it’s not necessarily that gamification is a concept with merit, there is definitely something in tying our inherent competitive nature into our everyday lives. And the prevalence of mobile devices, coupled with the internet, allows such data to be digitized and stored in leader boards, shown to you when you sign into the apps on your phone, or even on your desktop.

So… is gamification a one stop solution for engagement? Where should we use gamification? Does the term gamification include serious games?

There are proponents of gamification who want to add a game layer to everything we do. There are those who are fully against it, claiming it will make everything meaningless and only act to exploit. So where does this leave us? Well a potentially sticky situation. Firstly we love games; we want more games out there! But I personally do believe that adding a gaming element to everything is overkill, and will damage the industry, or at the very least people will get so bored and frustrated they won’t want to hear about games anymore, leading to much sad times. Not to mention the degradation of the human soul if you are awarded points for getting out of bed, choosing the right breakfast cereal and working hard. Life is not a game, yes there are winners and losers, but there are also consequences and I can’t just hit the restart button.

I believe we need to define where gamification and serious games are each beneficial and valuable as interventions and how they can complement one another. My gut feel is that gamification is a marketing tool. It does not sit well with learning as it does not adopt any of the theories or mechanisms that we need in learning. It seems much more suited to product engagement than content engagement. A recent article by Curtis Murphy summed up exactly why games are a great fit for training and education that statement was: Games work because of the laws of learning. Games are all about learning, the two fields meld so well together. I would argue that gamification is not games. It uses discrete mechanics that are well known to marketers for influencing audiences but they are not games; they have different drivers and different audience needs, different values and different uses.

Christian McCrea, an industry commentator has noted;

What gamification consultants want is the glamour of play; the legitimacy of its culture. They have come late to the party and want to talk about their job.

Others have stated it is the Viagra of the marketing industry, or the MSG we can sprinkle on our spending to make it go over a little easier. Others as noted above see the gamification of our lives as inevitable so where or even if, do we draw the line? Should we gamify our lives?

So I guess where Gamification really bugs me is more in how it’s being used rather than the theory behind it. There is value in well thought out designs, meaningful experiences and relevant rewards to support behaviour, but not in cow clicking and simple mayoral ousting. Perhaps it’s just going through its adolescence and will soon flourish into a fully mature industry in its own right…only time will tell…

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