Too cool to play: the gamification backlash

April 11th, 2011 by

microtask_gamification_backlashIn 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 thereā€™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.

Master class
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.

  • Tadej Gregorcic

    Nice post, Ville -nwe are exploring this one step at a time. nnThe thing that gamification fans without game design experience don’t understand yetnis that there is no one size fits all solution – at least it is too early to see any relevant patternsnform that would make classes or solutions possible.nnHowever, the potential is there. There is a lot of stuff out there that can benefit from becoming interestingly hard.

  • Isaak

    Like the ‘games as art’ debate I’m not taking any sides in this one. I’d rather just play with the whole concept of gamification, see what it can do, possible applications and if I can have any fun with it.nnA personal goal of mine as a game designer is to inspire playful behaviour so perhaps gamification is the right tool for that job.

  • Anonymous

    “Good games, they say, are like art: engaging players deeply and emotionally (not sure how Grand Theft Auto fits in here).”nnReally? Maybe if you had actually played Grand Theft Auto you would see exactly how it fits in there. (Here’s a hint: right in between “engaging players deeply and emotionally”)

  • Tommaso De Benetti

    I do agree :) Especially GTAIV – The Lost & Damned – The Ballad of Gay Tony have done a very good work with story and characters. But not everybody might share this opinion, in the end it’s always about killing a lot of people (“making a genocide” would be more appropriate) and stealing cars…the core gameplay of the series is way behind the rest in term of evolution.

  • Anonymous

    Sure, people will have differing opinions as to how “good” the plot or the character dialog of the game actually ended up. But to dismiss Grand Theft Auto unilaterally like the poster does with the flippant comment of “not sure how it fits in here” reeks of ignorance and blind acceptance of the mainstream media stereotype that GTA is simply a “murder simulation.”nnI’ll disagree with your comment about GTA only being about “making a genocide,” but I see how some people could make that their goal in the game. Me? I loathed doing some of the things Niko did in GTA 4. At the same time, I understood the situation that the character was in being a working class immigrant from Eastern Europe trying to survive fresh off the boat in what is essentially New York City.nnI’m pretty sure that’s more emotionally engaging than a “game” of Farmville.

  • Anonymous

    I would recommend you go and watch the escapists excellent “extra credits” who have an entire video dedicated to discussing gamification[1]. Then go watch their other stuff on skinner boxes[2]. Of course a lot of games designers are skeptical/dismissive of gamification; a lot of social media games use very simple skinner box techniques to make highly addictive games with very little in the way of interesting or engaging mechanics. It’s the same thing that separates books like “Walking on glass” (Ian Banks) from “the da vinci code” (Dan Brown) they both take skill to create but while one works hard to create an original and compelling narrative the other uses well polished but highly formulaic techniques. nnAlso, don’t rat on GTA too hard; it may not be the mona lisa of the games world but it’s certainly emotionally engaging and very fun. nnn[1]

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  • StuNeighbour

    Meaning mastery and autonomy derives from Daniel Pink’s work on motivation and those 3 are vital if you want someone to do something. Especially autonomy – the ability to have control over what you do and how you do it. Good point about the flashing lights and points too – if you don’t hit the heart before the head then it’s just a flashy gimmick.