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


  1. Hurrah for your first post, bro.

    I notice you only talk about Gamification in terms of its gaming roots, but not the wider context of loyalty/reward schemes:

    Is there anything in there that has lessons/insights for Gamification?

  2. Thanks!

    And I did.

    No question that a lot of things have lessons and insights for gamification, although I am specifically going to be talking about the games part here. Even games themselves have been doing this stuff for centuries. Think about how darts successfully gamified doing really hard sums in your head.

    It's also worth pointing out that loyalty schemes do use rewards of actual value - buy x ys and get z free, whereas much of gamification either doesn't, doesn't want to, or can't, and must instead use entirely virtual, objectively valueless rewards.

    I'll be doing more on gamification soon, so hopefully some of the larger picture can start to work its way in.