Issues of Gamification Design: Part 1

In Gamification on October 5, 2010 at 7:21 am

This is part of an envisioned series on gamification design. As to how far the series will go…I haven’t a clue. But, for each gamification piece I post I get a point – sarcasm included.

As a final note – much of the below is a stream of consciousness. Overtime, I will revise and extend this all but enjoy it, as is, for now.

Let me be, initially, short: the gamification craze is clearly a front loaded bubble. It’s been too quick to rise, with too little to show for it, to be anything else. That’s not to say after several deflationary moments it won’t, ultimately, be quite a powerful concept. However, this is a classic goldrush moment and while some people got rich, a lot of people merely worked for wage, if that.

That being said, lets dive into my first piece of advice to people thinking about gamification. I’m actually going to avoid for now its definition, or any major examples of what IT is. Frankly speaking, I’m not 100% sure myself, I’d rather let it brew a bit more first.

Instead, I’d rather focus more on a few core concepts of game design that have served me well so far and note how they apply to gamification ideas. The first is robustness. I think games of any size big, or small, have to offer in some way a robust feeling of gameplay. They need to be, as Sid Meier once said “a SERIES of INTERESTING decisions.” I’m not sure many of the gamification works I’ve seen thus far are still heavily qualified in that regard. What’s so interesting about checking in some place you had to go to in the first place? Was it really that interesting to decide you had to go to Logan Airport? Did you even have a choice? Seems to me the interesting decision was made back on not when you left your house this morning. Of course there are other reasons you decide to check-in on Four Square, but my point is still the same – many notions of gamification, so far, don’t offer a lot of interesting decisions to the player, they merely reward you for actions taken to record decisions made elsewhere. Rewarding fate is not a game.

Another great idea in game design that I am learning to incorporate explicitly is Miyamoto’s idea of leverage. In an interview I read with him he describes how games are great at giving you back MORE then you put into them. A small amount of input can create a larger-then-life output. There’s a reason stuff explodes so-to-speak. I move a small joystick, just a bit, make some quick, but perhaps interesting decisions, and viola, something amazing hits the screen. Contrast this to many of the gamification ideas I’ve heard about or seen (especially in health) and the output doesn’t seem to dwarf the input. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I doubt Miyamoto’s rule applies to many, if any, gamification concepts floating around today. Proponents of gamification might say they don’t have to. I would counter that it’s clear that the greater the output over the input the better your chances are for success.

Finally I’ll add the generalized notion that we’ve seen great gains of exciting gaming experiences through new forms on input. The WiiMote, the DS, the iPhone, Kinect, Sony Move, Rockband, etc. all of these are new visions of how input works into a videogame and they are highly successful. There is a clear pattern that when you redefine input you can redefine the gaming experience and find innovation.

Gamification, thus to me, is all about input. Yet, when I look at the rhetoric of the gamification scene I see a great deal of discussion of output. After all gamification is the accentuation of behavior-change through games. And right now, behavior change is a BIG DEAL in many circles. I’d even go as far to say that behavior change is at a Zeitgeist moment in America.

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Yet it’s input that has been fundamental to great game experiences – not output.

As I’ve developed my own philosophy of game design I’ve been found of the phrase “it’s the process of play that matters” in a game. It’s my own catch-all reminder that topic, content, and even score, don’t matter as much fundamentally to a game. Instead what makes even something obtuse or even dry interesting is the process by which you interact with it. Modern-day videogame design is about the honing of the process of play, be it input, intrinsic rewards, or mental exertion.

By contrast gamification has a long way to go to optimize the process of play.

For now, I think the path to more interesting and/or successful gamification applications is to start with input. The key way you “play” a gamification application is through real-world, or in-app activity that is translated through self-report, sensor monitoring, or third-party verification into inputs. Thus, one question I’m fond of asking people looking at gamification is “what’s your joystick specification?” That is, what is your input system and how does it work, and in keeping with what I said earlier, does this create an interesting process of play?

Keeping with the input theme, there are several aspects to input worth discussing, how many different types of input are there? What is their frequency, how often are they polled (to use a programming term), or how often are they invoked by the player? What sort of gradient do those inputs have? My belief is the more you have robust input into gamification the more likely you can create interesting gameplay. So my advice is, worry more about having a great means of input then about what your output is going to be. As the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out.

Second, there is the entire issue of intrinsic reward, and extrinsic reward. I believe Chris Hecker did a rant on this at GDC last year. Unfortunately I missed it. But suffice to say here is the problem in a nutshell. Videogames are all about intrinsic reward. Gamification is fascinated with that, but also double-deals with notions of extrinsic reward. The conflict is that good games are about the process of play. Play is it’s own reward and we spend millions of dollars building games with incredible in-game reward, let alone mid-tier reward in the form of achievements, leader boards, etc. The mere fact that a gamification idea then tries to draw on the extrinsic reward world (we’ll pay you!) should be a warning that the idea can’t generate the type of gameplay that will offer rich intrinsic reward. Again, I point to Miyamoto’s idea of interface leverage providing intrinsic reward. Good games do this. As I said recently to someone who called… “if you can’t offer good intrinsic reward why are you doing this in the first place?”

Gamification offers some promise, but it’s new, and lots of people pursuing it are taking games at face value. Eventually I expect people to realize that while some shallow applications will work nicely in specific contexts, others will fail miserably. I’m willing to bet those that do, will have violated some of the ideas I’ve presented here.

  1. […] [2] Blog post by Beb Sawyer entitled “Issues of Gamification Design: Part 1″ – read it here […]

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