Gamification gets a lot of bad press. And it’s true: there’s a lot of bad, mad and just plain stupid gamification out there. Whether it takes the form of pointless points, badges, stupid progress bars, high-score tables or missions and achievements that no-one even nearly cares about, gamification has become the kind of creative bogeyman that people swap stories about in the pub and roll their eyes when a client mentions it.
Gamification can spoil things – and usually not in an obviously broken way, but with a more subtle kind of damage, where a system of points, badges and awards has slipped in like a cuckoo and replaced functionality, content or actual gameplay. It’s often thrown over other ideas like a suffocating blanket in an attempt to make things more “sticky” or addictive, usually accompanied by talk of engagement and eyeballs.
It’s easy to confuse something that’s commonly misused with something that isn’t actually any good in the first place. Where does gamification commonly go wrong, and what does that say about how to do it right?
Long post after the break…
Making work fun, and turning fun into work
As a rule-with-some-exceptions, people usually play games for fun. Computer games are full of exciting stories, gameplay and graphics. You can test your reactions, strategic planning and hand-eye co-ordination against all kinds of foes, and even against other people in multiplayer games. But a strange thing has happened to modern games: they’ve become gamified.
Most new computer and video games now include achievements: badges, medals and points that are awarded outside the game for doing certain things within the game. To earn these achievements the player might have to progress to a certain level or massacre a certain number of monsters, or even do funny meta-game things like leave the game paused for a certain amount of time. Sometimes you don’t even really have to try: it’s not uncommon to receive an award for doing some mundane and virtually mandatory task like completing an introductory tutorial.
Other achievements aren’t so easy to get. Some might require you to find every one of a thousand hidden gems, or kill an obscure monster on the last Thursday of the month at four in the morning when you’ve got work the next day – that kind of thing. Trying to get these badges is not fun. When you’re chasing achievements like this you stop playing the game for fun and start treating it like a job. Some games make this job-like gaming into an art: Farmville, World of Warcraft and other MMOs often require days, weeks, months and years of “grinding” – sustained, serious and often dull effort – to succeed.
These achievements outside the game don’t add anything to your enjoyment of the game – if anything, they detract from the intrinsic fun of the game. But the sad truth about human nature is that earning these achievements is addictive, no matter what you think about gamification. It’s easy to get hooked and keep playing one more round (or another ten minutes, or another couple of months) just to get the next badge or to the next level.
This kind of gamification changes the context of the game. While it can keep people glued to a screen, it results in a much shallower kind of engagement where players don’t really care about the game because they’re just doing enough to get the achievements. Players chasing achievements can clock up hours without every appreciating the game going on around them – going through the motions but not actually playing the game.
What’s eating Gilbert Gamification?
The school of thought that says awards and badges are good also says things like “badges have motivated military warriors and Boy Scouts for hundreds of years” – but there’s a difference between military medals and gamified badges. Ideally, soldiers believe in the cause they’re fighting for; medals and awards come as a result of doing your duty, fighting well and looking after your comrades, rather than being the actual reason for going to war.
Scout merit badges are awarded for learning about specific things like swimming or camping or helping old ladies across the road. But the idea behind the badges is that they recognise learning and achievements – the badges are nice, but the real motivation is the knowledge and experience gained. It’s probably possible to rush through a whole bunch of activities, cramming for your badges, but that would be missing the point.
Bad gamification muddles up these extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Imagine if, instead of doing their duty and receiving medals in recognition, soldiers saw war merely as a means to win medals and commendations. A fully gamified war would keep track of accuracy of shots fired, award points for each enemy killed and have badges for things like capturing enemy strongholds and killing two people with one bullet. If soldiers made war like players chased achievements then battlefields would be full of people ignoring orders to advance because they’re trying to shoot another ten enemies in the buttocks.
Would you like to play a game?
The classic misuse of gamification is sticking a system of points and badges on something boring in the hope that it will become fun. The Email Game tries to make clearing your inbox fun, but confuses the benefits of having a clear inbox with the extrinsic motivation of making a progress bar fill up and little sad face go all smiley.
Google News Badges awards you badges for reading the news, and even implicitly acknowledges the muddling of motivation with a tip: “Badges will level up faster if you read a few relevant articles every day, rather than trying to read everything at once.” Suddenly your motivation for reading the news is no longer staying informed, it’s all about the most efficient way to gain badges.
And the problem of rewards and motivation isn’t something confined to the internet or whimsical marketing games. Waiting-time targets were introduced to hospitals in an attempt to optimise patients’ progress through the care system, speeding up treatment times and reducing the time patients wait to be seen. But these targets became so important that they distorted clinical priorities, replacing the intrinsic motivation of caring for patients with the extrinsic one of meeting targets. The problem with gamifying a system is that people won’t just play the game – they’ll try to game the system.
There are widespread reports of hospitals shuffling patients between beds just before the waiting limits are reached, meeting targets in the most technical sense while not actually improving the service – and in some cases actually damaging it. Increased pressure on staff to make quick decisions, the administrative overheads involved in “managing waiting times”, and biased reporting from staff concerned for their jobs contribute to a system that’s more concerned with covering its own back than actually caring for patients.
It’d be easy to think that gamification was pretty unpopular except in the mixed-up heads of buzzword-addled executives, but there are some good examples. A quick google for “good examples of gamification” will suggest anything from XBox Live Arcade’s achievement system to LinkedIn’s profile completion bar to American Airlines’ Airmiles rewards game. But then, those things all show up when you search for “bad examples of gamification” as well – sorry, lovers of straight answers.
So, rather than looking at how elements of games can be taken and used elsewhere, let’s look at how game mechanics work in an actual game. I’m interested in how gamification can be used more subtly, to help players make sense of the system, rather than superimposing a whole new set of values.
How games make you play them
A good example of this is the grandly titled Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim is a first-person fantasy sandbox role-playing game. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but what it actually means is that it’s a huge game, in which you’re given about 50km2 of virtual landscape to roam around as you like. That’s a lot of land, and Skyrim gives you a lot of freedom to walk, fight, steal, kill dragons, talk to strangers and generally muck around.
The sense of being let loose to explore a living world is great, especially compared to linear shooters like Rage, but Skyrim also has a core storyline amidst all that non-linearity. The game starts with an introduction and tutorial in the form of an interactive cutscene where you learn you’re being taken for execution. A mysterious attack on the castle lets you escape in the nick of time, and you follow another prisoner through the keep, learning about the various game mechanics like moving, fighting and sneaking as you go. Once you’re out of the castle, your fellow escapee tells you to go meet his sister in a nearby village and then promptly buggers off, leaving you alone in the middle of a field, blinking in the sunlight.
From that point you’re free to do whatever you want. You can go to the village to make the meeting, or wrestle a bear, or run off into the hills and start picking flowers. Or start a fight with some bandits, or just go exploring, climbing mountains, wading through streams and generally taking in the views. Doing most of this stuff is fun in its own right, even though it doesn’t really advance the main narrative, and you could probably spend hundreds of hours roaming and playing without actually going anywhere near the storyline – so how does Skyrim motivate you to get involved with the game proper?
Well: after a few introductory quests you earn a new power to use, but before you can upgrade it you have to go see some priests at a temple high up in some mountains. You can choose to go straight there, or jog off and explore. Either’s fine, and fun, but to earn your new powered-up skills you’ll have to go to a specific place and do a specific thing. That structure is always visible to you as the player, but you can choose to follow it or ignore it as you see fit.
If you follow the “official” path then you’re rewarded with the magic carrot of new abilities and an unfolding narrative, but there’s no stick to beat you if you head off in the other direction.The focus is always on playing the game, enjoying the challenges for their own sake, progressing through the core content – not on the achieving of goals for an exterior purpose.
This kind of subtle structuring is what games excel at, and what gamification outside games could be, if used well. Teaching the user about priorities and how something works are things that games do really well, but can be difficult to communicate on a website. Used intelligently, gamification can help the user understand the goals that you want them to achieve – framing their experience, contextualising the content and functionality you’re giving them.
Rather than making badges, points and goals into things that exist conceptually outside the game or site, unconnected to the content and purpose of the site, why not make them make sense within the site? Making these goals visible to the user can be a subtle way of pointing them in the right direction without confining them to one narrow path through the site; sensible rewards highlight “good” behaviour the way medals celebrate positive behaviour for soldiers.
Doin’ it right
Here’s an example of just one way that this could work in practice.
Imagine a website full of learning content for children. On this website there’s a huge range of interesting learning material that children can explore as they like, following their interests and learning as they go. We don’t want to limit users to specific areas of the site because we don’t want to limit their learning – why stop a child learning about something when they’re having fun?
But, because this is an educational site, out of all of that wide-ranging content there’s also some core content that must be covered. How can we motivate users to learn this core content while simultaneously allowing them the freedom to go off and explore at the same time?
Rather than reduce the amount of content available or impose a mandatory structure, we can use game mechanic elements to give context to a user’s understanding of the system. For example: users could earn points by reading core content, and earn badges for proving that they’ve learnt it.
A gallery of achievements that can be earned could help users understand sets of tasks as well as individual goals – for example, there might be achievements awarded for passing all core mid-level maths content, or getting over 60% for all math modules. A set of instructions on the front page says to the user “you must do this”; a gallery of achievements say “here’s something you can do“, presenting opportunities rather than requirements.
It’s important to be clear that badges are awarded in recognition for tasks, rather than being an end in themselves – like medals, but not like hospital targets. They’re also awarded for doing something special, rather than just something the user would do naturally – unlike Google News Badges. Used this way, points, badges and achievements serve as subtle pointers towards “positive” behaviour while allowing users to roam and consume freely – just like players are encouraged to explore and have fun but also follow the core narrative in Skyrim.
It might sound similar to the examples of how gamification can go wrong, above, and this does use the same game mechanics of points and badges, but the motivations are very different. Gamification should contextualise your actions, rather than recontextualise them – it should help you understand the point of the site, rather than imposing a whole new set of motivations on top of an existing system. We’re not trying to change the context of your use, but giving you context within the site, helping you understand its aims and intrinsic purpose - not changing the game, but helping you understand how it works.
Game over, man!
Gamification can be easily dismissed as a pointless faddy addition to a site, but I think it can also be something more complex, and more subtle, and more worthwhile. Games are amazing, beautiful, ingenious things – skimming off the most shallow elements of games and hoping to transfer the magic of play was never going to work in the long term.
So the next time someone asks you about gamification, don’t dismiss it out of hand, and don’t just do it for the sake of it. Not everything needs to be gamified – but game mechanics can bring subtle improvements in unexpected places when you do it right.
If you’ve made it this far, then so long, and thanks for reading. Have a badge.