Monday, 16 May 2011

Gamification is the future, but not as we know it.

Dr Richard A. Bartle, Senior Lecturer and Visiting Professor of Computer Game Design at the University of Essex, UK is often quoted by, well pretty much anyone involved with gamification... And I'm just about to disagree with him. I just read Will Gamification be Ubiquitous in 5 Years? on Gametuned, and although I believe Dr. Bartle makes a few good points, he's missing some important new developments. Either that, or his and my definition of gamification just don't agree.

In the slides for his recent talk, Dr. Bartle seems to focus on the type of gamification that is often used by marketing departments to bribe people into behaviour they like to see (buying things or free advertising). This sort of gamification is not made by game designers and is driven mostly by extrinsic rewards. He explains quite correctly why this sort of gamification does not work in
the long run. But he also mentions that game design used to employ these principles and abandoned them in favour of intrinsic rewards and more fun. I expect gamification will follow the same path as the games did. So indeed, crude pointsification will probably die out, but true gamification will still be around in five years time, and longer.

Bartle describes a shift in the meaning of gamification from turning something not a game into a game, to turning a game into something not a game. He states that gamifiers "readily acknowledge that their content isn't compelling. It's precisely why they're gamifying it". He suggests that to gamify is to attempt to make something that is intrinsically boring, extrinsically fun. Which doesn't work, because fun is intrinsic.
I see a shift in the meaning of gamification from turning something not a game into a game, to returning the game to something that was turned into not a game.

A lot of human activities really should be fun - which I use as a short-hand to mean: intrinsically rewarding, compelling, interesting, challenging,... - but somehow aren't fun any more. Like work, or education. Work and education are superbly rewarding activities, and yet somehow all the 'fun' has been leached out of them. According to Jane McGonigal, that's exactly why we play games: to fulfil real human needs for productivity and meaning. I think it might have something to do with Marx's concept of alienation. Somehow modern life has added layers of boredom, lack of agency, and pointlessness to several intrinsically rewarding things, and I hope to see gamification ultimately reverse that trend.

A game is defined by rules (the goal or point of the game and how to achieve it), voluntary obstacles, and feedback. It also has several interesting aspects such as fun failure and urgent optimism. Learning is like this too. But currently, education isn't. Neither is work. Or parenting. ExtraCredits, for Escapist, has an excellent talk on how gamification can save education. Jane McGonigal encourages game developers to develop ways of turning the productivity and happiness of gamers towards the greater good. And humbly, I'm trying to think of a way to apply game principles to parenting. None of these projects have the characteristics that Bartle describes for gamification, but they do have the reward structure he describes in games:

I don't see gamification disappearing in five years, as Bartle suggests. Perhaps superficial and marketing-oriented pointification will soon be a thing of the past, but gamification is a thing of the future. Gamification creates alternate realities that add a game layer on top of the layers of boredom and alienation that have somehow accrued on even the most intrinsically rewarding activities. I think it is probably ill-advised to try to remove those layers because they are intricately involved with vast cultural and scientific improvements; we don't want a 'return to the Middle Ages'. However, gamification can return us to a happier and more fulfilling life by allowing us to rediscover and make explicit the intrinsic fun in the things we do.


  1. What you seem to be describing is "serious games", not "gamification", because there is an actual game - or at least play - as an end result.

    I agree that serious games have a future. They also have some problems with misapplication (there are some things games are good at and some they're not so good at, and too many serious games proponents tend to want to apply them in the latter area rather than the former). However, on the whole the idea is basically sound.


  2. Hi Richard,

    Thank you so much for replying to me!
    Now that I have your attention, I wonder if you mind that I pick your brain on something. I've been thinking of designing a game around parenting (check my post a little further down the blog), and I wondered if you thought that would be one of the things gaming might be well suited to or not, and why?
    Thanks again!

  3. >I wondered if you thought that would be one of the things gaming might be well suited to or not

    There's nothing about parenting that makes it unsuitable. However, that doesn't mean that every proposed parenting game is suitable, of course.

    >Every time you encounter a stupid, false or demoralizing common phrase or comment, you get to log it and claim points.

    And what are these points worth?


  4. That particular snippet is about a sort of mini-game, perhaps as a taster to get people into the real game. The points are a reward for putting up with stupidity. Their use would be to redirect the disheartening feeling towards a positive count. But I see your point. The bingo on its own might get boring.

    The intrinsic reward of the bigger game is that you have fun being a parent. The points and levelling up would be mostly to keep track of it. Similarly to ExtraCredits Gamifying Education, I'd like to get away from a parenting experience where you start off with an A+ and go downhill from there. Parents all start at 0 and gain points as they develop. It's a way of measuring progress and activities that parents do anyway, but often don't get credit for (even from themselves).

    I'd also use points and levels to open up new content, preferably content tailored to the missions already completed.

    At the moment, the whole project is still a thought experiment, but when it gets off the ground, I'd like to show it to you.

  5. So you want parents to get points to show how far they are progressing, but the points are otherwise worthless. They're just markers. They're not to encourage parents to do things they weren't going to do anyway, nor to point them in the right direction, they're just like milestones that say how far you've got.

    Is that a fair assessment of them?

    If that's the case, how come you describe them as a reward?


  6. I think the points might serve more purposes. On the one hand, they would be like the XP in WoW. They mark your progress through the game. But that doesn't mean they couldn't be used to point people in the 'right' direction, or get them to try new things. Certain missions might have extra points, or become unlocked from a certain level etc. Of course more of the same type of points may not motivate those who weren't interested in the points in the first place. There is a big element of exploration as well though. We've worked out several approaches, including for example a 'detective' style level. It's also meant to be a MMO, so there would be groups and peers to collaborate and/or compete with as well.

    I see your question why points are described as rewards. Personally I find that something being marked is a reward in itself. The recognition implied by explicitly marking progress (points, levels, grades...) is rewarding to me. Perhaps not to all types of gamers though. I should read up on that. Is your book on Kindle?

    Again, this is still in the thought experiment stage, and I'm going to have to learn a lot about game design before it's done. Thanks for your input; it has really got me thinking about certain practical design aspects.

  7. Good points on gamification or gamifying or whatever term is more appropriate. More than just points, the main point is changing the perspective of doing something "tedious" into something fun, exciting and challenging. Others might call it engaging. For instance, most ball games are inherently tedious... you put a ball through something, a small white ball into a small hole in the ground (golf), a bouncy ball through a ring with a net (basketball), a bouncier ball through a rectangular thing with an even bigger net (soccer).

    Personally, for parenting, I think that Achievements might be better than just artificial points. You can develop a checklist of things that parents should be doing: dentist visits, number of hours in the playground, number of PTA meetings, getting to know kids' friends, etc.

  8. You hit it right on the head. I think gamification when it applies to marketing and selling things will grow old, and it has very little impact on consumers...

    However, "natural" gamification is very very useful. It feeds your need for achievement and progress. Points/badges.. they're just markers. They're visual tools used to show how far you're at, and how far you've come... Let's face it. A lot of goals in life are abstract. Like parenting. Who's there to congratulate you, or tell you how good a parent you've become? We need some grounding. We need something visual to tell us: Look at how much progress you've done.

    Many people who are extremely rich will tell you. More money doesn't really improve their life that much.. but it's a way of keeping count of how they're doing in life. Seeing that number in their bank account go up gives them a dopamine rush. It gives them very little in terms of extrinsic rewards since they're already wealthy, but it feeds into their sense of achievement and progress.