Gamification: the next revolution?

2011 January 18
by Emmanuel Goossaert

The rate at which gaming is penetrating the different layers of our societies has been rapidly increasing during the last decade. Sure, part of this is due to the fact that kids playing in the 80’s are now 30 to 40-year old, but another good part of it is a direct consequence of the vulgarization of video games in general. With the Wii and now Kinect, no need for fancy game pads and killer finger skills to play video games. A vector of this acceleration is also the recent urge in the social media world. With Facebook, social games have emerged, taking advantage of social and psychological constraints. Games are no longer confined to the virtual world, and are crushing into the real world.

Gamification: this is happening right now

Early 2010, Jane McGonigal had a talk at TED entitled Gaming can make a better world, in which she said that 3 billion hours per week are spent on on-line video games worldwide. She argued that by presenting complex tasks and some of the problems of our society as games, these problems could be solved by people playing games worldwide. This is not a new idea, and it was the focus of the book FISH – Work made fun gets done. She takes the example of problems such as hunger and poverty, and I am not really sure to understand how one could solve hunger by playing World of Warcraft, but the overall concept is interesting.

In his Design Outside the Box presentation at DICE 2010, Jessy Schell, who is also a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, presented his views on the future of gaming based on social networks. He covered the recent success of the Facebook-based games Mafia Wars and Farmwille, and how they used social and psychological components to hook people up. According to Jessy Schell, this is only a matter of time before we see brands using game systems to fidelize their customer base. This is called Gamification, and this is happening right now.

SCVNGR, a Google-backed startup, is already using game mechanisms to create a new kind of marketing. Using game mechanics, customers complete achievements related to a specific brand or business, and get rewarded for that, which drives even more attachment and involment into the brand or business. Seth Priebatsch, the CEO of SCVNGR, talks about it in his talk at TED entitled Building the game layer on top of the world.

Some concerns regarding gamification

Gamification is certainly an interesting idea, and people have been very enthuastic about it (see articles from TechCrunch and Huffington Post). However, it has limitations and brings serious concerns. First of all, the world in which we live, mainly built on currencies, is already a point-based game. You work N hours, and get X points in dollars, euros, or whatever currencies, that you get to spend on whatever achievement or quest you choose to. School is also a point-based game. Grades at school are supposed to be a reward system to create emulation and drive improvement among students. Well, our currency-based societies and our grade-based school systems certainly have flaws, and I do not think that implementing point-based system into all the layers of our societies would improve our entertainment or involvement, but will only create more stress and unnecessary addictions. Creativity and achievement come from an inner need to making oneself better. Social constraints have always reduced creativity because of the self-censorship and self-restraint with which they pollute people’s minds and actions. A system of values is necessary to drive people towards achievement, but these values don’t need to be points or money, and could simply be driven by self-improvement or genuine giving.

Another concern is that gamification is based on human psychological flaws, and that it is used mainly by brands just to market their products better and get people to more money. This is the ideas developed by Christopher Cummings in his article Why The Gamification Of Everything Is A Bad Thing. He argues that gamification can be a good thing, but we have to be careful not to think of it as a panacea and apply it to everything just because it is the current hot trend.

But in my opinion, the biggest concern regarding gamification is the changes that it will have on our behavior. For instance, SCVNGR created a thing called “Social Check-in”. The idea is simple: you go to a coffee shop with your friends, and you bump your phones to show that you are all at the same location at the same time. This gives you reward points for the fidelity program with which you are affiliated. This might seem fun, but I have a problem with that: totally new social behaviors, based on the hope of getting some crappy extra points for a brand or a business, are going to emerge (Jessy Schell presented some examples of emerging marketed behaviors at the end of his talk). Such behaviors are totally unproductive for a society, and if it is unethical to use human psychological flaws for marketing ends, it is totally wrong to consciously modify people’s behavior for marketing ends, like if they were some monkeys in a lab experiment. This is what consumerism already is, and giving large corporations more tools to control consumers is probably not that great of an idea.

Beyond gamification

Tools are available now to transform anything into a game. SCVNGR has a game mechanics playdeck that presents general game mechanics, which mixed together can trigger game conditioning and involve people into doing things they would not do otherwise. General game design overviews and tutorial on how to design rewards in games can also be useful.

For some reason, I got reminded of an episode of Sliders, a science-fiction series from the 90’s in which the main characters can “slide” into parallel dimensions and experience the world as it would have been if there were something different compared to our world. In one of the dimensions they visit, a company created special augmented reality goggles which allow their bearers to see reality differently. The heroes cross the pass of a one man who is painting the front sign of a store, but that through its goggles, sees himself painting a renaissance masterpiece. Through a layer of additional reality and gaming, you can get anyone to do anything, work made fun gets done. A good illustration of that is the short film Domestic Robocop.

In a world where everything goes fast, where people cannot focus more that two minutes and need to be constantly entertained, a game layer has every reason to exist. I only feel sad that reality seems too boring for some people that they need to add a game layer on top of it.

References

1. Gamification
2. Jane McGonigal – Gaming can make a better world
3. Seth Priebatsch- Building the game layer on top of the world
4. Jesse Schell – Design Outside the Box
5. http://www.directedfocus.com.au/reading-and-books/fish-work-made-fun-gets-done
6. SCVNGT Social Check-in
7. Why The Gamification Of Everything Is A Bad Thing
8. TechCrunch – Google-Backed SCVNGR Takes On Foursquare, Looks To Boost Fun With ‘Challenges’
9. SCVNGR Wants To Build ‘A Game Layer’ On Top Of The World — And Take On Foursquare
10. SCVNGR’s Secret Game Mechanics Playdeck
11. The basics of reward
12. Designing Rewards in Games
13. Domestic Robocop

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