Blog

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

March 23rd, 2012

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.

Ok.

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!