Aside from an ugly name, thinness of gameplay, sameness of ideas (rewards, levels, badges and points) and a lack of any strong examples of what it is supposed to be, what’s the most fundamental issue that gamification faces?
The basic idea of gamification is that a game can become integrated in life. Gamification proposes to embellish the real world with a layer of game-like things to do and earn, and in so doing enhance lives. So in a sense, gamification’s big idea is to regard life as some sort of infinite game.
The problem? Games are no fun unless they are finite.
Games, as I often say on this blog, are compelling because they are simpler, fairer and more empowering than real life. They are simpler because the levers for succeeding are more immediate to understand. They are fairer because the results from manipulating those levers (taking action) are clear and predictable. And they are more empowering because the player is able to effect significant change in the game world. So the immediate appeal to be swept up in the fantasy of the game is there (you can win), and players dive in.
All of which requires rules, a ground state for the game world, and understandable sets of actions with which the player can play. For it to work, the game needs to therefore be enclosed.
It’s because a game is ultimately a set of abstract tools and patterns that the play brain learns to interpret mechanically, and so also learns to manipulate at both a basic and a complex level. If you know that pieces move in certain ways but not others, or that your game character can climb short walls but not tall ones, or that the betting round at the poker table always happens in the clockwise direction, this reliable information allows you to strategise. You can plan, optimise, think about the order in which you will do things and the results which you will expect to see, and that is why the game becomes engrossing.
A Chess board is of a certain size, as is the playing area in Tetris, but enclosure is also about rules. The World of Warcraft is a huge game world, for example, but the players are constrained by the limits of character class and empowered by the actions that they can perform. Limiting available actions to certain types but not others is a deliberate game design choice, as is the reaction from the game itself. Once these elements become known knowns to the player, they can start to get better at playing, and winning is defined by operating well within those borders.
We recognise enclosure and its limitations when we see it. When you enter the world of Portal 2 you do not expect to be shooting enemies because it violates what the game is supposed to be, and when players step onto the soccer pitch they accept the rule that says they are not supposed to handle a ball. At a simple level, we instinctively recognise when we are in a game rather than the real world because we deliberately step into limitation to get there.
The recognition of the importance of enclosure is why there is a sense of cheating in games. Cheating violates the boundaries of the enclosure and allows external forces to ruin the game. Allowed cheating says that anything goes, and that the enclosure of the game is not to be respected. It is saying that the infinite is permitted to cross into the finite, and as soon as that happens the game is no longer simple, fair nor empowering.
The Infinite Game is Not a Game
Reality is broken, Jane McGonigal tells us, and she offers a multitude of fixes based on rewards and motivation from game thinking. Reality isn’t broken. Reality is infinite, and thus so complex to understand that most of us simply bounce through it and hope to do well while not dying from one of a million potential causes. Reality is opaque, but games are clear.
Why? Because games are deliberately finite
The problem that gamification (and possibly augmented reality games will struggle with this too) has is that it tries to make a game without enclosure. And, like the game being ruined by cheating, there is absolutely no way to establish how it will be simpler, fairer and more empowering than real life. The layer doesn’t work because it is sitting on top of a sprawling morass of infinite possibility.
As an example, Jesse Schell gave a talk about when games invade real life at the Dice Summit. He advanced the idea that games were increasingly everywhere, and that a possible future for games would be one in which every activity that the player performed in their real life would in some way add to points totals or other rewards. Brush your teeth, earn 10 points, buy unleaded gas for your car, earn 50 points. Buy a hybrid car, earn a 1000 points. And so on.
Schell’s talk is very compelling, and both it and other talks around the subject of games and motivation have similarly been really interesting to listen to conceptually. It taps into the kind of motivational psychology of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, to concepts of continuous engagement and the positive effects of playfulness.
But actually the idea is … well, it’s flaky. (Sorry Jesse). In any world in which such a system existed, there would be three immediate effects that came out the back end:
- Plenty of players would realise that there were infinite ways to cheat the system, and they would do so.
- The resulting mass earning of points would lead to point inflation, so rewards for such behaviours would end up either being commonplace (boring) or so difficult to get that they would not be worth it.
- The social behaviours that the system was trying to instil would be subverted. If I earned 1000 points for buying a hybrid, what happens if I flip it to someone else and buy another?
And so on.
Schell’s example is obviously pure conjecture, and light hearted entertainment for his talk, but the questions that it raises about the capacity for the infinite to subvert the finite are real. In more normal systems such as Nike Air and Wii Fit, for example, there are plenty of ways to cheat. In systems where the promise is actual rewards (as opposed to merely cheating yourself) as most gamification systems would need to become, there is also incentive to cheat. And there is little incentive to stick around once the game rewards are doled out.
So ultimately gamification of the type envisioned by proponents like Seth Preibatsch and Gabe Zichermann can’t work. It sounds like it could, but on closer inspection it frustratingly falls apart. It lacks the self-described boundaries that enclosure provides, and so it is always vulnerable to players that realise how easy it is. It’s a paradox.
Unless gamification designers can figure out ways to bring enclosure back into their designs such that they effectively become actual games rather than an additive layer on top of reality, it’s a problem that’s not going away.