The pros and cons of gamification

GDC 2011: In a debate-style session, panelists argue the merits of bringing gameplay mechanics to just about everything.


Who was there: "The Great Gamification Debate" at this year's Game Developers Conference featured two teams. On the pro-gamification side was Jane McGonigal (Social Chocolate), Margaret Robertson (Hide & Seek), and Jesse Schell (Schell Games). On the other side of the table sat Eric Marcoullier (OneTrueFan), Ross Smith (Microsoft), Ian Bogost (The Georgia Institute of Technology), and Margaret Wallace (Playmatics).

Should game mechanics just be seen on game machines?
Should game mechanics just be seen on game machines?

What they talked about: The panel began with members offering their own definitions of gamification. For most, gamification was summed up best by Schell, who said that "gamification is taking things that aren't games and trying to make them feel more like games."

Into the actual debate, the first topic at question was the name itself. For Robertson, the name is apt because it is imminently unsalable and adequately captures the idea of turning anything into a game. Marcoullier had a similarly negative perception, saying that it captures quite well such a vapid concept.

Next, the panel addressed the point of gamification and whether its very existence was brought about as a means for job security. According to Schell, gamification has substantial room to become more sophisticated, and it is currently being devalued by its oversimplification. The trend toward gamification is just the tip of the iceberg of something that's much larger in society, he said.

He believes that the design of things in society on general terms is shifting away from what is efficient and effective and toward what is pleasurable. Games are important to this, he said, because they are just structures of pleasure. When people talk about gamification, they are talking about making things more enjoyable. "We shouldn't be saying we want to make things more like games, we should be saying, how can we make it nicer, or more pleasurable," he said.

For Bogost, it doesn't really matter if gamification captures the essence of games or not. The purpose of gamification, he said, is to cash in on the current popularity of games. "To take something like games, which are complicated, and substitute it out for points and badges is a very efficient way to get a hot culture commodity into your product," he explained.

McGonigal responded by going back to Schell's point of badges being just the tip of what is possible with gamification. These current expressions of gamification, she said, can lead to a better, deeper implementation. However, she cautioned this statement by saying that if it is done poorly initially, the opportunity will be lost.

Wallace noted that, currently, there are any number of poor implementations of gamification, giving the example of badges on the Huffington Post website. She said that gamification is at its best when it "renders the intangible tangible," saying that it should lead to the point where it marks milestones in a fulfilling manner and provides context.

The moderator then turned the panel toward the name "gamification." The phrase "serious games" has been around for more than a decade, he said, and in that time, it has gotten about 770,000 references on Google. Gamification, on the other hand, has been around for, perhaps, a year, and it already has 522,000 mentions on Google (and counting).

Marcoullier said that it is difficult to have a rational conversation about gamification's positive or negative effects if the discussion becomes stuck on the name. He said that people should just focus on the mechanics and not get caught up in the phrasing. Wallace echoed that point, saying that if the word has gained traction, why fight it?

Bogost disagreed, however, saying that words actually do matter. He noted that there is a big political difference between saying climate change instead of global warming, even though the idea is the same. Likewise, gamification has a connotation of being something easy that can just be strapped on.

Robertson believes that while the term may be unsavory, it is what has stuck. However, the term causes a massive problem, she said, because on a very basic level, it leaves people unable to differentiate the difference between gamifying through shoddy implementation of points and badges and turning something into a deep, meaningful game experience. There's no word to differentiate the two concepts right now, she said.

The conversation then turned to the more esoteric concept of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards through gamification, and Schell summed it up best by saying that the conversation has proceeded "as if we know what the hell we're talking about." As an example, he said that if Mt. Dew gives away soda for accomplishing something, then that's an intrinsic reward. However, when friends begin competing for these rewards, it becomes extrinsic. The definition is "squirrely," he noted.

As the final point of consideration posed by the moderator, the panel shifted its focus toward the idea of whether gamification is merely behavioral conditioning or creating a kind of Skinner box for users. Wallace said that she believes reducing it to that level is to not put enough faith in the user. At its best, she said, gamification helps develop a thinking brain. It's not just a feedback stimulus-response loop. Even if things are designed to be Skinner boxes, at some point, they become very transparent.

McDonigal also felt the idea of a Skinner box was problematic, in that gamification should avoid making the anticipation of the reward better than the payoff itself. For her, the morality of gamification should be that if it is a Skinner box, then users should at least find a reward of value.

Quote: "If a word gains traction, why fight it?"--Margaret Wallace.

Takeaway: Far from an inevitable and enduring fact of marketing, the panel seemed to agree that gamification in its current embodiment could disappear as quickly as it arrived. For some, its possible disappearance will be a good riddance. For others, it will be a missed opportunity to bring pleasurable game mechanics to otherwise mundane activities.

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