Too cool to play: the gamification backlashApril 11th, 2011 by Ville Miettinen
In high school life was simple (brutal, but simple): popularity equaled coolness. As my math teacher would say, the relationship had both correlation and dependence (for some reason A marks in statistics class failed to improve my social status).
Post-graduation, the world sometimes seems to work in reverse. Take Apple. In 2000, Mac was the hip, underrated indie-kid of computing. Now everyone’s got an iPhone and suddenly Apple is an evil corporate giant out to steal your money, digital rights and free will (if you believe the Guardian).
People are instinctively suspicious of stuff that gets too big, too fast. Two years ago the term “gamification” barely existed, now it’s everywhere. There are gamification books, startups and even a dedicated gamification summit. With so much hype, backlash is inevitable.
Missing the points?
Here at Microtask we’re “out and proud” gaming fans. We play games, we write about games, we make games. However, being a mature and friendly organization, we realize that sometimes it’s good to check in with the opposition (even if it’s just so you know where to aim). Happily for us, critics of gamification rarely lay into full-blown games like Digitalkoot. Instead they tend to attack companies like Foursquare, who apply game-mechanics to non-game sites and apps.
Counter-intuitively, game designers are often the biggest gamification skeptics. Designers argue that game mechanics are subtle and complex. Good games, they say, are like art: engaging players deeply and emotionally (not sure how Grand Theft Auto fits in here). In contrast gamification, as game developer Margaret Robertson puts it, “tricks people into believing that there’s a simple way to imbue their thing (gym, job, genital health outreach program, etc) with the psychological, emotional and social power of a great game.” In other words, it takes more than points and a leader-board to turn a banking website into the next Farmville.
It’s easy to see why game designers look down on gamification. Modern console games are hugely complex, multi-layered virtual realities. Gamified apps are often just primitive reward-systems with flashing scores and badges. But what if designers stopped sniping from the sidelines and instead helped to “level-up” gamification?
In a recent Google Tech Talk designer and self-confessed “grumpy German scholar” Sebastian Deterding outlines how he believes companies could “gamify better”. His presentation really stands out from the general gamification hype/hate. Deterding identifies three key ingredients to successful games: meaning, mastery and autonomy. Meaningful games are ones which connect deeply with users. It could be via compelling narrative (only you can save mankind) or via a game’s social value (only you can save the Finnish library archive). Mastery is about giving players a sense of control and well-defined game progression. Autonomy is basically the art of making games enough fun so that people actually choose to play them.
For all the backlash, gamification is still the popular new kid in the virtual playground. As critics have (endlessly) pointed out, one-size-fits-all gamification is a sure-fire way to frustrate users and lose money. But equally, personalized well-designed gamification is capable of achieving exactly the opposite. Gamification is here to stay, the question is whether game designers will swallow their pride and help us gamify better.