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Don't Play Games With Me! Promises and Pitfalls of Gameful Design
Don’t Play GamesWith Me!promises and pitfalls ofgameful designSebastian Deterding (@dingstweets)web directions @media, London, May 27, 2011cb
GRUMPY GERMAN TALKINGBefore I begin, some disclaimers. First off, this is a grumpy German scholar talking, which means that we are going to get down tofundamentals.
CONTAINS PHILOSOPHYAnd that means that there is going to be philosophy in this talk. You’ve been warned.
(AND SOME OPTIONAL HOMEWORK)Also, I will not lay out much design details here – because Stephen Anderson already gave a wonderful talk on this today (which you canfind on Slideshare), and because I already did so in another talk as well, which is also on Slideshare. Thus, if you’d like to learn more,there’s some optional homework for you afterwards. End of service announcement.
As a kid, I absolutely loved the Game of Life. It even came with a rulebook! How marvelous is that? I certainly would have hoped that my lifewould have come with a rule book. »Breaking up with a partner? See page 13, relationships ...« Maybe best of all, that rulebook spelt out inplain, simple terms what life is all about. Let me read it to you: »The player with the most money at the end wins the game.«
(No clue why my left-leaning parents never wanted to play that game with me.) But anyhow, on to the present. Today, more and morepeople in the digital industry take this game seriously and try to turn life into a game. The word for this is »gamification«: using designelements from (video) games in non-game contexts to make a product, service, or application more fun, engaging, motivating.
FitnessLet‘s have a look at some examples. »Nike+« has been a poster child for way too many things, but by adding scores, challenges, trophies,and competitions to what would otherwise be »just« a running self-tracker, it definitely counts as a case study for »gameifying« fitness.
HealthBuster Benson‘s web application »Health Month« let‘s you set up rules for your own health behavior for one month, and then win ourloose points and badges (and cheer and be cheered by others) based on those rules.
FinanceSimilarly, the personal finance management service Mint.com allows you to set yourself financial goals and track your progress towardsthem.
EducationSince its recent relaunch, the Khan Academy offers 100 exercises to learn basic concepts of mathematics, with lots of points and badgesand stats to track your progress and motivate you to move on.
SustainabilityIn the area of sustainability, Nissan‘s »MyLeaf« allows you to compete with other drivers regionally as well as globally on how energyefficient you are driving your car.
ShoppingIn retail shopping, companies like »BarcodeHero« bring the concept of »checking in« from Foursquare or Gowalla to stores or products instores, again complete with points, leaderboards and other game elements.
WorkEven at the workplace, several companies are now experimenting with adding game elements to work tasks, as in the case of »PlayNice.ly«, which »gameifies« software debugging with points and badges earned for the number and quality of bugs you report.
ProductivityThere are lots of apps emerging that try to help you be more productive, like the Email game.
LifeAnd finally, there are games for life itself! Like The Life Game™. Which helps you to spend more time with your kids, or have moremeaningful conversations with your spouse by giving you points, levels, and badges for it (why why else would you want to?).
Points Badges Leaderboards Incentives Tracking, feedback Goals, rewards, status Comparison, competition Rewards The blueprint (still)Now if we are zooming out a bit, we find that Foursquare is (still) the basic blueprint of most of these services. There’s an activity you wantyour users to do more often, so you give points for that. For certain activities or numbers of points, they get extras, like badges or levels. Tocreate competition, there’s things like leaderboards. And you can redeem some of those achievements for rewards, like free coffees.
So is it a secret ingredient ...Within the digital industry, the opinion on »gamification« is deeply split. For one side of the camp – mostly marketers – it is the best thingsince sliced bread, the wish-come-true of easy and perfect customer mind control. This side is well-represented by Gabe Zichermann,organizer of the Gamification Summit.
»Games are the only force in the knownuniverse that can get people to takeactions against their self-interest, in apredictable way, without using force.« Gabe Zichermann fun is the future (2010)
...or just the next digital snake oil?On the other side, there are mostly game designers (like Margaret Robertson) who consider gamification the next oversold social mediasnake oil, falsely promising to distill the qualities of a carefully crafted video game into a small set of »turnkey« features.
»Gamification is an inadvertent con. Ittricks people into believing that there’s asimple way to imbue their thing ... withthe psychological, emotional and socialpower of a great game.« http://www.hideandseek.net/cant-play-wont-play/ Margaret Robertson can‘t play, won‘t play (2010)
My take It would be a good idea, wouldn’t it?When people ask me where I come down on »gamification«, I usually answer with Gandhi: »It would be a good idea, wouldn’t it?«Meaning, to me, it is a big promise that I still find unfulfilled. Let me give you two examples for what the best of games and play hold for us.
My first example is Go. Probably the oldest strategy game around, it is hard to think of a simpler game: A grid of 19 x 19 lines as board. Twoplayers, black and white.
One after the other, players place one stone on the board.
The goal is to capture the stones of the other player by encircling them. When a stone or group of stones has no »freedoms« left – noempty spaces next to them – they are captured. On this board to the left, white has begun to encircle the group of four black stones, but thegroup still has three empty spaces or »freedoms« left.
This very simple rule set (or algorithm) quickly generates deep and rich complexities, a huge possibility space of moves and countermovesand repercussions. How big? Let’s go back to yesterday morning’s introductory keynote where Tom Coates’ shared some amazing bignumbers about the generativity of the web.
20000000000 web pages indexed by GoogleToday, Google indexes about 20 billion individual web pages, all created in the last twenty-or-so years. That is truly awe-inspiring. Nowsome Dutch mathematicians have recently calculated how many »legal« (allowed and sensical, according to the rules) individual games ofGo could be played. The number is ...
20816819938200000000000 0000000000000000000000 0000000000000000000000 0000000000000000000000 0000000000000000000000 0000000000000000000000 0000000000000000000000 00000000000000000 possible games of Go208 quadrillion quintuagintillion (or 2.08x10170) possible games. That is more than there are atoms in the universe. The strongest computerprograms still lose regularly against talented kids at Go, because unlike Chess, you cannot master this possibility space by brute force. Toplay Go well, you need to recognize and infer from a rich architecture of patterns upon patterns – that mental stuff humans are so good at.
(In Artificial Intelligence, many therefore consider Go to be a better measure for »human intelligence« than Chess.) So what I love aboutGo is that it is a very simple, elegant rule set that is hugely generative, that gives rise to an enormous possibility space which is tailor-madeto train our abilities at pattern recognition and inferencing – which is why Go has been used as strategic training since Sun-Tzu.
And this is very similar to my second example, my favourite toy: Lego. Like Go, Lego couldn’t be simpler: Bricks of different colours andshapes you can stick together (and unstick).
When I am toying around with Lego, the result usually looks something like this: Huge, ungainly spaceships on the brink of collapse. Butthat is me, and everyone toying with Lego builds his or her own devices. Like Go, a simple set of base elements opens a huge space ofpossibility.
If these are machines for living in...To go back to Tom Coates once again: If buildings are machines designed for living in (to quote Le Corbusier), and the new (ubiquitious,mundane, material, thingy, spimy) network we’re building today encompasses these, ...
… then these are possibility engines… then I would claim that (good) games and toys are possibility engines. And the promise they entail – if the new network we’re buildingincreasingly encompasses them – is to build that network so that it vastly increases the possibility space of human action, and encouragesus to explore and master its depths.
And these are…?Compared to that, what are these current »gamified« applications, then? The best analogy I have found are Fisher Price »Laugh and Learn«toys.
As proud godfather of the 3-year-old son of my best friend, I see tons of them unloaded on my godson every birthday. They are immediatelyattractive with their lush playful colours and cute playful faces and loud playful sounds when you rattle their rattles, push their buttons andpull their levers. So my godson rattles all rattles and pushes all buttons and pulls all levers until he has found the one sound that reallyannoys his mother and pushes it over and over again until she takes it away.
“Exhaustibles”And after fifteen minutes or so, he discovers that the only lasting fun in these toys is annoying his mother. After which they turn into dead,sterile objects good for nothing but landfill. They are exhaustibles – systems with uses so clearly delimited, they are rapidly exhausted. Theymay look and smell like possibility engines, but they are quite the opposite. That’s the state of 99,95% of all gamified systems today.
Claim for the day “Gamification” has to mature towards gameful and playful design.So my claim for the day is that if we want to even begin tapping into the promise of games and play for design at large (the new network weare building), then gamification has to mature towards gameful and playful design. What do I mean by that? Why gameful and playful? Forthat, let me introduce you to the first philosopher of the day.
paidia ludus play game improvisation skill, effort tumultuous ordered immoderate rule-bound Roger Caillois man, play, and games (1958)In the late 1950s, Frenchman Roger Caillois argued that human play is spanned between two poles: ludus and paidia.
ruling the world paidia ludus play game improvisation skill, effort tumultuous ordered immoderate rule-bound Roger Caillois man, play, and games (1958)Ludus describes orderly, rule-bound, civilized activity or games where we strife to be good at it – Go is a good example. It is very much aboutruling, structuring the world and our activities in it. It is what current gamification almost exclusively focuses on.
paidia ludus play game improvisation skill, effort tumultuous ordered immoderate rule-bound (un)ruling the mind Roger Caillois man, play, and games (1958)The other pole is paidia: Free-form, creative, improvisational, even excessive play. Toying around with Lego is a good example. Paidia is verymuch about ruling – or more precisely, unruling, loosening – the mind. It is a mindset, a mode or frame within which we engage with theworld around us. This aspect is almost completely neglected by most of today’s gamified applications.
Day of Reckoning 4 5 Midlife crisis Apprenticeship 2 Birth 1 Independence 3With these two guide poles, we are equipped to go on the journey of maturing »gamification«. Birth is already behind us (I introduced theidea), so next up are the years of apprenticeship (which has a lot to do with mastery and games), to achieve independence (which has a lotto do with autonomy, and play) and move on through a good midlife crisis (meaning and ethics) towards the final things (humility).
ruling the world paidia ludus play game improvisation skill, effort tumultuous ordered immoderate rule-bound Roger Caillois man, play, and games (1958)Next up in our journey is games, or ludus. Turning the (designed) world into a game. And what makes a good, fun game?
If we look at the home pages and advertising material of most gamification vendors, the answer is clear: Rewards is what makes games fun,and points, levels, and badges are basically all rewards in their understanding (and virtual – read: cheap – ones, too).
Which means that they engage in a very flawed pop behaviorism: They consider games as Skinner boxes that doll out rewarding points likesugar pellets every time we hit the right lever (usually comparing loot drops in »World of Warcraft« with reinforcement schedules). But ifthat 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 barsprogress as you click! Isn‘t it fun? Isn‘t it engaging? Well, in fact, no, not so much.
»Fun is just another word for learning.« 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: The funin video games is learning. That might sound counter-intuitive: We tend to associate learning with school, and school with anything butfun. So let‘s unpack Koster‘s statement. What does he mean with learning?
»Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. With games, learning is the drug.« Raph Koster a theory of fun for game design (2005)According to Koster, games pose challenges to us: patterns to recognize, rules to grock, puzzles to solve, hand-eye coordinations to grasp.Fun is the good feeling we get when we finally succeed in mastering the challenge, when we experience that we learned to control a part ofour environment that we couldn’t control before.
Put differently, the joy and thrill of games lies in the tension between a risky challenge that has us clench our tongue in the corner of ourmouth ...
… and the release upon our successful resolution of that challenge. In other words, playing video games is intrinsically motivating, notextrinsically rewarded. And if you misunderstand this crucial motivational psychology of games, you are likely to build some exhaustible,some version of »Progress Wars« that quickly loses its appeal. (Source, Source, Source)
Not fun FunReturning to learning and school, you may object: School also poses challenges to us (like mathematical equations to solve). Why is thatnot fun, while playing a trading card game like »Magic: The Gathering« is, whose mastery arguably requires a deep understanding of themathematics of the different cards and card decks?
»Fun is just another word for learning.« through interesting challenges Raph Koster a theory of fun for game design (2005)This is an important addition to Koster‘s statement: Fun is learning – through interesting challenges. That‘s what makes good games fun andmarks the core of game design: crafting precisely such interesting challenges.
Goals ...How do games do that? Allow me to nick the example of golf given by Bernard Suits in his beautiful book The Grasshopper: First, games setgoals – like »put the ball into the hole«. If that was all, however, golf would be a pretty boring game – you could just pick up the ball, walkover to the hole, and put it in.
+ Rules (& environments) ...Enter rules. The rules of golf state you cannot »just walk over«. You have to start from a specific point on the course, and you have to hit theball with specific weird sticks in specific weird ways. And you have to play the ball whereever it lands. (Suits therefore calls games a»voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles«. Ask any golfer.)
= Interesting challengesTaken together with the design of the various golf courses around the world and daily weather conditions, these goals and rules create aninfinite amount of varied, interesting challenges.
+ Feedback ...And if you then add clear feedback on how well you are doing in terms of those goals – score boards, the satisfying »plop« when the ballfinally makes its way into the hole – ...
= Experiences of mastery… then you get experiences of mastery. The feedback is but the clear, outwardly signal that you indeed mastered your challenge.
Feedback without challengeHowever, what current gamified systems mostly do is to give you lots of feedback without any real challenge behind it, challenges like»check in« or »read five blog posts« which are about as bland as »can you press the doggie button?« on a Fisher Price toy. Of course youcan, and once you did it two or three times, you notice there’s no deeper satisfaction to it than the mechanical bark sound it makes.
ip le c in 1 r P # Clear (group) goalsSo how would gameful design – design for interesting challenges – look like? Let‘s dissect the different parts of games for some designprinciples (and again, I’m rushing through these here). The first principle is that games set you clear, unconflicting, visually present goalsto reach for. These can be individual or group goals, as in the case of Kickstarter: The goal is to reach X amount of funding in Y days.
ip le c in 2 r P # Structured flow of goalsNow video games don‘t just present goals. They ensure that a structured flow of nested goals pulls you through, from the long-term goal(safe world, rescue princess), to medium-term (kill level boss-monster) and short-term goals (collect five level coins). Wherever you are in agood game and whenever you return, there will always be one next small goal that is just within reach.
ip le c in 3 r P # »A game is a series of interesting choices.« Sid Meier game designer (civilisation, among others)The third principle is best expressed in this famous quote by game designer Sid Meier: Good game design ensures that the flow towardyour goal is as rich with clear, but non-trivial actions and decisions as possible. Essentially, every step on the way is an interesting mini-challenge. Foursquare is a good counter-example: Should you check in or not? That’s a trivial decision: You should always check in.
Clear, interesting choicesInteresting choices also means these choices are abundantly clear so that you can fully focus on the challenge of decision-making. Point-and-click adventures exemplify this: They spell the choices out in verbs and objects in the menu. No challenge in figuring those out. Theinteresting choice is how to combine them to move the story forward. (More on designing interesting choices.)
ip le c in 4 r P # Scaffolded challengesVideo games also order the degree of challenge over time. The recent crowdsourcing of twitter‘s translation gives a handy example: Playerscould earn points for each piece of interface text they translated, and they would level up based on their overall point score, which then gotdisplayed on their profile pages.
If you look closely at the leveling structure, you will see that with each level, translators needed to earn a little more points than before toreach the next level. Each level got more difficult to achieve. Put differently: The challenge is scaffolded.
anxiety « lo w »f Difficulty boredom Skill/Time Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi flow: the psychology of optimal experienceAnd this matches nicely with one core model for the appeal of video games: the concept of flow. According to psychologist MihalyCsikszentmihalyi, people feel best when they are neither underchallenged (boredom) nor overchallenged (anxiety and frustration), but rightat the level of their skills. Since people learn with time and repetition, challenges have to increase to keep up with growing skills.
ip le c in 5 r P # Scaffolded complexityAs game designer Daniel Cook outlines, video games scaffold challenges by increasing their complexity. In »Super Mario Bros.«, the firstchallenge is: Can you jump? Then a different challenge awaits: Can you shoot monsters with fireballs? When you mastered that, the next,more complex challenge is: Can you jump and shoot at the same time? And so on. So more complexity instead of simply more of the same.
ip le c in 6 r P # Find & support the core challengeOne thing crucial to using these notions in non-game contexts is to find the core challenge in the activity that you want to support withgame design principles. In Karate Kid, Miyagi teaches Daniel to catch flies with chopsticks – an exercise which turns out to capture (andtrain) core skills necessary to be good at Karate.
If you don’t do that, you quickly end up just standing in the way of your users. Imagine you would ask a game designer to make a bus ticketvending machine more »fun« by adding some »enticing challenge« to this otherwise boring and rote device.
Ticket Drag point through maze to receive ticketHis solution might look something like this. Imagine the additional excitement once we add some time pressure with the bus just arrivingat the station! And good game designers that we are, of course, we scaffold the challenge. So the next time someone comes to the machinewho successfully received a ticket, ...
Ticket Level 2 Drag point through maze to receive ticket… we present him with level two!
ip le c in 7 r P # “Juicy” feedbackLet’s move on to the final component, feedback. When you succeed in a challenge, good games provide excessive positive feedback tomake it abundantly clear to you that you did so. My favorite example is the Pachinko-like game »Peggle«. The goal is to shoot all orangepellets from a screen with a bouncing metal ball. Here‘s what happens if you clear the last orange pellet of a level:
ip le c in 8 r P # Actionable feedback loopsThis is what game designers call »juicy« feedback – amplified, surprising, a pleasure to the senses. But good feedback also means thatbeyond that, it holds immediately actionable information about how well you are doing, and what you could do better. The majority offeedback in business applications for instance consists out of these sterile and only seldom informative status messages.
Compare that to this screen, which is how the customized interfaces of a professional World of Warcraft player looks like. Confusing as itmay look to us newbies, every single stat displayed here is useful, immediate, real-time feedback on what is going on in the game right now,and how you as a player might affect it to your advantage.
The well-formed actionSummarizingly, I would argue that these are not only principles for good games, but for any human activity to be »well-formed«: We enjoysituations with clear, structured, unconflicting goals, clear, limited action spaces with choice, clear and fair rules, scaffolded challenges andcomplexity matched to our abilities, and clear, actionable short- and long-term feedback.
Feedback Accuracy, speed, friendliness in comparison, w/ recommendations Goals Daily, weekly, monthly, annually w/ progress Reality checkLet’s do a quick reality check. Say we wanted to improve the experiential quality of being a supermarket cashier with the principles outlined.We’d likely display feedback on how the cashier is doing (accuracy, speed, friendliness) in comparison to his or her former performanceand the performance of colleagues – plus recommendations how to do better. And we’d set clear goals to strive for, daily, weekly, monthly.
Business Process ReengineeringBut what about interesting choices, increasing challenge and complexity? Checking stuff out doesn’t seem to hold much of these, so we’dlikely have a look at the larger system in which the activity happens. That’s an important lesson: Like any good design, »gameful« designhas to look at the larger sociotechnical system in which it is deployed. It quickly becomes business process reengeneering …
Feedback Accuracy, speed, friendliness in comparison, w/ recommendations Goals Daily, weekly, monthly, annually w/ status Challenge Training, job rotation, job enrichment… rather than mere software design – and as designers, we often lack the organizational access and power to do so. But let’s assume thatwe can design that as well. So to ensure a good, scaffolded learning curve of increasing challenge, we’d look to design the course of thecashier through the organization, from initial training through to job roles that are increasingly more demanding and complex.
Even then, I would submit that more often than not, our cashier would still feel like him ...
… rather than her. In a word, like a tightly monitored, micromanaged lab rat instead of an engaged player. In fact, the majority of servicesector workplaces are already designed like we envisaged – full of metrics to review, targets to reach and job ladders to climb. Arguablyoften poorly designed with lots of room for improvement, but the principles are clearly the same. So what is missing?
Independence Play. Autonomy. Trust. Mischief. (Un)ruling the mind. 3What’s missing is the other pole – play, paidia. Which brings us to the next step in our journey.
paidia ludus play game improvisation skill, effort, strategy tumultuous ordered creative rule-bound (un)ruling the mind Roger Caillois man, play, and games (1958)Whereas »games« as artifacts are about structuring a certain part of the world in which we act, »play« is about a specific mindset, attitudeor frame through which we engage with the world. It is about at once focussing and loosening the mind, and doing so together. It is anorder we bring to our minds and perception, not one we find in the world. Csikszentmihalyi puts this as follows:
»For the duration of the event,players and spectators cease to act interms of common sense, andconcentrate instead on the peculiarreality of the game.« Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi flow: the psychology of optimal experience
»Just playing«A good illustration of how play works is Roberto Benigni’s movie Life is Beautiful. It tells the story how during World War II, a Jewishcomedian and his son are thrown into a concentration camp. To shield his son from that horrid reality, the father plays to make the sonbelieve that they are not really imprisoned – rather, they are playing a game of hide and seek with the Nazis.
If you think this story is purely fictional, Csikszentmihalyi gives examples of real prisoners of war using similar strategies to keepthemselves sane in confinement: One in his mind decomposed the production process of every object in his cell (»What is this bed madeof? How?«). Another drew a world map on his floor an then in his imagination travelled on foot from Asia through Europe to America. TheHungarian political prisoner Tollas Tibor agreed with his inmates to compete on who would make the best translation of Walt Whitmanspoem »O Captain! My Captain!«, which they all knew from memory. He covered his shoe sole with a layer of soap to inscribe one Englishline and then possible translations until he was satisfied. Then, he memorized the translated line, wiped off the soap and took on the next.
»Even if all hope is lost, one has to look for a meaningful goal to direct one’s attention to. Then, even though that person is objectively a slave, subjectively he is free.« Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi flow: the psychology of optimal experienceAt its core, play is not about any tool or object – a toy or game –, but about this ability to reframe one’s attention around a voluntarilychosen, self-defined activity, goal, challenge, story, in which one may experience freedom – to either master it (which would be moregameful) or creatively explore its potential (which would be more playful).
What we designBut if that is the case, we as designers face a big problem. For what we design is only the artifact.
Who decides whether this is play (or playing is allowed)Whether the interaction with that artifact is experienced as play or not depends on the users. Together, they define whether what theycurrently do is »just a game« or a serious matter, no joking around. I can say for myself that meeting XYZ is »just a game«. But if mycolleagues don‘t play along, I won‘t succeed. We can never make users play. We can only afford it, entice them to. But how?
ip le c in 1 r P # AutonomyThe first prerequisite is to give autonomy. In the famous novel by Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer has to paint a fence and is derided by friendswho pass by on their way to the fishing pond. By insisting that he‘d rather paint the fence than go fishing, Tom is able to persuade hisfriends that he paints voluntarily, painting is actually fun – and eventually has them pay for the privilege of painting the fence for him.
»If he (Tom) had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.« Mark Twain the adventures of tom sawyer (1876)Great and wise philosopher (and psychologist) that he was, Mark Twain rightly observed that autonomy is what makes the differencebetween work an play: We usually experience as work what we are forced to do, whereas to experience something as play, we must feel thatwe have chosen to do it voluntarily.
Work PlayThis explains why one and the same activity – analysing spreadsheets – can be experienced as work (and people demand payment for it) inone case, and in another case (like in the Online Roleplaying Game »Eve Online«), it is experienced as fun (and people pay for it). In thegame, analysing spreadsheets is done voluntarily; at work, not so much.
The Perils of and Variety … vs. QualityExtrinsic RewardsThis leads to a big danger in current gamified applications and their use of rewards for activities. Dozens of psychological studies haveconsistently shown that giving expected extrinsic rewards for an activity (e.g. »if you do x, I will give you y amount of cash/points/...«) oftenreduces intrinsic motivation of people to do it (source). Why? Two reasons.
Curbing autonomy through controlThe first reason is that people feel controlled by the person giving the rewards, reducing their sense of autonomy. This is especially relevantto gamifying work, like the leaderboard above for salesforce.com. Depending on how your supervisor handles it, this board can feel like yetanother form of control and pressure, or as merely informational and supportive (»I should ask Brian how he manages to be on top«).
Devaluing the activitySecondly, giving a reward for an activity sends a strong social signal that you don‘t consider the activity worth doing for its own sake. If youpay your kinds for mowing the lawn, they will learn that mowing the lawn is something that is not worth doing for its own sake. Rather, theyshould demand payment for it.
A similar thing happens if you reward people to retweet a link to your app for the chance of entering a sweepstake. That essentially says:»Our app is so bad, we have to reward people to say they like it. They would never do it spontaneously.« And what usually happens arefollow-up tweets like this one confirming the impression – and completely voiding any positive impact you hoped it would have. http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/courosa/4955407599/sizes/l/in/photostream/
No strings attachedHow to avoid those side effects? The first trick is not to attach real-world consequences to activities: no quarterly evaluations, salarybonuses, sweepstakes, etc. Sabre Town is a successful enterprise Q&A platform that achieved high platform activity by using gameelements (users who answer often can customize more elements of their profile) without attaching any such further strings.
Shared values, free goals & executionApologies if you‘re tired of hearing about Zappos‘ great customer service, but it showcases another strategy for autonomy: Ensure that youand your employees share the same values (here: good customer service), and then leave it up to them to set their own goals and strategieshow to achieve those goals.
ip le c in 2 r P # Trusted safety space … vs. Quality and VarietyThe second prerequisite for play can be gleaned from young animals and kids. They play when they see their parents around monitoring theenvironment, thus taking care that no outer threat is present. That is why facilitators discourage negative feedback during brainstorming:They likewise establish a trusted safety space where it is okay to utter whacky ideas, because there’s no threat you’ll be ridiculed for it.
Forgiving language … vs. Quality and VarietyOne way for applications to do that is through a supporting, forgiving language that creates a space where I can try and fail without dangerof guilt or shame arising. Health Month does a spectacular job at that.
ip le c in 3 r P # Shared focus & attitudeAs already noted, play is ultimately social, it is a shared focus and attitude, a shared »license to play« among all participants. One spoilsportwho doesn’t »play along«, and the experience is quickly ruined for everyone involved. In software contexts, this has a lot to do with thecommunity around an application, the specific shared culture of communication that is nurtured in and by the community.
Model the behaviour and attitude … vs. Quality and VarietyHow to encourage such attitudes? Your ongoing interaction with the community is the major key. One way is to model what you want tosee. Above you see Antanas Mockus, former mayor of crime-ridden Bogota. He successfully reduced crime rates with highly unconventionalmethods, like dressing up as »Super Citizen« to encourage his citizens to take a stand as well. If you make the first move and thus riskridicule, you signal to others that you’re serious, that it’s safe to do so, that they can trust you.
Setting the tone … vs. Quality and VarietyIn design, we can do this by setting a playful tone in our copy, visuals, and interactions. The sign-up process of Glitch presented earliertoday is a good example for an interaction that sets up such a playful tone.
The business card printing service moo.com also does a good job in this: Not only is their copywriting and design with little drop charactersconsistently playful, but there are many lovingly-crafted-yet-nonfunctional details that surprise and delight – like this imprint inside thecardboard box around a set of cards that you only discover when you take the box apart before throwing it away.
ip le c in 4 r P # Generative tools/toysA fourth facilitator for play are generative tools or toys – things that are open to, and indeed encouraging of, the creative expression of theirusers. What makes a tool generative? Apart from the obvious, general points (well-outlined by Jonathan Zittrain), I want to focus on twoqualities.
Small pieces, loosely joinedThe first one is »small pieces, loosely joined«, as David Weinberger put it. A raw matter of »social objects« that can be quickly composed,combined, analysed, changed, recomposed, added to and taken away of, shared. Lego is a very literal example of this.
»So when designing tools for play, underspecify!« Kars Alfrink a playful stance (2008)The second quality that makes up playful tools is underspecification, as Kars Alfrink beautifully argues. The designer does not preconceiveevery possible interaction and foreclose any other – as in the case of Fisher Price (or Apple, for that matter). Adam Greenfield calls this»beautiful seams«. Each part of a designed ensemble retains a surplus of uses beyond its pre-conceived function in the ensemble.
MySpaceA good example for underspecification was the initial MySpace. By forgetting to foreclose the ability of users to insert their own HTML codeto style their profile pages, MySpace unintentionally unleashed the creativity of their users, much to their own benefit.
Even games that appear far less »open« on the surface have been mined for this underspecified expressive potential, like »FarmVille«.Never intended by the designers themselves, players quickly found they could use their farm and crops as pixel and canvas (checkfarmvilleart.com).
Game designers usually speak of »sandbox games« in this context, and the current mother of all such generative sandboxes is »Minecraft«.In Minecraft, players find themselves in a randomly generated world consisting of pixely cubes, which they can combine and process to allkinds of material.
These materials then can be used to build basically anything.
And players indeed use this non-predetermined freedom to build all kinds of things, from ships ...
… to interesting landscapes and buildings, ...
… and the occasional full-scale model of the USS Enterprise ...
… to these little fellas. And I would argue that they should actually be a welcome sign, not something to be policed away. Like water insects,trolls and mischief are good health indicators that the system you’ve built is truly open and generative.
t(p) * Courtesy Staffan Björk The Generalized Mischief Metric*(If you’re looking for a metric for the generativity of your system, I recommend the Mischief Metric coined by my colleague Staffan Björk, t℗– the time until the first penis appears in your user-generated content.)
Autonomy Find, choose, and share goals and strategies Safe space Culture of trust and forgiveness Shared attitude Lived focus on mastery and playful experiments Generative tools Workplace open to redesign & mischiefLet’s do another reality check, shall we? If we apply the principles of playfulness to the supermarket cashier, what would we do? We mightcreate a workplace where he or she is invited to define, choose, and exchange goals and strategies with colleagues around shared values(such as »I try to make three customers smile each day«). Experimentation and trying to master every aspect of the job would be modeledby managers and the team, and a goal not met or experiment that didn’t work out would be gladly forgiven. Workers had the freedom toredesign their workplaces (and have some fun in doing so). Now this, to me, sounds much more like an engaging workplace; it is whatbreathes live into the well-formed structure of »gameful« design.
4 3 Midlife crisis Meaning and value. Master and servant. Ethics by other means. The good life.So much for the fun part, now comes the grumpy bit. We have to talk ethics. Because not only are there some very questionable positionsand practices among current »gamification« proponents. »Gamification« also calls to our awareness some very fundamental ethicalquestions in all design.
»The marketing dictum that ‘good marketing cannot compensate for a bad product’ is patently turned upside down in the Funware world. Game mechanics and the psychological conditions they exploit are powerful tools that marketers can use, and they’re a lot cheaper … than cash in the long run.« Gabe Zichermann game-based marketing (2009)To me, the essence of unethical practices in »gamification« is captured in this quote by Gabe Zichermann. It expresses a stance that IanBogost has called »Exploitationware«.
We give you crap User Business value value You give us value * Courtesy Buster Benson, “The Game always Wins” The gamification battlefield*As Buster Benson put it, it casts the relation between businesses and their users as a battlefield, where businesses try to fleece their userswith psychological tricks: We want you to provide real value to us (data, engagement), and we give you something of marginal value to us(and you) in return. In short: Crap for value.
Points and badges for loyalty – you are so cheap! That one coupon and I’m gone! An abusive relationshipIt is at its core an abusive relation – that is payed back in kind. Users sense that they are being mistreated and cheat, game, and minmax inreturn. As both sides think and expect the least of the other, such is the quality of their exchange. And I posit that this is not only to beshunned because it is unethical: It is also unsustainable economically.
Take gamification posterchild Foursquare. (Note: I do not argue that the Foursquare team is intentionally abusive of its users. My pointhere is that as it stands, their design unintentionally exposes the unsustainable nature of abusive relations.)
8 Million Foursquare Accounts! But daily checkins/user dropped from 0,5 to 0,4 to 0,34 while growing from 2 to 5 to 8 million accounts (foursquare’s own data, 2011).Foursquare recently announced that they have reached eight million user accounts. A resounding success story. With one nasty footnote:All the while the number of accounts went up, the actual engagement – the number of daily checkins per user – dropped from 0,5 to 0,4 to0,34 according to their own data.
Who knew?Foursquare has anengagement problem.
Why is that? The answer, I think, is well captured in this blog post by Arsenio Santos. He found that the service provided no real value tohim beyond the novelty of its game elements. Therefore, he stopped using Foursquare after a first period of exploration.
Points and badges User Business value value Checkins/Data The gamification battlefieldThis illustrates the unsustainability of the gamification battlefield: For real value – checkins and data – the company gives points andbadges of only marginal value in return (save for the lucky few New Yorkers living in an area with enough usage density that the app actuallybrings the serendipity it promises as its core use value).
Stack OverflowCompare this with software development Q&A platform Stack Overflow, often named as another gamification posterchild because of itspoints and badges given for posting on the platform. However, if you were to take away those »gamy« elements, the platform would still behugely valuable to its users.
You get answers & build reputation, we grow our platform User Business value value The gamification honeymoonOn Stack Overflow, the action providing real value to the business at the same time provides real value to the user. The two are neitherdisconnected nor grossly unequal – a »gamification honeymoon«
Playing field User value Business value Off Stay in the playing fieldThis is the recommendation Buster Benson derives from this: Designers should »stay in the playing field«, They should try to find anddesign activities that provide value to both sides, rather than asking users to do something of no intrinsic interest to them which is then»incentivized« with some disconnected and marginally valuable something else.
Drink more soft drinks.But even then, I would argue, we haven’t really gotten at the root of the ethical issues. Even when we provide value to the users, thebehaviours and attitudes we promote in the course might be detrimental to users or society in the long run. There are obvious examples –like mycoke rewards. Sure, the user can redeem points for »real value« promotions, but what we’re promoting is to drink more soft drinks.
Get your friends to shop more.Similarly, social shopping sites like Lockerz.com encourage us to encourage our friends to shop more – and treat our friendships at leastpartially as marketing channels. Sure, both sides get »deals« out of it, but in the end, both successfully convinced each other to shop more.
Fly more (it’s green with offsets).Frequent flyer programs motivate us to fly more in order to rack up bonuses. And if we are ridden by an ecological conscience, they addsome carbon offsets on top. So that at the end, we fly even more – instead of choosing other modes of transportation, or traveling lessaltogether.
Care for outcomes and opinions.In the best of spirit, Commendable Kids enables parents to commend their kids with badges. But the message they help send with that andthe mindset they help establish is one where kids care about their outward signs of achievement, praise, and other people’s opinions, ratherthan personal growth and learning.
Do it for the money.Sites like Ultrinsic allow students to attach wagers to their study outcomes as a motivation to learn – again, I believe with the best ofintentions. But what do they communicate and help habituate with that about learning in the course?
Be more judgmental.Cubeduel, which lets you compare your coworkers, in effect asks you to be more judgmental against others.
Compare. Compete. Be on top.Even the most innocent leaderboard carries with it a basic value set to be competitive, to constantly compare yourself with others, to treatrelations as zero-sum games.
Technologies of the selfNow I don’t argue that »gamified« applications are necessarily, inherently evil. They are tools, and we have to distinguish between a tooland the intentions and effects of its usage. These applications can be used as true »technologies of the self«, to use a term of MichelFoucault. They are means by which subjects can shape and determine themselves.
These technologies can operate as self-chosen constraints that liberate us from given outer constraints – like the Freedom application ofFred Stutzman, which allows you to disable the networking capability of your computer to have a focussed, distraction-free time.
Again, Health Month is a good example: a tool allowing us to monitor, become aware of, problematize and then shape parts of ourselves bysuch self-chosen constraints.
… are technologies of dominationBut as Foucault pointed out, every such technology of the self carries a technology of domination as its flipside. Modern liberaldemocracies not only enable subjects to be more individualistic, more self-determined – they demand and require it. And current gamifiedapplications cater right to that demand. They want us to be ...
Stay in the game. Move on.They want us to stay in the Game of Life that was defined for us. As of today, none of them taps the utopian potential of play – totemporarily step out of, reflect on, try out alternatives to, and ultimately transform the rules of that game. Now again, I don’t want to say thatthat is inherently a bad thing. I don’t ask you all to quit the industry and start building critical art games that preach to the converted.
The point I want to make is simply that no matter what we create, it supports and communicates certain values and ways of living. And thisis nothing that only pertains to »gamified applications«. It applies to everything we create. It is only the fact that gamification does soovertly, intentionally, that it brings this general ethics of design to our awareness – like the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.
»Things carry morality because they shape the way in which people experience their world and organize their existence, regardless of whether this is done consciously and intentionally or not. Designers ... materialize morality.« Peter-Paul Verbeek what things do (2005)The Dutch philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek puts it like this: Every object we design shapes the behaviors and experiences of people bymaking some easier and some harder. And beyond that, by being put out in the world, the object conveys at least our implicit consent to aworld in which it is good and proper that such an object exists. It declares our consent to a certain vision of what »the good life« is.
The Good LifeAnd if you walk around and see the world that we have built for ourselves through that lense, you get the shivers. Because of how little wethink of each other. How little we expect from life.
What vision of The Good Life do your designs convey?So before I move on to final matters, this is one question I want to leave you with: What vision of the good life do your designs consent to?
The Day of Reckoning 3Broken reality. Broken metaphors.Chance. Fate. Humility. Heroism.The End. 5
On to »The Day of Reckoning«, as the Game of Life itself puts it. On to the limits of our capacities as designers. Reality is Broken by JaneMcGonigal is arguably the most forceful, articulate and pervasive case to realize a vision of the good life by using game design.
»Reality doesn’t motivate us effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximise our potential. Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy. Reality, compared to games, is broken.« Jane McGonigal reality is broken (2011)Her premise is simple. Reality, compared to games, is broken. This leaves us with three options: Fuel an increasing »exodus into the virtualworld«, try to keep people from »escaping« into games, ...
»What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality?« Jane McGonigal reality is broken (2011)... or take everything we learned from game design to make reality itself more gamelike. Fix reality.
Let’s fix this!Now as a designer myself, I very much resonate with that sentiment. It’s our natural inclination as designers, developers, productmanagers: If we see something that’s broken, we get our wrenches out and fix it. But as much as I sympathize with it, there is alsosomething that keeps bugging me.
For McGonigal’s vision reminds me very much of this scene from the mythical life of the Buddha. On his birth, Brahmin scholars predictedto his father, king Suddhodana, that his son would become either a great worldly or spiritual leader. And because Suddhodana wanted hisson Siddhartha to become king, he locked him in a beautiful palace and garden where his son was shielded from any ugliness or suffering.
But eventually, curiosity got the better of Siddhartha and he drove out of the palace and encountered what the Buddhist call »The foursights«. He encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a monk. Siddhartha realized that suffering inevitably awaits us all – thesuffering of age, sickness, death –, and that the way to deal with this suffering, represented by the monk, lies within.
It’s not a bug ...Age, sickness, loss, death – these aren’t things we can somehow lock out of our pleasure palaces. They are nothing that can be fixed.Because they are not broken in the first place. Suffering is not a bug – it’s a feature of life.
»This moment is the perfect teacher.« Pema Chödron when things fall apart (2005)Suffering is the best teacher we have to learn what we most need learning, to mature as human beings. If we constantly try to hide away,paint over, fix reality out there instead of facing it and bring clarity and order to our mind that is facing them, we will always engage in anultimately unsustainable quick fix and learn nothing in the course.
The metaphorTo the extent that McGonigal wants us to be more aware and skillful designers of our own lives, I only applaud her. The best of her projects(like SuperBetter) are ratchets to afford shifts of mind rather than reality fixes. But to me, her project still reveals a fundamentally flawedtechno-optimism as to how »perfectible« the world is and how big our powers to perfect it are. Reality is not broken – the metaphor is.
No tutorials. No walk-throughs. No pause. No save game. No solution for every puzzle. No fair fight. No extra lives. No insert coin to continue. No control.Reality, unlike games, has no tutorials, walk-throughs, or rulebooks. No pause and continue buttons or save games. Not every puzzle has asolution, not every fight is balanced. Their are no second chances, extra lives and insert coins to continue. Reality ultimately is much moremessy, complex, random, unfair and beyond our control than games.
But still, I would argue, that this might be the deepest lesson that games and play hold for us. How to live well in the face of chance andfate.
This notion is far from new. In Hinduism, the whole of existence is considered to a a play by god Shiva, lila. This is usually depicted as»Shiva Nataraja«, Shiva, the lord of dance. In dancing, Shiva creates and destroys universes for the pure pleasure of doing so.
In another story, Shiva splits into himself and his wife Parvati to play a game of dice together (usually Pachisi), and they constantly trick andcheat on each other and get angry over it.
We also have this notion in Western tradition. It is the »rota fortunae«, the unpredictable wheel of fortune commanded by GoddessFortuna.
It remains present in many colloquialisms like »the hand you were dealt«. But again, our modern, technological civilization, and maybeespecially we as designers and makers, have a hard time dealing with fate, with things beyond our control.That wasn’t always the case. Greek tragedy was all about this. Take the Oresteia.
Orestes learns that his mother Clytemnestra has killed his father Agamemnon. So what to do? Honor his father? Or his mother? He decidesto avenge his father’s death and kills his mother – and his haunted by the Eumenides in consequence. Sometimes life puts us in a situationwhere we cannot win. Or in a situation where we discover that without intention or knowledge, we did something in the past that causes allthe suffering today (think Oedipus). In a word, a situation where we may have made a mistake, but it’s just not fair.
Aristotle called these situations »hamartia«. We call them »tough luck«. And Aristotle thought that the measure of us as human beings isnot how victorious we are in life, but how we cope and empathize with such tough luck. Whether we muster the courage to fully accept thehand that fate has dealt to us, whether we do not complain or haggle or run and hide in some palace, but take on responsibility and sufferthe consequences. Aristotle had a word for a person who does this.
hḗrōsHe called such a person a hero. And that, I would venture, is the last and deepest lesson of games. Games may encourage us to becomedesigners of our reality. To make it gameful and even more importantly, playful. To create engines of possibility rather than exhaustibles. Tocraft experiences of mastery, autonomy, and meaning, rather than of repetition, control, and alienation. To become aware of and questionthe vision of the good life that our designs declare.
As if it were a game you chose to playLife certainly is not a game. But in playing and designing games, and pondering on their meaning, they may teach us to fully accept our life,as if it were a game we chose to play. To seek out and determine our challenge and our freedom in the hand that we’ve been dealt, and toplay it with mastery and cunning, with creativity and style.
Image Credits• Title/Game of Life board: http://boardgamegeek.com/image/710742/the-game-of-life • Father and child mowing lawn: http://www.flickr.com/photos/courosa/4955407599• Oscar the Grouch: http://img.goodskins.com/images/cartoons/oscar_the_grouch.jpg • Inside Zappos: http://ascottallison.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/p1030286.jpg• Aristotle: http://media-3.web.britannica.com/eb-media//84/87984-050-7C5547FE.jpg • Mother and child: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fidelramos/4866583011• Go boards: http://www.flickr.com/photos/creepysleepy/2028870718, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ • Seattle Pike Place Fish Market: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pike_Place_Fish_Market creepysleepy/2035609085 • Antanas Mockus: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01641/mockus2_1641950c.jpg• Go encircling: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jarrodtrainque/5137563334/ • Moo easter egg: http://www.flickr.com/photos/titanas/1051688629/sizes/o/• Ancient Go player: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Anonymous-Astana_Graves_Wei_Qi_Player.jpg • Mindcraft penis: http://imageshack.us/f/707/cockandballsisle.jpg• Lego kids: http://www.flickr.com/photos/emrank/3287297538/ • Climbing hall: http://www.flickr.com/photos/purplemattfish/3205907410• Lego space ship: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mernstie/23500377 • War of the Roses: http://hwcdn.themoviedb.org/backdrops/b78/4bc905b4017a3c57fe001b78/the-war-of-the-• Lego USA series: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ryan_orr/615475181, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ryan_orr/ roses-original.jpg 615483467, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ryan_orr/616242996 • Michel Foucault: http://www.avecritica.com/2010/12/coraje-de-la-verdad-michel-foucault.html• Le Corbusier building: http://gabipan.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/villa-savoye.jpg • The Tree of Knowledge: http://quaternity4.blogspot.com/2011/04/4-quite-sensible.html• Video game tension: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrew_freese/3540670487 • The Good Life/Wiener Schnitzel: http://www.flickr.com/photos/troyholden/4520194640• Video game fiero: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joits/645044175 • Chinese fixer: http://tomhawthorn.blogspot.com/2010/11/victoria-art-gallery-takes-great-leap.html• Math board: http://www.flickr.com/photos/photonquantique/3364593945 • Siddhartha: http://picasaweb.google.com/viriannguyen412/• Magic: The Gathering: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sulamith/1342528771 LifeOfTheBuddhaMyanmar2#5466481833812660338• Golf hole and ball: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30691679@N07/3466924019 • The Four Sights: http://www.phathue.com/buddhism/who-was-buddha/• Golf swing: http://www.flickr.com/photos/b/36541088 • Dance of Death: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Holbein-death.png• Golf island court: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/5314774452 • Wheel of Fortune: http://boardgamegeek.com/image/160787/the-game-of-life?size=original• Golf score board: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bodgerbrooks/1315419080 • Shiva Nataraja: http://www.buddhafiguren.de/images/product_images/popup_images/Nataraja_dancing- Shiva_70cm_1.jpg• Well-formed action: : http://www.flickr.com/photos/30279269@N04/3946300019/ • Shiva and Parvati playing: http://jaisinh.blogspot.com/2010/04/blog-post.html• Cashier lady: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jackhynes/412608705 • Rota Fortunae: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ForutuneWheel.jpg• Business Process Reengeneering: http://www.brickshelf.com/cgi-bin/gallery.cgi?i=3225718 • Nuns playing cards: http://www.flickr.com/photos/craggy/2084624619• Prisoners of War: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokage/5570905858/ • Orestes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orestes_Pursued_by_the_Furies• Coworkers: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrlerone/405730185 • Playing monks: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sukanto_debnath/53007354• Tom Sawyers Fence: http://www.flickr.com/photos/musebrarian/443103590