Supposedly, there's much that can be done with gamification to build deep engagement with users. Games can enhance lives. Everything can become a game, from work to social causes, education and art.
Sure, but actually these ideas are not new. From virtual worlds and alternate reality games (ARGs) to World of Darkness live action roleplaying (LARP) and Killer, the idea of melding persistent play and real life is one that has taken on many forms for as long as the games industry has existed.
As a general grouping I would call them meta-games. They are a lot of fun to create and run as a designer (In fact I got my start in game-making through LARPs), and they have the quality of seeming to change the player’s world. But they also have a critical failing.
Meta-games don’t scale.
What Meta-Games Are
Meta-games are the Smell-O-Vision of videogames. The central idea that drives them is a potential next-level of interaction for games that transcends the traditional forms. Proponents of meta-games think that games can be cracked open and woven into daily life. In so doing, games become socially legitimate as an activity, enhancing daily life in many small and hidden ways, and joy spreads.
An example would be an office worker who also has a secret identity in a spy game, completing missions on his lunch break, meeting other players, conversing in character, trading and making social connections.
LARP tries to do this as an extension of the table top roleplaying genre. ARGs (such I Love Bees) try to create a fictional layer of the Web that seeds puzzles to be solved through fake web-sites containing hidden content, secret meetings and some live events. All to create a tapestry effect.
Virtual worlds also hint at being a kind of meta-game, with the idea that players form social communities and spaces away from their physical reality to play games. But also that those connections and activities are impactful in their real lives, so what is a game and what is life blurs.
Gamification at a basic level is achievement-hunting. Foursquare and some other location services are examples of this, and lots of websites are flirting with gamification as a means to increase user engagement. Some companies provide gamification layers and plugins for existing sites, offering bonuses, badges or gold stars for buying merchandise. Or alternatively by using small game challenges as a way to incentivise the user to stay in the site longer.
That’s the basic idea. The ambition of gamification enthusiasts is much grander. They’re not looking to simply making exciting coupon schemes, but rather to create games through websites that integrate with player’s lives in meaningful ways. This has become the subject of many talks and books in the past year, speculation on how the brain generates rewards via games, how games learn and how feelings such as the epic win (as Jane McGonigal puts it) is perhaps something that we can harness for good.
It’s very quickly becoming deep meta-gaming territory, in other words. And, sad to say, that’s actually a problem.
Scale Versus Sub-Culture
What I mean when I say meta-games don’t scale is that they don’t tend to acquire enough users on a regular basis to remain viable. Instead they have a tendency to be really interesting novelties that become very exciting for only a short period, but then quickly shed most of their players. And furthermore, meta-games tend not to attract a lot of second-use players (players who buy into the concept as a genre of entertainment, as opposed to trying just one).
The reason is that the core fantasy that meta-games try to achieve is actually pretty flimsy. Flimsy enough that most unengaged players (which is most of them) feel that the game is lacking, and they walk away. While the meta-game is busy bleeding users who find the fantasy pretty boring, more formal players realise quickly that the game dynamics are either non-existent or too easy to master.
For most players, the meta-game simply lacks substance. They are not used to the idea of having to work to create fun for themselves, and that can’t see why they should when there are many other deeper and more accessible games (or other entertainment) all around them, pret a jouer. The meta-game simply asks too much of most, and since the thrill fades quickly it needs to keep resurfacing in new forms.
This leaves a very small number of people in the middle who buy into the game as a culture. On the engagement hierarchy, they are the people who go right to the top (Culture) and form a community around the game. They become believers, willing to forgive the game’s flimsiness or its lack of deep dynamics because they believe in the idea of what the game is trying to do.
However, although this makes the meta-game a passionate activity for those people, the lack of scale means the meta-game usually falls apart. No company will continue to fund and run a game that only has 100 players, and few amateur games masters have the time to run a large meta-game for more than a few weeks or months. What eventually happens to most meta-games is that they instead become sub-cultures.
For example, Vampire LARPs tend to become very small communities of players in cities who basically want to hang out on a Friday night. Alternate reality games tend to acquire only a few obsessive players, who argue at length on the Internet about the meaning of the game. Virtual worlds commonly descend into either cybersex simulators or arid landscapes, in a manner not dissimilar from Chatroulette or Omegle.
These sub-cultures then form a barrier around the meta-game because the people involved in the sub-culture develop close bonds and coded communications (in-jokes, hierarchies, etc) that further alienate the outside world.
Why Meta-games Gain Attention (For a While)
If they’re such failures, why do meta-games get coverage in places like the New Scientist and Wired? Why do they get funded by folks like Channel 4, Coca Cola or Hollywood movie distributors? Why do they become the subject of successful books and TED Talks?
The answer is that the meta-game is a great marketing story. It seems to be the point where games cross over, become the art of the 21st century, and it has the character of the futurist. Meta-games have also repeatedly proved fertile ground for Hollywood (such as the recent Tron sequel, or eXistenZ) and cyberpunk novels, which then keeps the idea alive.
The story is very appealing, particularly to a very specific set of markets. Those markets are press release hounds, PR people, cross-media watchers, game academics, theorists, technology geeks, futurist artists, advertisers and media students. The kinds of people that attend or speak at conferences, basically.
The meta-game promises the next level, meaningful experiences, artistic relevance and transcending from mere day-to-day gamemaking into something that ordinary people will find magical. All of these and more are really powerful draws for conference types because the reason we go to conferences is to catch a glimpse of tomorrow.
Meta-games are, in short, a thoroughly positive story. Positive stories sell, negative stories don’t, and a selection bias among the community regularly refashions the meme into a new story that can easily flow around the web. With gamification, the story centres around scientific brain scans that purport to show how reward mechanisms soak the brain in dopamine (for example), and then extrapolates upon this finding toward tomorrow’s games.
Once the conference goers get interested, a certain class of hot ticket investor is then attracted. The hot ticket investor sometimes believes in the vision, but more commonly is a media publisher looking to for that award-winning project that will raise the profile of an intellectual property. Advertisers, for example, funded many an alternate reality game for this reason.
Academic, advertising and government-funded projects tend to make up the bulk of meta-games that are actually developed. A golden age comes to pass where it seems like everyone is then working on their own meta-game, and it is very exciting.
But, eventually, cracks start to appear. Low engagement rates from users surface. A poor path to revenue emerges. A failure to sustain initial excitement becomes apparent. A small but vociferous and defensive culture forms around the game. Closures, shut-downs, refocusing of strategy and so forth all then follow because it turns out that this new form of meta-game is just not taking off.
Just as the story always seem to start the same way, so too it always seems to end the same way. The meme fades. A year later it isn’t mentioned at all, and a year after that the meta-game comes back in a new form.
Gamificators: Keep it Real
So does any of this apply to gamification? Yes it does. At the heart of it (despite the protests of some gamification experts) the real appeal of gamification is not pleasure centres, dopamine release, deep engagement nor real-life enhancement.
It’s deals. Users shopping on websites are not interested in learning game dynamics to get vouchers if they can avoid it. However they will play along if the codes, points, badges, achievements or gold stars that they are playing with promise serious discounts on products or services that they like. If the deals are not that interesting, they really won’t stay around just to play the game.
Because gamified websites are web distractions like any other. The average person interacting with the gaming system on the site is like the average person deal hunting on any other site. There are so many other richer entertainment experiences competing for their attention that a gamified site would have to really ridiculously over-deliver to compete. The same flimsiness and need for the users to believe that failed all other kinds of meta-gaming are just as present with gamification.
In the film Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a man who is always traveling. Moving from airport to city to hotel to cab, he has no home. One of the key motivators in his life is that he collects Air Miles. He has special access cards that allow him priority check-in at airports and hotels, has his routine for getting through security that he seems to regard as a personal little achievement, and he has an ambition to become only the 7th person in history to collect 10 million miles. For which he will receive a special gold emblazoned card with lifetime privileges. He is, in short, gamification in action.
The secret to Air Miles’s success over the last few decades isn't the fun of collecting Air Miles. Air Miles are just a number. The secret is the prizes.
The constant renewal of shopping catalogues, membership levels and other tangible benefits that make it worth pursuing is what Air Miles is about. As fliers go further up the scale the sorts of rewards that they can start to gather become ever more spectacular (free flights, holidays, discounts on beautiful jewellery etc) and that is what keeps them engaged. It’s all about deals, and yet even with all that value billions of Air Miles are never actually redeemed in any given year.
To many fliers, Air Miles are not that valuable because they don’t fly frequently enough to collect sufficient quantities that motivate them to collect more. To the valued few, the attraction of levelling up to acquire stuff is essentially a real world time-based roleplaying game, but it only works because the stuff that they acquire is not lightweight.
Gamification is basically a next generation version of Air Miles, and it will work for much the same reason. Stores like Amazon or eBay which invite frequent repeat visits should see gamification efforts become useful. Their customers will visit often enough to realise that the points that they are earning are turning into tangible value. On the other hand, many occasional-use websites (like the IRS), or sites that have only utilitarian use (Google or Wikipedia) would be wasting their time if they engaged in gamification.
Gamification seems to be somewhere in the middle of that ‘golden age’ phase where everybody is making theirs, but I suspect that this particular meta-game’s half life is going to prove quite low.
(For more on Gamification, this Slideshare presentation by Sebastien is absolutely essential reading)