Pawned. Gamification and Its Discontents

by sebastian-deterding





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My grumpy talk on "badge measles" and the confusions, side effects and missing parts of gamification at Playful 2010, September 24, 2010 in London, Conway Hall.
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  • Pawned.gamification and its discontents Sebastian Deterding (@dingstweets) Playful 2010, London, 24.09.2010 cbn
  • An infectious disease is currently spreading across the Internet: the badge measles. It all started innocently with badges on Foursquare and other location-based services like Gowalla and foodspotting. Then it jumped online: Yelp! gave badges for adding reviews, as did TrustedOpinion. DevHub considered badges »so 2009« and provided cute monsters for being a good blogger instead.
  • Then the HuffPost caught wind but opted for the traditional badge for community activity. And then it got weirder. You could earn badges for »checking in« to a wordpress blog. Campusfood gave you badges for ordering via their restaurants. GetGlue offered badges for reviewing everything, and then for checking into TV shows like »True Blood«.
  • Google gave its powermeter users badges for being energy efficient, and HealthMonth pieces of fruit for sticking to their health plan, and Virgin HealthMiles let companies doll out badges to their employees for staying fit.
  • Finally, Mindbloom‘s »The Life Game« let you earn seeds and blooms for reaching your life goals. Because frankly, why fullfil your heart‘s desires if not for some points and badges?
  • So what I want to talk about today is simply this: What is going on here, and what is the cause of my discontent with it? (Note: If you attended Playful 2010 in person, during the live talk, some things fell to the cutting floor that I restored here – think of them as easter eggs especially made for you).
  • The Idea The Side Effects 1 3 2 4 The Confusions The Remainder First, I‘ll rush through the idea of »gamification« (1), to then look at some common confusions and misunderstandings among most proponents (2) and what can go wrong if you add game mechanics to an interaction (3). I will end with what gamified applications are missing about games (4).
  • The Idea 1 The Side Effects 3 2 4 The Confusions The Remainder So let‘s start with the general idea underlying all this.
  • As Will Wright once put it, gamification proponents consider game elements to be a kind of monosodium glutamate or crunchy flakes you can »just add« to any interface, application or service to give it a »kick«, to make it more fun, motivating and engaging.
  • The technical term for this idea is »gamification«, coined, as far as I know, by service provider »Bunchball«.
  • Business Bibles Since the mid-2000s, there has been a series of business bibles on the topic of a coming »game revolution« ...
  • Designer Talks … and interaction design events are nowadays littered with talks about what to learn from games (recommended reads at the end of this presentation).
  • Ga b e Z ic h e r m a n A my J o Kim By ro n Re eve s Jane Je s se S c h e ll McGonigal Talking heads Also, some talking heads have sprung up promoting »funware« and games as loyalty programmes (Gabe Zicherman), »metagames« such as Xbox Live achievements (Amy Jo Kim), games as the future of work (Byron Reeves), marrying positive psychology and game design for the social good (Jane McGonigal), and the ad-driven »Gamepocalypse« – games pervading everything (Jesse Schell).
  • Service Vendors Finally, more and more service providers are popping up that offer a »gamification layer« you can integrate into your application or site: Badgeville, BigDoor, Bunchball, CubePoints, GetGlue, IActionable, Mojo, Reputely and SCVNGR, to name but a few. (Though some, like Bunchball, have already been in the business long before the recent craze.)
  • The blueprint Despite this seeming variety, most gamification vendors and gamified applications still share the blueprint defined by Foursquare: There‘s an activity you want your users to do (like checking in). You give them points for performing the activity. For a certain amount of points or certain activities, they earn extras – badges, levels –, and you throw in a leaderboard to create competition.
  • The Idea The Side Effects 1 3 4 2 The Remainder The Confusions But even in this simple concept, I find that gamification vendors and proponents often already show some serious misunderstandings.
  • sion fu C on #1 Games are not (necessarily) fun The first confusion: Games are not necessarily fun. Allow me to quote a sample of reviews from some lesser-known games semi- randomly picked from metacritic.com. Elf Bowling 1 & 2 for the Nintendo DS: »for this reason i think game developers should have at least 3 yrs in video game exp. they should be hung like a pinyatta and beaten«.
  • sion fu C on #1 Games are not (necessarily) fun NRA Varmint Hunter: »All the thrill of the hunt, without the thrill or hunt.« Balls of Fury: »They should've just called it Balls because they certainly had some while they were making this game.« Big Rigs Over The Road Racing: This game (and I use the term loosely) is so pathetic it makes a sandpaper-and-vinegar enema sound positively delightful. Not that I would know.«
  • sion fu C on #1 Games are not (necessarily) fun And finally, Little Britain: The Video Game, to which the reviewer could only reply: »Pray for an end to cash-in greed and weep for the death of quality. There shall now be a paragraph‘s silence.«
  • »Ninety percent of everything is crud.« Theodore Sturgeon sturgeon‘s revelation (1958) Essentially, this is just a long-winded way of saying that ninety percent of everything is crud – including video games.
  • Confusion #1 Games are not fun because they‘re games, but when they are well-designed. Put differently: Video games are not fun because they‘re video games, but if and only if they are well-designed. »Just adding« something from games isn‘t a guarantee for fun. To make something fun, you need all the hard work of game design: iterating, prototyping, playtesting, balancing – all preferably performed by real game designers.
  • sion fu C on #2 Rewards are not achievements The second confusion concerns the motivational psychology of video games: Why are games fun and engaging? If we look at the splash pages of most gamification vendors, we see their answer right away: To them, points, levels and badges are basically rewards (and virtual, read: cheap ones, too).
  • Which means that basically, they engage in a very flawed pop behaviorism: They consider games as Skinner boxes that doll out rewarding points and badges like sugar pellets every time we hit the right lever. But you know, behaviorism is so 1940. For if that reasoning would be correct, ...
  • Score: 964,000,000,000,000 (You rock!) Earn 1,000,000,000,000 points ... this should be the funnest game ever, earning you a whopping trillion points every time you press the button.
  • Thankfully, Jakob Stjerning took that idea to the test and built that precise game: »Progress Wars«. Oh, watch how those lovely bars progress as you click! Isn‘t it fun? Isn‘t it engaging? Well, in fact, no, not so much.
  • »Fun from games arises out of mastery.« Raph Koster a theory of fun for game design (2005) For all empirical studies on the motivational psychology of video games that I know of make this point articulated by Raph Koster: Playing video games is fun because it provides experiences of competence, self-efficacy, mastery. Conversely, not a single serious empirical study to my knowledge mentions extrinsic rewards as a crucial motivating factor (if you know one, please let me know!).
  • Study after study says: We play video games because we enjoy overcoming the challenges and puzzles they present us, raising the difficulty with our ability to keep it right at the point where it is neither boring nor frustrating. The joy and thrill of games lies between the tension of a challenge that has us bite our tongue ...
  • … and the release upon our successful resolution of that challenge. Put differently, playing video games is intrinsically motivating, not extrinsically rewarded. And if you misunderstand the motivational psychology behind games, you are likely to build some version of »Progress Wars« that quickly looses its appeal. (Source, Source, Source)
  • sion fu C on #3 Feedback is not a game mechanic Because they confuse rewards with achievements, most gamification proponents also confuse »gamy« patterns of feedback design with game mechanics. Take »Plants vs. Zombies«, a critically acclaimed 2009 casual game often called a »girlfriend game« – such fun, you can even give it to your girlfriend. Which I did. And couldn‘t wrestle it back from her for the rest of the day. Until ...
  • … she suddenly approached me because she had arrived at this screen and wanted »to get back to the game«. A statement pretty much incomprehensible from a »rewardist« point of view – after all, this is your rewards collection! But perfectly comprehensible from an »achievement« view. Because this screen is not the game. It is feedback telling you how good you were at the game. Points, levels, badges – all are basically forms of feedback on your progress in the game. (Granted, for expert players, achievements also have a goal function, but let‘s disregard that for the moment).
  • Now, strong, amped-up feedback on minimum input is one reason for the enjoyability of casual games such as »Peggle«. Seeing lots of flashes, bolts, a rainbow, and listening to »Freude schöner Götterfunken« when finishing a »Peggle« level – it just feels good. It‘s what game designers call »juicy« or the »juiciness« of a game. And »Peggle« is very juicy. (Source, Source)
  • So is a good sword blow in »Ninety-Nine Nights«, for that matter or a nice explosion in »Gears of War«. But juicy feedback alone is pretty shallow. More importantly, it is not a game mechanic. Let‘s take a second look at »Plants vs. Zombies«:
  • Here, you fend off approaching zombies by collecting falling suns with which you buy & plant plants that destroy them. Resource management (which plants to buy?), positioning (where to plant them?), time pressure (can you collect suns & plant plants quickly enough?) – these are the game mechanics that make up the game, that create interesting challenges to master.
  • sion fu C on #4 Novelty is not engagement But as I said, what most gamification vendors currently provide is mostly novel (»gamy«) forms of feedback, not game mechanics. And the appeal of novelty wears off quickly, like the new seasonal Lemon Cheesecake KitKat flavour.
  • 3 Million Foursquare Accounts! but only 1% of US adults that ever used location-based services check in more than weekly (Forrester 2010). Take posterchild Foursquare. TechCrunch recently reported it reached 3 million accounts. However, a recent Forrester study showed that only 1% of all US adults that ever used location-based services check in more than weekly. For all we know from the numbers publically available, the reported success of Foursquare (and other gamified services) can be explained as a brief novelty effect burning though a large user base rather than sustained, long-term engagement. The growth of daily or weekly active users would be a much more relevant metric for engagement than registered accounts – and you should demand such data from any vendor. (Source, Source)
  • sion fu C on #5 Competition is not for everyone Now, some smarter gamification proponents say: Wait, badges are not only about rewards – they are about social status, competing for bragging rights! Well, first of all, you better achieve something worth bragging about (checking into a blog likely doesn‘t qualify, does it?). But beyond that, competition and showing off is not for everyone. Take the following story:
  • This advertisement is one of the last pieces of visual evidence for fanlib.com, a website that asked fan fiction writers to post their fiction on the site to enter competitions and win sweepstakes. Roughly 17 months after its launch in 2007, the site closed. From the advertising alone, can you guess why? Well, it turns out the community of fan fiction writers is about 99% female. (Source, Source)
  • And from decades of economic research, we know three stable gender differences: Women generally prefer non-competitive and less risky situations and are more sensible to the social ramifications of their actions than men (mostly because men are overconfident). The general lesson: Not all game aspects appeal to all people. Know your users. Do research. Playtest with them. (Source)
  • The Side Effects The Idea 3 1 2 4 The Confusions The Remainder Moving on, adding game elements to an application or service might not only fail or quickly loose its appeal: It can also backfire in unexpected ways.
  • fe ct f 1 E # Unintended behaviours The first such possible side effect was observed in a location-based game prototype BMW recently tested to motivate fuel-efficient driving. The game challenged you to beat the amount of fuel used by other drivers for the route you entered into the navigation system. The prototype worked well – on average, test drivers used 0,4l/100km less fuel. In fact, the game was so motivating ...
  • So you also played EcoChallengeTM? … that in order to safe fuel, the test drivers engaged in not-so-safe driving practices, like dashing over a reddish light because stopping and restarting would use more fuel. In the US, »hypermiling« is the newly-minted word for this emergent consumer behaviour. Again generalising: Once you add incentives or goals to anything, it can motivate all kinds of unintented behaviours. (Source)
  • fe ct f E 2 # Gaming the System The most well-known and well-studied unintended behaviour is people trying to hack, trick, cheat, game your system. Take Australian Economist Joshua Grant who tried to raise his daughter with economic laws. She should be potty-trained, so good economist that he was, he introduced an incentive – Skittles – that his daughter would get every time she went to the potty.
  • And smart girl that she was, his daughter somehow managed to discipline herself so that she would go to the potty every twenty minutes – and eat herself sick with Skittles.
  • And when her little brother should be potty-trained, her father wanted to make it a social thing – so she would earn Skittles every time her brother went to the potty. And what did the clever lady do? She added water to the equation – that is, to her little brother. Lots and lots of water. (Source)
  • Hitting the target & missing the point A special case of gaming is elicited by enforcing explicit, quantified targets on people; as Bevan and Hood lay out in their analysis of the British public health care system, this often leads to behaviours that deliver on the target but hurt its intention, like putting people on trolleys in floors rechristened into »hospital beds« to meet the target of admitting people to a bed in 12 hours time. (Source)
  • fe ct f E 3 # Messing with implicit social norms A third side effect is that adding explicit rule systems to a given conduct can mess with the implicit social rules, norms and meanings governing it. Take akoha, a service that tries to promote random acts of kindness by casting them as »missions« you collect awards and gifts for. Now a befriended game designer of mine tried this with another game designer friend of his ...
  • … and invited him for a coffee, as the mission required. When the friend curiously asked why he was invited, my friend replied in explaining the service and mission he was on. To which the friend furiously answered: »Have you any idea how degrading that is, being invited not because you care about me, but because you want to progress in some game?«
  • The Idea The Side Effects 1 3 2 The Confusions 4 The Remainder So there are confusions and there are potential side effects. But there are also certain aspects of games that the current proponents of gamification miss completely. For one, they are missing the role of fiction, pretense, make-believe. But Russell Davies gave a gourgeous talk on this issue at last year‘s Playful, so I rather point to that talk here and move on.
  • The thing they are missing that I want to focus (and end) on, is play. Or more precisely, the double freedom entailed in play.
  • »It is an invariable principle of all play, that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play, cannot play.« James P. Carse finite and infinite games (1986) First, as Johan Huizinga and many others before and after him have pointed out, freedom, voluntariness is constitutive for play. Maybe James P. Carse put it most elegantly: If we are forced to do something, by definition, it ceases to be play.
  • Work Play This explains why one and the same activity – say, analysing spreadsheets – can be experienced as unpleasant work (involuntary) or pleasant play, as we chose to do it ourselves, for instance in an MMORPG like »Eve Online«. It is this very exercise of autonomy, I would argue, that already explains part of the joy – and value – of playing, and playing games.
  • But at the same time, this exercise of freedom also partially frees us from the grip of everyday reality. This is what Gregory Bateson noted when he observed animals playing in the San Francisco Zoo in the 1950s: A playful nip denotes a bite without being one – it is an »as if« bite. And this »as if« is what enables play. It it what enables us to temporarily impose rules and goals different from the everyday – a game –, and different meanings – make-believe. In a word, play offers the freedom to think and act differently.
  • This is why »Serious Play« brings Lego to the board room.
  • Or why the Clown Army brings clowns to protests. By introducing a playful element, they bring people into a playful state of mind – and thus open them up for thinking and behaving differently, for not falling for habituated routines and reflexes like fight-or-flight, us-versus- them.
  • Yet when I look at most gamified applications today, what they do is to employ game elements to ties us even more tightly into our worldly toils and schemes. They are glorified report cards that turn games into work rather than life into play, and users into pawns rather than players. I‘m not saying they cannot be helpful or effective – if done right. I believe they do, which is why I care in the first place. What I‘m saying is that they are not particularly playful at the moment. So those of you who want to build such applications, I would like to leave with a question:
  • How might we ... preserve the point in being pointless?
  • If you liked this ... just add points? persuasive design What UX Designers Can (and Or: The Fine Art of Separating Cannot) Learn from Games People from their Bad Behaviours
  • Thanks. @dingstweets sebastian@codingconduct.cc codingconduct.cc License: Creative Commons by-nc/3.0
  • Required reading/viewing • Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Required reading. Period. • Gabe Zicherman & Joselin Linder, Game-Based Marketing. Exemplary for (the confusions and simplifications of) the current gamification discourse. • Byron Reeves & J. Leighton Reed, Total Engagement. Reeves & Read argue that virtual/gamified environments are the future of engaging workplaces. Strong behaviorist undertones and little empirical data, still, required reading. • Jane McGonigal: Reality is Broken. Forthcoming in 2011, the book summarises her blend of Alternate Reality Games, game design and positive psychology. You may want to watch her TED video as a sampler. • Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design. A very good one-book book on game design. For his »gamepocalypse« thoughts, watch his DICE and Long Now talks and follow his blog. • Amy Jo Kim, Metagame Design. Author of one of the first books on online community building back in the days, this and other talks by Amy Jo Kim try to articulate how to apply game design for user engagement.
  • Recommended reading/viewing • Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. A bit superficial and simplistic, but a good primer on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. • Playertypes.org. An excellent repository of academic research on the motivational psychology of video game play. • Gregory Bateson, A Theory of Play and Fantasy. Or, the message »This is play«. • James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games. A bit like »Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance«, only with games and without the narrative. • Russell Davies, playful. Russell‘s talk delves into the importance of pretense play (or »barely games«, as he calls it) for games and play, with poignance and poetry. • Jesper Juul, A Casual Revolution. Apart from being a generally good book, it makes some very relevant points about »juiciness« in game interfaces. • Adrian Chan, I just killed a social game dynamic. A long, ranty blog post on the SCVNGR game mechanics playdeck. I don‘t agree with *all* details, but as you will encounter the playdeck sooner or later, you better read this one alongside. • For regular updates, you may subscribe to my twitter list or slideshare group.
  • Academic references • Croson, R., & Gneezy, U. (2009). Gender Differences in Preferences. In: Journal of Economic Literature, 47(2), pp. 448-474. • Ryan, R. M., Rigby, C. S., & Przybylski, A. K. (2006). Motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. In: Motivation and Emotion, 30, pp. 347-365. • Ecker, R. Slawik, B., & Broy, V. (2010). Location Based Challenges on Mobile Devices for a Fuel Efficient Driving Behavior. Poster presented at Fifth International Conference on Persuasive Technology, Copenhagen, Denmark, June 7-10, 2010. • Bevan, G., & Hood, C. (2006). What's measured is what matters: targets and gaming in the English public health care system. In: Public Administration, 84(3), pp. 517-538.
  • Photo credits • Pawn: http://www.flickr.com/photos/auntiep/348297938/sizes/o/in/photostream/ • General Mill‘s Vintage Corn Kix: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gentlepurespace/2366729959/ • Gameplay session: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrew_freese/3540670487/sizes/o/ • Gameplay success: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joits/645044175/sizes/o/ • KitKat Lemon Cheesecake: http://www.flickr.com/photos/friedtoast/3063606648/ • Fanlib.com advertisement: http://www.fanhistory.com/wiki/FanLib • BMW dashboard: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lien/3646036100/sizes/o/in/photostream/ • Car accident: http://www.flickr.com/photos/meddygarnet/2989795183/in/photostream/ • Cute girl: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bu7amd/2215733336/sizes/o/in/photostream/ • Skittles: http://www.flickr.com/photos/special/121568/ • Young boy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/clovermountain/3241917232/sizes/z/in/photostream/ • Trolley: http://www.flickr.com/photos/20283351@N00/13971314/sizes/m/in/photostream/ • Fighting couple: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/2574628438/sizes/o/in/photostream/ • Chalk circle: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paigewatkins/178667418/sizes/l/in/photostream/ • Otters playing: http://www.flickr.com/photos/33403047@N00/4008226531/sizes/o/in/photostream/ • Serious Play workshop: http://www.flickr.com/photos/markorillo/4586941783/sizes/l/in/photostream/ • Clown army: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blogumentary/4190419578/sizes/o/in/photostream/
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