Gamification doesn’t exist

The word ‘gamifcation’ is everywhere at the moment – everyone’s trying to grab some game-like elements and stick them into their products to try to make things ‘fun’ and ‘engaging’ – but when you dissect examples of so-called gamifcation, you start to find that it doesn’t really exist at all. All the examples of gamification are actually examples of other things – standard interaction design, bad marketing or just straight-out games.

Let’s take, for example, some of the badge and reward schemes that are often cited as making use of gamification techniques.

On the Treehouse site, users work through tutorials on various web design and development subjects. One they’ve passed the subject’s quiz, they collect a badge confirming they’ve completed that tutorial. Foursquare is another example, letting users earn badges for ‘checking-in’ and announcing their whereabouts to their friends. Both sites offer a range of options for telling other people about the badges you’ve earned.

At the Gamification Summit in 2011, Charlie Kim, CEO of Next Jump, talked about how he’d made use of a similar reward system in his company, convincing his employees to go to the gym more regularly by setting up a point-scoring and leader board system so they could compete with their colleagues.

All of these schemes have been have been undeniably successful, but are they examples of gamifcation? Not really.

As popular as they may be, none of these ideas really has anything to do with games at all. Once you take away the obvious gaming symbols – the neat badges and the physical leader boards – at their core, these ideas are based on well-known principles of human behaviour. People are motivated by progress. People are motivated by social validation. These designs have just taken things people already want to do – learning stuff, going places, getting fit – and motivated people to do them more by making it easier for users to a) track their progess and b) tell other people what they’re doing.

The schemes are examples of good design that’s drawing cleverly on human psychological principles, but they’re not any more like a game than any other piece of good design.

The website The Fun Theory takes a slightly different approach to using games to motivate. The initiative claims to show that making things fun can change people’s behaviour. The kinds of ideas featured in its videos clips include a bottle bank done up like an arcade machine that gives users points when they put bottles in it (designed to encourage recycling) and steps rigged up to make the sounds of musical notes when people walk on them (designed to get people to take the stairs rather than the escalator).

In the videos people do seem to be enjoying these ideas, but that’s probably because it’s the first time they’ve seen them. The people look delighted – and surprised. It wasn’t what they’d expected to see.

The site reminds me of when Mary Poppins was trying to get the kids to tidy the nursery and she said, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and – snap! – the job’s a game!”. After she’d finished singing, she and the kids proceeded to use magic to do a speed-tidy of the nursery, with all the toys flying back into their places with a click of the fingers. This was obviously impressive to the children – and definitely surprising – but not really a game. After a while, the magic tidying up would be as mundane as the normal tidying up.

Mary Poppins’ ‘game’ was really just a novelty. The kids liked it because they weren’t expecting things to fly around the room when they clicked their fingers – and humans are intrigued by and attracted to new and surprising things. The problem is though, things don’t stay new and surprising for long.

The same applies to the flashing bottle bin and the musical stairs. They’re just novelties. Gimmicks. After a week or so of encountering those musical stairs on their commute, people will be back on the escalator. Probably wishing the tuneless racket created by musical stairs next to them would stop.

This is another example of design drawing on a human behaviour – this time playing on our delight at surprises – but again, nothing to do with games.

The most important things about a game is that it offers an experience that is enjoyable in itself. If a game is designed well, people will play it just for the entertainment. Very few gamifcation examples seem to remember this, and so not many focus on creating a fantastic gaming experience as their priority, but there are some.

In his book Playful Design, John Ferrara talks about the game Foldit. The game gives users puzzles to complete based on protein folding and scientists examine the solutions provided by the highest scorers to see if there is anything that can be applied to real-life proteins. One of the solutions helped scientists to decipher the structure of an AIDs-causing monkey virus – remarkably, something they’d been trying to do for 15 years before they got Foldit players on the case.

This, surely, is an example of the power of gamifcation? Still no. It’s an example of the power of a game. The distinction isn’t just semantics. It’s whole different mindset. A game is created first and foremost for the sheer enjoyment of the playing experience. Gamification suggests an add-on to an existing process or interaction. Gamifying is just modifying. To create a game, you need to start with the foundations.

So, although there are a lot of things which claim to be gamification in action, they can actually all be categorised as something else. ‘Gamified’ designs are either:

  1. Examples of interaction design that use psychological principles and behavioural economics to get people to do something. Executed properly, these are examples of good design or clever marketing, but they’re not gamification or anything to do with games.
  2. Badly thought-out, bandwagon-jumping uses of obvious gaming imagery and icons without any serious analytical consideration given to the appeal of the experience. This kind of stuff is like drawing whiskers on yourself a calling yourself a cat. No one’s convinced.
  3. Something that has been constructed with an entertaining player experience as the main priority, and any other goals as secondary. These designs are not gamified – they ‘re games.

Number one is already common place. Number two best left alone. Number three though, is where things get interesting.

Gamificaton doesn’t exist, but games certainly do. If we want to use the power of games, we need to leave the word gamification behind. It suggests that you can just add a bit of ‘game’ to something, sprinkle it on top for a little extra interest. It’s only when the game is put first, and an entertaining experience is the primary goal, that it becomes a powerful motivator.

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