I don’t (want to) know what gamification is

A while ago I came to the realization that when I was talking about gamification I wasn’t talking about the same thing as everyone else. I’d been thinking of writing this post for the last few weeks, but the latest episode of Let’s Make Mistakes with guest Stephanie Morgan really forced the issue on my clackity-clacking. It’s an insightful and entertaining discussion of the whole idea, so go listen to it. I’ll still be here when you’re done.


So Gamification is all about adding game mechanics to the (virtual) world. Badges, point totals, trophies, winners and losers. It appeals to our basest selfish/competitive natures to make us engage with your service–hopefully obsessively.

When I first heard about the concept, I had a full-on misinterpretation of what it was. Gamification = making things game-like. So I figured it was all about playing, interacting, strategizing and exploring. I wanted a gamified website to be a framework that’s complex and multi-level enough to react in interesting and unpredictable ways to creative inputs. One that has a distinct atmosphere and some kind of a story to tell. Because that’s what I like to do in the games I like. I like playing and having fun more than I like winning.

It’s all about the journey, asshole

With recent advances in web technology, that sort of interactivity is becoming more and more common. Now more than ever the web is filling with designs that reward exploration and allow for a much deeper level of input and response than just scrolling text and images and clicking links.

This is like in those games where you’re creating a story, you’re making new connections, trying new things. That’s what I want gamification to be. That’s the fad I want to see. Rather than treating the user as a point-hoarding, competition-stomping, reward-addicted automaton.

I find what’s trending now under the banner of gamification to be gimmicky and occasionally irritating, but goddamn it sure does work. The currency of likes/follows/reblogs on sites like facebook, twitter, tumblr, youtube (and especially klout) leverage the basic principal of number accumulation. It’s been used to build fabulous communities like stackoverflow and quora. I think it appeals to a similar part of the brain to the one that loves top 5/8/10/15/50/200 lists. If we abstract all the meaning and nuance of something (longdesc) to a number that can be mathematically compared to other numbers (int), it’s just easier to store (for computers as well as people).

I know the basis of games is that simple earn-points-to-win model. And the basis of playing games is to win. I’m getting carried away. It’s my own fault that I am drawn into ‘games’ (board games, video games or card games) with complexity and an opportunity for creativity, that have more than meets the eye. I have to remember that a lot of people are happy to play D&D to slaughter Orcs and loot them with the hope of a +4 sword to replace their +3 and that’s their prerogative. Even though I’m the guy who wants to find out what the Orcs are doing there in the first place and figure out how to trick them into telling me where they got that +4 sword and maybe if I’m lucky they’ll share that braised skeever recipe with me. I like a game that will allow me even a sliver of that. I don’t want to just click cows, ya know?

My games are better than your games

But here’s another thing. It’s easy to get sucked into a simple, monotonous game. But I don’t find many people who actually prefer those types of experiences to the kind that I’m talking about. They just don’t find them as much or they take too long to draw them in.

So what am I saying? I hate arguments that boil down to semantics as much as the next guy, but I think my ‘misinterpretation’ of gamification is actually pretty valid. Games are about playing and having fun, as well as accumulating points and winning. I don’t mean to poo-poo the entire exercise of adding levels and badges to things. Afterall giving your users a sense of accomplishment is probably not the worst thing in the world. But I will defend the idea of gamification mostly because I’m really thinking about things like this or this (things that live more in front-end than back).

So gamify all you want, but please think of making your app/site/whatever resemble a deep, rewarding game and remember why people sitting down with a deck of cards would probably rather play Poker than War*. If you want to make something more compelling and immersive, it might pay to do more than slap a point system on everything.

Although, in the end, it may be that games are so varied a term like gamification is not actually useful.

*because they want to win some cashmoney… because it’s complex, strategic and psychological!

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6 Responses to “I don’t (want to) know what gamification is”

  1. Greg says:

    Nice article Damon! I agree that “gamification” has sadly taken on more of a “pointification” approach instead of truly making things immersive and interactive. The nice things about this is it means there’s a HUGE opportunity for developers to push the boundaries and garner success without feeling like they’ve copied someone else.

  2. Damon says:

    Thanks Greg! I sometimes wonder if I’m missing the point that games are really about points and I just like games that are more like real life and less like games. Probably would depend on who you ask. But the idea of designing for play is pretty meaningful, I think. I dunno whether to combine that with pointification under the umbrella of gamification, or if playification ought to be its own thing.

  3. Caleb says:

    I guess it’s a good thing that I didn’t punch you over that random comment. I had thought that you were referring to the dominant model of gamification that I loathe so very much (in which case I suppose your Facebook would have had a little +1 next to a fist icon and I would have been given suggestions on who I might like to attack next).

    Anyway, you’re right. I think that the sort of gamification you’re condoning here is probably best used for educational purposes, as games are excellent at teaching (presumably because players learn game skills and immediately get to practice them), but it can certainly add some spice to using skills you already possess.

    The thing about the point-based lifestyle is that it’s all based on one core mechanic with different window dressing, and that mechanic isn’t really compatible with life as it is lived. You collect the XP, but you don’t get to buy skills with it. It would be better to use the core mechanics of games played with other people, I think, where it’s more about reading other players than completing tasks for points.

  4. Greg says:

    I guess its an evolutionary thing. If you think back to early arcade games like pinball machines they were all about high scores. Even current consoles use achievement points as a status symbol, but the journey to those points is usually more enjoyable and more complex. Pointification is just the tip of the iceberg; we need to keep pushing the industry forward ;)

  5. Damon says:

    Thanks, Caleb. I really dig what you’re saying, especially that last paragraph. We often like to break life down into something that simple (money), but it ain’t. Tempts me to apply the same points abt gamification to capitalism/consumerism.. but I’ll leave that. Regardless, that’s a really valuable way of looking at design options!

  6. Gavin says:

    Excellent article, Damon. Summed up exactly how I feel about gamification. Users (I) want adventure, not points.

    The number of D&Ders at rtraction is starting to get scary…

    @Greg – XBOX and PS3 achievements and points are a bizarre way of gamifying (pointifying) games that don’t necessarily have or need it.

    Take Heavy Rain as an example – it’s a (kindof) point-and-click style adventure, with no points or competition. It’s a great game with an engaging story. PS3 added achievements, which was a little lame.

    Rather than adding points to the system, we could be adding story. That’s more difficult. Who’s going to pay for all this?

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