Monday 2 April 2012

Gamification is Dead. Long Live Gamification.

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out

Gamification. A dirty word. Pointsification, that’s the term, isn’t it? Some badges, some points, some extrinsic rewards to make you do all those things you don’t want to do. An unproven concept that was instantly leapt upon by the kind of people who actually want to work in marketing. Awful business, from tippity-top to bottomly-bottom.

Everything is better with badges.
The problem with gamification of course, was that the people who were trying to do it didn’t know their games from their elbows. While the number of good brains in the gaming arena goes up every single day, there are still very few people who really get what makes games tick in the first place - and that’s just among people who make games professionally. People who work in marketing generally don’t even understand how marketing works, let alone games, so once they’d attached their feeding tubes to it, gamification was never really going anywhere.

The definition of gamification that has stuck is this; Adding game-like elements to things that are not games. The problem with this definition is that is completely and utterly wrong. If the fearful, band-wagon jumping, fad-machines that saw gamification as the solution to every single problem ever had correctly defined the thing in the first place, perhaps we’d be parading gamification proponents around on pagodas instead of openly jeering at them in the streets. Specifically the streets of Hoxton.

Yes, what is it?

But that’s not to say that gamification doesn’t work. Quite the opposite, in fact. The problem is that it was defined wrongly, not that it doesn’t work. So what is gamification then? That’s easy. Gamification is actually this; adding non-game elements to games. There you go. That’s how you do it. 

Adding non-game elements to games.

Adding non-horse elements to horses.
Our case study will be Mavis Bacon Teaches Typing fighting against Typing of the Dead. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing is, quite unexpectedly, a piece of software that teaches typing. It does so through a formal system of lessons and mini-games devised to get the user touch typing as quickly and accurately as possible. It is gamification of the bad kind. It starts with the non-game of ‘learning to type’ and adds in some game-like elements in order to make everything such terribly good fun.

Bollocks. If you want to learn to type, get yourself a copy of Typing of the Dead and you’ll have finished your first novel by the week’s end. It will be rubbish, but you will have written it really quickly. This is because Typing of the Dead is a game, onto which the process of learning to type has been added. It’s based on Sega’s really rather good light-gun arcade smash, House of the Dead. Except instead of shooting at the zombies to kill them, they have words on them and you must type those words in order to re-kill your living-dead adversaries. Unsurprisingly, the threat of being eaten alive by zombies and the promise of defeating evil is a more effective motivator than a nice lady telling you that you’re ok really, no matter what anyone says.

Who’d have thought?

But whyyyyyyyyyy?

The reason this is true is very simple. In the taxonomy of all things media, games are a fundamental particle. You cannot sub-divide games. Something either is a game, or it is not a game. There’s some arguing about what a game is, of course. We could have a long old chat about toys and puzzles and gambling and whatever it is that you see as a chink in this argument.

...and welcome to Jackass.
But the essence remains. Games can be tautologically described as ‘things with game mechanics’. The fact we use the word ‘mechanics’ to describe games in no accident. Games are machines. They are cogs and gears and cranks and rods and connections and dependancies and causes and effects and results. Much like an engine stops working if you take the crank-shaft out, a game will not function if you remove one of its mechanical parts.

The old-world definition of gamification goes even further. It doesn’t remove the crank-shaft and expect the engine to continue to function, it expects that taping the crank-shaft to a house will then let you drive your house around. If you actually want a house you can drive around, you start with a car, then add a house and end up with a motor-home. You don’t start with a house and add a car.

And there it is. If you want to enjoy the same levels of dedication, enjoyment and motivation that games exhibit, then make a game and add your product, service or desired behavioural outcome to it. Of course doing so requires selecting or creating exactly the right game in the first place and inserting exactly the correct parts of your non-game in exactly the right quantities in exactly the right places. So it’s still really, really hard and requires some unusually clever game design. But if you want to do it, that’s how.

Add non-game elements to a game.