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The occasional musing about design, games, music, etc.

On Game Design & Gamification

I’m a huge gamer. I play tons of games, easily 10-20 hours a week, for the past 15+ years. Lately, there’s been a huge swell of interest in game design in my current field of work, advertising. As the social revolution washes over us all online, and the traditional media types used for advertising (tv, newspapers, magazines) all evolve in new and interesting ways, brands, companies, and marketers are all looking for a way to make themselves stand out, and get more fans/users/advocates. One way often recommended lately has been termed ‘gamification’. The general concept is that if we take some of what makes games so much fun to play, and apply it to things that aren’t games, then we’ll have more fun doing those things as well and do them more often. The hope is that this newfound fun injection will make ads, products, and services all spread like wildfire and get the public hooked on them like it’s the new crack. Will Wright, creator of amazing games like The Sims, Sim City, and Spore has validated that companies all over the world are thinking of gaming as a “MSG” that could be added to anything to make it more palatable, only in this case MSG stands for “Make it Seem Game-like”. There is an inherent danger in this, as it trivializes both the importance of optional-time elected play, as well as creating unrealistic expectations of brands and services as to how game thinking can impact their levels of engagement.

Watch out for the 'gaming gurus’

Since gamification is now in high demand, plenty of people (with no real game design experience) are hopping in meetings ready with a pile of half baked game ideas, ready to sell them to whoever is buying. It’s easy to see that the title of 'Gaming Guru’ is the next evolution of the 'Social Media Guru’ we’ve all been groaning about for the past two years. Charlatans aside, this idea of gamification is causing plenty of confusion in the advertising world, and is causing lots of facepalming in the game development world. As I see it, this confusion stems from a lack of understanding of the core concepts of game design, and the deeper understanding of how it can help non-game activities. This confusion is what these so-called gaming gurus will prey on, as they foolishly lead clients, strategists, and agencies to failure with uninformed gamification tactics. 

Gamification’s goal: Engagement

First off, I prefer to call gamification 'game thinking’, as it doesn’t really make something into a true game, but makes a non-game more game-like. That said, the main purpose of gamification is to elicit engagement. Gamification proponents intend to take learnings and insights from game design, and apply them to non-game systems to increase the enjoyment of use, and ultimately engage the player/user. In order to fully understand how this might work we need to look at engagement more closely. Engagement in games is distinctly different from engagement with advertising. Engagement in advertising is a bit more shallow, and easily attainable than in game design. In advertising it comes from someone having understood a brand idea presented in the ad. While in game design, engagement is the last piece of a long chain. A game first must try to elicit play, if that play is fun, challenging, and rewarding, then we can start to elicit engagement.

What is a game?

The first thing to tackle when trying to understand game design, is actually defining what a game is. This is important beyond a semantic basis, as understanding if you are making a game, or a non-game, will determine what strategies and tactics you apply to try and gain engagement. Here are some points of how I define it, which I’ve amalgamated from many academic sources. A game is a play activity, meaning it is outside ordinary life and therefore is is safe and has no real life consequences. A game has rules and ultimately has an end. Like all fiction, a game needs some form of conflict (player vs time, player vs player, player vs designer, etc) and this conflict must force the player to make meaningful decisions that have in-game consequences. Let’s take Nike+ for instance. Nike has added many game-like behaviors into Nike+ to try and ramp up engagement. In some ways, it is a game, in other ways it is not. The choices you make (wether to run one mile or five) have no real impact on your game experience, but may input into conflicts in the game (ranking, levels, etc).

Optional versus Mandatory

Most people will say games are played during 'free time’. This concept is getting more difficult to pin down, as we make societal shifts towards more and more knowledge work, the concept of structured 'free time’ versus 'work time’ is blurring more and more. I generally prefer to think of these segments more in the lines of choices. We now have optional choices and mandatory choices. Games are only played as an optional choice. Think of the Chinese gold farmers in World of Warcraft, they are most definitely 'working’ even though they are in the environment of a game world. Many gamification endeavors are focused on trying to gain a portion of a user’s optional time to engage with their product or service. This is challenging, as people generally spend their optional time on things they find most rewarding. If a game is more rewarding than your service, it’s very hard to compete! For this, let’s look at FarmVille. FV is played all around the clock by millions of people, always in their optional time (arguably stealing from their employers mandatory time). If you are trying to create a brand experience that gains engagement from people on their optional time, you need to be as rewarding as FarmVille, or else they’ll just play FV instead of trying your game-like brand experience!

The elements of game design: mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics

Lastly, let’s help clarify the components of game design, and speak to how they often are used in gamification. The academic side of game design often refers to game mechanics, game dynamics, and aesthetics. This is a very simple concept once you realized that mechanics are merely the components of the game, the rules. Dynamics are the parts of a game that you rely on the player for. They are the player behaviors that take place in the game when playing within your mechanics, or rules. Aesthetics are really just a reference to the emotional response desired from playing your game, most notably of which is fun. Gamification frequently focuses on which game mechanics would be appropriate for you to add to your service or product, most often this takes the form of points, badges, and leaderboards. An important thing to remember is that points, badges, and leaderboards themselves are not fun. They are a construct to help indicate progress, and create tension between players. The actions that yield those badges and points need to be fun themselves BEFORE the points or badges could even hope to promote some form of conflict of progress.  I was just discussing the other day how Foursquare used to be more of a game, but has just now become more of a social utility with game-like mechanics attached to it. The leaderboards are now minimized, and the ONLY remaining conflict that drives me to play is the mayorships. Even the badges have lost their value since the status they offer is minimal, and can’t be redeemed for anything of value, or even status!

Hopefully, this has all helped shed some light on what gamification really is: the adding game mechanics to non-game systems to increase their use and enjoyability over the original system. Again, this in itself is awesome! Just like the core of the “Web 2.0” revolution was based on how simplicity, transparency, and focused utility all worked together in a network, this new gamification revolution will (hopefully) be focused on motivation, engagement, and play between people online. Before diving into a gamification project, please do a little homework, and really look at what any potential consultants are really bringing to the table before you burn yourself or a client.

Comments and questions always welcome!

aaron