Game over? When play becomes mechanical

There’s a badge for everything these days Photo credit: rocket ship/ Creative Commons

It doesn’t seem so long ago that gaming mechanics were the hottest thing on the web.  The advent of Foursquare and the juggernaut that is Farmville alerted the world to the potential of simple, social gaming mechanics. We marveled at how hard users were prepared to work for virtual currency and how powerful an incentive points, levels and badges seemed to be in driving participation, sharing and retention. Game theory and user experience design collided with the newly sexy field of Behavioural Economics to offer a panacea for all the world’s social and commercial ills.

Over the last six months, it’s often seemed that there’s literally no field of human endeavour (or suffering) that hasn’t had gaming mechanics applied to it. We can now get points and badges for reading articles, or for watching television. (I remember when you had to at least be able to swim 25 metres or tie a knot.) On a more altruistic level, we Brits can earn points for participating in the “Big Society” . On a more alarming level, US citizens can earn points for voting.

Then came the inevitable backlash. Zynga CEO Mark PIncus caused something of a stir by freely admitting “I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away”.  Ian Bogost developed the Cow Clicker game partly as a satire on the social gaming industry, together with an intelligent and considered articulation of his concerns around the industry.  Ironically, people then played Cow Clicker…and seemed to enjoy it.

Much of the backlash has come from “real” gamers; lovers of console games and MMOs who frown on social games as somehow lower on the evolutionary scale. Interestingly, that’s not Bogost’s problem. Nor mine. Full disclosure-Playstation holds no allure for me, nor have I ever impersonated an Orc. Not on purpose, anyway…. So why do I care?

We’re killing the golden goose (cow)

Applying gaming theory to UX design (still) has real and rich potential. There are inspiring case studies about the impact of gaming mechanics in healthcare for example-take this game designed to encourage children with cancer to follow their treatment regimes or some of the examples cited in this excellent post from the folks at Big Spaceship. We know more every day about how to design an online experience rooted in the psychology of the user that will bring about behavioural change. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for an industry which-at its best-has always been about finding the right prompts to change behaviour in our brands’ favour.

So my first problem with the current vogue for gamifying everything in sight is that excess use of any mechanic or reward blunts its impact and devalues its currency. If, as Dan Hon envisages, we end up in a world where we get points for cleaning our teeth and tying our shoelaces, points will no longer be worth very much:

“There’s the danger of stumbling blindly into a mundane future of gaming which is to say: like it or not, we are going to be getting points for brushing our teeth and there’s a lack of imagination and playfulness around, say, location-based services. The lazy first port of call is that we’ll get badges for eating at Pizza Hut and we’ll check in so we can get a voucher from Starbucks for our next latte. That’s the grim dark future.”

There’s more than one way to execute a strategy


SCVNGR recently released their Game Dynamic Playdeck, a list of terms and theories from Achievement to Behavourial Momentum to Cascading Information and beyond. It’s a fascinating read, no question. A frustration, however, is that there currently seems to be a very narrow range of mechanics to deliver against these principles. To deliver a sense of achievement, for example, the inevitable answer seems to be points and ultimately badges.  Surely there must be fresher and more creative ways to deliver the same emotion and the same end behaviour? Imagine if the world of “traditional” advertising had only one response to a strategic imperative.

Perhaps we can take a step even further back to the behavioural economics theories where many gaming theories have their roots. By taking that step we may find ourselves not only with new tactics but new dynamics.

Moral Hazard and the loss of intrinsic motivation


Interestingly, one of the game dynamics outlined in the SCVNGR deck is the idea of Moral Hazard-the idea that if we are given points for doing something we might otherwise have done for altruistic reasons, we begin to lose that more altruistic motivation. Over time, we may begin to drive safely, donate to charity or lower our carbon emissions purely in order to receive points. That’s a pretty dystopian prospect.

Visions of “The Running Man” aside, of more immediate concern is perhaps the idea that diminishing intrinsic motivation within UX design has a negative effect on the most creative audiences we target. In an excellent post for BBH Labs, Saneel Radia points out that the growth of extrinsic rewards in services like Foursquare versus the instrinsic reward of contributing to say, Digg or Wikipedia, may actually be disincentivising that core creative audience.

So, what can we do about it? There are way smarter and more expert minds than mind at work on this, but some as starters for ten:

Think Dynamics, not mechanics: Fostering a sense of achievement versus points and badges. Find new ways to create the same response.

Celebrate intrinsic motivations, don’t replace them: Recognise the positive emotions users (particularly creators) get from their actions in their own right. Find ways to celebrate and enable these rather than replace them with extrinsic motivation.

(Re)introduce genuine play and genuine delight: One of my favourite gaming examples of recent years is the Waze road muncher app. In a bid to collect traffic data on roads less frequently driven, an app was created where, when travelling those roads the car becomes a pac-man type creature chasing monsters. Sure it’s a gaming mechanic but it is also, first and foremost, a game….

The Waze Road Muncher app

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