Gamification: Promise and Pitfalls

The Promise

We may be able to replicate the strong user engagement enjoyed by games (and social games) by adding game elements to a non-gaming business.

This isn’t about companies creating advergames (of course that hasn’t prevented advergame developers from repackaging their services as sexy "gamification" products and muddying the waters.)

Instead, businesses are learning to engage with consumers through "game-like" behaviour.

Example: Foursquare turns "coffee-shop loyalty cards" into a game by publishing league tables based on your social graph.

Example: Facebook (inadvertently?) turns "acquiring fans" into a "strategic social media goal" for companies by publishing the number of fans on Facebook Pages.

Points, levels and collectables are becoming a tool for marketing and behaviour-change as real-world activity increasingly becomes game-like.

Here’s my top-line review of the situation as I understand it. Which isn’t much. It’s mostly told through links to other people’s presentations — and as such this is intended as a jumping-off point for people new to the concept.

10,000 hours of video gaming

Jane McGonigal (Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California) estimates that the average 21-year old growing up in a gaming culture will have played 10,000 hours of games. This establishes both an expertise in game playing and a set of preconceptions about the world.

She proposes that gaming teaches 4 "superpowers"

  • Urgent Optimism – gamers act immediately to solve a problem with a belief that there is a reasonable hope of success
  • Social Fabric – gamers learn trust and cooperation
  • Blissful Productivity – gamers are willing to work hard if given the right work
  • Epic Meaning – gamers love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions

Putting the Fun in Functional

Amy Jo Kim’s company Shufflebrain develops social games and social content for businesses. She specialises in using game mechanics to improve the usability and engagement of software and social software. This presentation from 2008 was the first in which I came across the concept of gamification (although Kim doesn’t use the term), and it’s still relevant today – and the intervening years (remember when World of Warcraft only went to 60?) may even make it easier to understand.

Game Mechanics are the systems and features that make games fun, compelling and addictive:

  • Collecting and Completism
  • Points and Levels
  • Feedback (system & social)
  • Implicit and Explicit Exchanges (structured social interactions)
  • Customisation

Design outside the box

Jesse Schell is a professor at Carnegie Mellon, and runs Schell Games, a company that creates everything from online games to theme park attractions.

In a speech at DICE 2010 he suggests that with the advent of gestural controls the world of videogames is "busting through to reality", and that conversely the real world (and the world of marketing and product design) is increasingly game-influenced.

He posits a real world RPG (role playing game) where brands and gonvernmental departments reward consumer behaviours and activities that further their interests with experience points that help the consumer level up in an all-embracing game.

It seems that at least part of this presentation was intended to be a dystopic vision of the future to encourage game designers to ask themselves important ethical questions; questions that have often been ignored by marketers.

Schell says he wanted to encourage people to think carefully about which kinds of games and experiences were appropriate to develop. But not everyone picked up on those subtleties. (The Curse of Cow Clicker)

Epic Win App

UK-based Supermono Studios notes that it’s "easier to complete a 40hr RPG than drag yourself to the gym or wash your dirty car." Their response is the Epic Win iPhone app; an app that is both a to do list and a streamlined RPG. As you complete real world goals, you gain experience points, uncover loot, and level up your character.

I think we can assume that this is intended as a clever satire, along the same lines as Geek Overcomes Social Anxiety By Turning Life into RPG

High Score House on the other hand seems to be wholly without irony. It allows parents to repurpose their childrens’ household chores into games. Thanks Dad. Worst. Game. Ever.

Criticism of the numbers

Raf Keustermans (ex-EA Games online games marketer) points out in this 2011 presentation that loyalty on Social Games is in fact very low (only 15% of players are active in month 2, fewer than 2% will spend money.) Of the 80K games on Facebook, only 200 have 1m monthly active users (MAU) or more. He claims that 0.07% of social games have both scale and lasting engagement.

Why – then – would adding the handicap of non-gaming business requirements be a sensible way to improve your chances of success?

Criticism of the approach

Sebastian Deterding is a user experience designer with a strong interest in gamification. He notes that too many entrants into this space mistake the superficialities of points and levels for motivation– and that the pleasure in games stems from mastering challenges.


Richard Bartle: Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Rewards

Richard Bartle is a Professor of Gaming at the University of Essex (and creator of the first virtual world — the original MUD.)

There’s a good deal of debate around intrinsic/extrinsic rewards; the hardliner argument (expressed in Bartle’s deck) is that emotional response ("Epic Win!") is the only intrinsic reward. The more liberal thinkers seem to accept that in-game achievements and other Maslow-type psychic rewards are OK too.

Shore Ditch

However there’s common agreement among all the practitioners that (despite product offerings from Big Door and Bunchball – who’ve done work gamifying porn for Playboy) points and levels aren’t what people play for (neatly illustrated by a few slides from Sebastien Deterding’s Don’t Play Games With Me! Promises and Pitfalls of Gameful Design).

If you want to experience this, and not just understand it, have a quick play with Progress Wars.

Bartle is also known as the creator of the Bartle Test, which can be used to typify MMO players according to four stereotypes. He argues that extrinsic rewards such as "points, levels, badges, leaderboards etc. only appeal to achievers!"

Bartle ends on a strong line:

Gamification will not be ubiquitous after five years. The more it happens, the less effective it becomes.

See also

Here’s a well-put together deck that offers a good summary of the points raised in this article – citing many of the same people.

If it turns out that you could probably just have read that and not bothered with this post, then you know where to leave the comments. Here’s a quick summary for those who don’t want to read the slides: today’s gamified apps are flawed qua games; they lack true playfulness.

The Wired article The Curse of Cow Clicker doesn’t properly concern itself with gamification (although it is mentioned in passing.) However it does look in some detail at the impact of companies like Zynga who have brought business targets like ARPU, user growth and loyalty to gaming. Which seems like a neat reversal…


Please tell me what you think.