Thursday 28 July 2011

Gamification Beware, People Are Awful

Marketing people speak funny

The kind of gamification that marketing people get excited about, the kind that you can actually get paid to do, is very much about achieving specific, demonstrable results. Marketing folk call these results ‘engagement’, because they are terrible people, but what they mean by this indistinct wisp of a word are definite, trackable metrics; more viewers, more clicks, a bigger spend, longer dwell time. These things are worth money to companies so that’s why they’re willing to pay for them.

This means that while it’s very interesting to wonder how you’d gamify the analogue world - I long for a game tracking my exemplary record at getting sweet seats on the tube at the expense of the elderly and infirm - in reality, the paid gamification projects out there are going to need to be reliably measurable and thus digital.


This requirement for reliable, verifiable information is especially important given these two juicy facts - a) the incentives gamification provides to ‘engage’ are also great incentives to cheat and b) people are completely awful.

Gamers are complete psychopaths

Game designers have known for years that a certain subset of their players will delight in finding the easiest ways of getting the most reward out of their games. These players, often lying somewhere in the Killer/Achiever half of the Bartle spectrum, are motivated by either a desire to beat the game or a desire to beat other players by beating the game.

MMO developers particularly have to spend a very long time ensuring that the ‘path of least resistance’ when it comes to gaining experience points, money or items is also the path the designer wants the player to take. There’s no point in stuffing your game full of wonderful quests replete with set-pieces and deep back-story if your players are going to spend their entire time in the same cave murdering the same bears over and over again because that’s the fastest way to level up.

Aww, look at all the ikkle experience points!

This is a particular problem in MMOs because of their highly social and public nature. Players have ample opportunity to show off their level, money or items, so the incentive to get their hands on as many of these things as possible, however possible, as quickly as possible, is huge. Hence, MMO developers are locked in an endless battle with this small percentage of their players to stop them making a mockery of the game and putting all the less horrible people off.

Actually, it’s worse than that

Of course there’s another area where people are publicly rewarded for their accumulation of points with leaderboard positions and badges and you know, stuff - gamification. If you’re tempting people into jumping through your carefully placed hoops in order to get all those wonderful rewards and that social recognition, some of those people aren’t going to bother jumping through the hoops and will instead set fire to the hoops and then smash them up with a hammer.

Just to make things worse, the better your gamification solution is at motivating people to use it, the better it is at motivating some of your players to behave like assholes in order to shortcut the engagement bit and skip straight to the rewards. The more publicly you trumpet the achievements of your players, the greater the temptation to cheat their way to the top of the leader boards and revel in their ill-earned glory.

Every single one of these people is cheating

If you think this is bad, imagine you’re not just handing out virtual goods and are actually offering things of tangible value, which, of course, you may well be doing. Then the incentive to find the cracks in the design and ruthlessly exploit them become even greater still. If you’re offering any kind of financial reward for success in your gamification project, you are almost certain to experience cheating.

There is a small light at the end of this tunnel of human misery. Look at your leader boards, look at how your top players got where they are and you can work out which are legitimate and which are terrible, lying bastards. Not only that, but you’ll also be able to work out how they did it and adjust your rules to prevent that particular strand of maliciousness in the future. Of course the rest of your users will complain about you moving the goalposts, ever, in any way whatsoever, for any reason at all, but hey, like I said - people are awful.

Monday 25 July 2011

Games Gamified Games, Guys

An Answer To The Question ‘What Is Gamification?’
If you ask a vaguely normal person what they think gamification is, they’ll likely tell you that it’s ‘turning things that aren’t games into games.’ What gamification professionals will tell you is that it’s ‘adding game elements to things that aren’t games.’ A small but important difference.
The professional definition falls into the larger set ‘persuading people to do the stuff you want them to do’ along with advertising, marketing and behavioural economics. You’ll note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone has to have any fun. Gamification, as she is practiced, is about achieving specific, measurable results, be that more visitors to a site, more viewers for a TV show, more sales for a sports shoe manufacturer, or in the case of Playboy’s efforts in the area, making there be more naked women.
While the normal people definition is hugely interesting, here I want to talk about the kind that evil people do in exchange for money.

An evil person, yesterday

Gamification Uses Techniques From Games
In 1972, Atari released their first arcade game, Pong, a two-player tennis game. The machine was famously adorned with the wonderfully concise instruction ‘avoid missing ball for high score’. This contains two elements. ‘Avoid missing ball’ - which is the game - and ‘for high score’ - which is the gamification.
The joy of avoiding missing the ball is an intrinsic reward. Even with no points at stake, even with no opponent bar an impassible wall, avoiding the ball is fun in and of itself. The high score is an extrinsic reward. It only has meaning in the context of the game, to track your progress and reward your ego for having been successful at avoiding missing the ball. Well done you! 
This specific way of keeping score needed to fulfill two goals for Atari. One, to make people play as many times as possible and two to make sure no game lasted too long. As such, you don’t get a point for avoiding missing ball at all, you get a point when your opponent fails to avoid missing ball.
This means that players don’t want to avoid missing ball alone, they also want to make sure their opponent cannot avoid missing ball. It is not enough to win, someone else must lose. In doing this, Atari had gamified Pong. Their players were persuaded to do the stuff Atari wanted them to do - play quick and play often.
Failed to avoid missing ball

Every Game is Gamified
Pretty much every video game uses these techniques to encourage the player to act in the way the designer wants. Some games are defined by their ability to make the player change their behaviour by changing the scoring system. 
Bizzare Creations’ Geometry Wars, a game entirely about shooting things, has an achievement for surviving a set amount of time without shooting any things. Treasure’s Ikaruga is played in wildly different ways depending on if the player is going for high score, where they die on the first level, or mere survival where they die slightly further into the first level. Rovio’s Angry Birds breaks up marriages by letting the player murder all the pigs however they like, but not being impressed until they murder all the pigs in exactly the way the designer wants.
A good game designer understands how to use the persuasive power of extrinsic rewards to gently push his players down a particular path. Even very basic game design concepts such as levels and different playable characters are tools for shaping player behaviour and encouraging them to experience the game in different ways. And thus gamification persuades its victims to do the thing by giving them things when they do the thing.
Scoring in a game

Good for the Goose
Successful gamification techniques will work on things that are not games in the same way they work on things that are games. Apply exactly the right extrinsic reward in just the right way, at just the right time to encourage the player to play the game the way you want them to play it.
The tools of gamification get their power from the years of work game designers have put into making their players do exactly what they were damn well told. There’s no question that there’s art in that ability, that good games become great because they are well gamified. 
Gamification isn't something that exists outside of games. It's games that invented it. If you want to gamify something, just look at how games already gamify themselves, because they are bloody good at it. If you find gamification in some way unpalatable, you should remember that these techniques have their name because they were things games did first. Games are described as addictive because games are addictive as hell and it’s game makers that made them addictive as hell. Now the rest of the world wants a piece, and who are we to tell them they shouldn’t?

This is me