Gamification: You’re Doing it Wrong
Gamification, or the application of game scoring and reward systems to non-game, real-life events, is getting a lot of play in the media and I’ll admit that at first I thought it was a great way to make games more accessible. On the surface gamification seems like the sort of thing that could bring about a sea-change in how people play and bridge the gap between reality and games. However, once you begin looking at gamification through a more holistic lens, the concept starts to appear like a well intentioned step in completely the wrong direction.
So what are we talking about when we talk about gamification? For the most part gamification stresses the application of game-like reward systems to existing behaviors. While current strategies rely almost entirely on existing social reward constructs like those of social games on Facebook, this isn’t a new idea. When I was a kid, my mom drew out a huge chart on poster board with a list of “chores” that my brother and I had to do every week. These ranged from doing dishes to making our beds. Every time we completed these tasks we got a star sticker for the chart and if we got enough stars every week we earned a reward. Gamifying my chores via the addition of rewards motivated me to get the work done. For my part, I amassed an impressive collection of He-Man and G.I. Joe figures and thought nothing of doing the work. The current approach to gamification is no different than my mom and her star stickers, except it has one flaw: people expect it to work with adults. Applying trivial rewards to repetitive tasks, when taken at a larger scale, becomes closer to the grinding experience of an MMORPG; a mechanism that adults tend to see though pretty quickly. What I suggest is that instead of trying to gameify everything, we work to help players rediscover their own game finding ability.
As adults we know the reasons to brush our teeth (avoid cavities!) and do the dishes (avoid salmonella!) and we might even have some realization that we subconsciously assess the opportunity costs of nearly every facet of our lives. Adding a payout to otherwise unsavory chores in life certainly doesn’t make them any more fun, it just offsets the lack of fun with a perceived reward. This seems like a great strategy, but its staying power as a mechanism to encourage continued dedication to a task is limited. In games, the difference is that there is a definitive payoff; a final cut scene over which to savor a job well done. In life, there are no cut scenes and the rewards for completion of tasks are often the completed tasks themselves. In the physical world, if rewards for task completion aren’t directly related to the task, or to an overarching real world achievement, their overall value is reduced dramatically. In the short term, virtual rewards for tasks may be attractive, but viewing gamification as a real behavior modifier is short sighted. Using gamification techniques to issue digital rewards can certainly take the place of star stickers on a piece of poster board, but do these techniques work for adult behaviors where the expected payout and consequence may be much higher? This is where the approach to gamification is confusing.
Human beings have survived as the dominant species, in large part, because of our ability to approach new situations by comparing them to known situations and past experiences. Constant assessment and rationalization of outcomes has given all humans a lifetime of game playing experience. Whether or not we realize it, when we approach a problematic or unfamiliar situation we look at it as a game. We assess the rules, determine the win and loss conditions, and look for controllable mechanisms. We do this automatically for just about everything. When I tell people that everything is a game, they are usually taken aback, assuming that what I am really saying is, “Nothing is serious.” For a gamer, it should be obvious how far from the truth that interpretation is; it isn’t the entertainment inherent in the game, but the rules, expectations, and methods of the process which help us to find the game, whatever the experience might be.
One of my favorite examples of a game in real life is to look at parallel parking using the vernacular of a fighting game. I like this example because parallel parking is something that is viewed as notoriously difficult to master, but at the same time is governed by a specific process. Looking at parallel parking as a game begins to make the underlying mechanics more visible and subsequently makes the entire process much more manageable. To play you use the steering wheel and pedals to navigate your car between two similar cars without hitting either before coming to a stop between them.
One way to beat the parallel parking game is to execute a combo similar to a string of Hadouken type attacks in Street Fighter. To pull off this move, align your side mirror with the mirror of the front car. Put your car in reverse and turn your wheel all the way to the right. Begin reversing your vehicle. when your mirror aligns with the rear bumper of the font car, spin the wheel all the way to the left while continuing to reverse. Finally, apply the brakes when your car is parallel to the curb. If you follow that sequence, you can parallel park perfectly nearly every time. Just as with a fighting game, you are manipulating the controller (in a car, the brakes and steering wheel) in a very specific set of ways to execute a specific move.
This sort of game finding can occur anywhere. As we age, various skills emerge and augment our game finding ability, adjusting it to meet situational needs. Most animals have the capacity for play, but pack animals (like humans) tend to rely on play to learn how to interact with others in addition to the basic mimicry required to develop the use of arms, legs, paws, and claws. For humans, game identification is internalized at such an early age that as we mature game finding becomes second nature, to the point that we don’t even realize we do it. The evolution of our game finding skills beyond simple emulation of behaviors arises from the human ability to see and recognize patterns in the world around us. Pattern recognition allows us to be predictive in addition to adaptive and just as with game finding, pattern recognition becomes internalized in us over time. This combination gives us the power to not only understand the rules of the games we play, but also to anticipate the next moves of our partners and opponents. As our reliance on pattern recognition (a more efficient method of reaction assessment) increases, our ability to find play diminishes. Our conditioned responses to patterns and situations disrupt our ability to be pure learners and limit our ability to easily identify unfamiliar games.
This assessment of the inherent game finding abilities of humans is at the crux of the issue with the current trend toward gamification. A more interesting and powerful way to encourage gaming is to raise people’s awareness of the games they’re already playing. Using gamification to appeal to the preconceptions of a target demographic may be an effective tool to exploit a conditioned response, but like the exploitation in a Michael Bay film or DOA game, these methods are hard to mesh with the plot, pacing, and character development which are a part of games targeted at a more mature audience. Leveraging the game finding nature of humans can allow us to better associate rewards with behaviors in a more natural way, allowing us to bridge the gap between reality and gaming in a more meaningful way than reward based gamification allows. I would love to live in a world where people see the games around them and can realize the potential for fun that surrounds us all.