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May 22 2012

A gaming revolution, minus the hype

In the following interview, "Playful Design" author John Ferrara (@PlayfulDesign) explains what he sees as the real gaming revolution — not "gamification," or the application of gaming characteristics to existing applications and processes, but how games themselves can and will be a "force of cultural transformation." Ferrera also reveals five universal principles of good game design.

Our interview follows.

How are mobile and social technologies affecting game design and the evolution of gaming technology?

John FerraraJohn Ferrara: One of the really surprising things about modern smartphones and tablets is that the've turned out to be such credible gaming platforms. They open doors to new ways of experiencing games by giving designers access to touchscreens, accelerometers, cameras, microphones, GPS, and Internet connectivity through a single device. They also allow games to be experienced in new contexts, enjoyed on the train to work, in the minutes between meetings, and while you're out with friends. The traditional gaming model, where players sit passively in one place in the home and stare at a fixed screen, seems stodgy and limiting by comparison.

The funny thing about social technology is that before we had video games, gaming was almost always a social activity. You needed to have multiple people to play most board games, card games, and sports — in fact, the game was often just a pretense for people to get together. But then video games made solitary experiences more of the norm. Now social technology is bringing gaming back to its multiplayer roots, but it's also going beyond what was ever possible before by enabling hyper-social experiences where you're playing with dozens of friends and family at once. Even though you may be separated from these people in space and time, you have an intimate sense of shared presence and community when you're playing. That's revolutionary.

How do you see the social media aspects of gaming seeping into day-to-day life?

John Ferrara: Games certainly can transform the workplace, though I want to caution that it's very easy to make the mistake of dressing up everyday work activities as games by just tacking on some points and badges. That's not game design, and people will recognize that it's not. In the process of failing, approaches like this generate cynicism toward the effort. Games need to be designed to be games first and foremost. They must be intrinsically rewarding, enjoyed for their own sake.

That said, I absolutely believe that games can work at work. As you suggest, for example, they have great strengths for training. Games create a safe space for people to test out their mastery of a set of skills in ways that aren't possible or practical in the real world. They can also help people figure out how best to handle different situations. Say, for example, that you created a game to develop management skills. You might allow players to assign values to their in-game avatars like "nurturing," "autocratic," or "optimistic," which lead to different behavior paths. Players could then examine how these traits play out in a situation filled with characters who have different values like "dependability," "autonomy," and "efficiency." A structure like this could not only impart insight about management styles, but also invite introspection about how an individual's own personality traits may lead to success and failure in the real world.

In your book's introduction, you say, "I hope to start moving toward a post-hype discussion of how games can most effectively achieve great things in the real world." Who is leading the way — or at least moving in the right direction — and what are they doing?

Playful Design CoverJohn Ferrara: You know, there's so much really inventive work being done right now. Recently, I've been playing a lot of "Zombies, Run!," and I think it's great. This is a game for smartphones that overlays a narrative about survivors in a zombie apocalypse onto your daily run. As you're out getting your exercise, you're listening to the game events as they unfold, and you can hear the zombies closing in. It's a great use of fantasy, and it plays as a true game with meaningful choices and conflict.

There's also a great group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that's developed a smartphone app called ARIS, which builds game scenarios into physical locations, and they've developed dozens of applications for it. One of them is being developed as a museum tour for the Minnesota Historical Center, giving people quests to complete by scanning objects in the exhibit and then using them to complete objectives in a story line. The museum is actually changing the way the exhibit is laid out to better accommodate the gameplay, moving away from the traditional snaking path to more of an open layout that allows players to move more freely between the interacting displays to solve the game's challenges.

Some of the thought leaders who I really admire include Eric Klopfer and Scot Osterweil at MIT, Ian Bogost at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Jane McGonigal. A common current among these thinkers is their emphasis on games themselves as a force of cultural transformation, rather than simplistic "gamification" of software applications that lead to little or no meaningful change.

What about engineering games like "Foldit" — with improved UX, could this type of crowdsourced gaming become a viable research tool?

John Ferrara: This is what's been called "human computation," where a group of people work together to solve some complex problem as a by-product of some other action, like playing a game. Luis Von Ahn at Carnegie Mellon describes games as algorithms that are executed by people rather than machines, and I think that's a really fascinating idea. Foldit is a great example. This is a puzzle game where players try to figure out how to fold chains of proteins. This is a problem that's very well suited to human computation because it requires a type of intuitive reasoning that's very difficult for actual computers. Foldit made a big news last fall when the people playing it decoded the structure of a protein related to a virus that causes AIDS in monkeys, which had eluded researchers for years.

This is a wonderful demonstration of how this type of game can be really valuable to researchers. At the same time, I'm very critical of Foldit because I think its gameplay experience is kind of awful. It's very difficult to figure out which actions lead to the results you see on-screen — like why you're awarded points the way you are — and there's not a strong sense of objectives or conflict. These design issues place limits on the appeal of Foldit, and that's a big problem because human computation works better the more people you have playing. If the gameplay were really compelling and fun, then the sky would be the limit.

How do you see the collection and use of gaming data evolving?

John Ferrara: Games can produce enormous volumes of data because it's really simple to gather every little interaction the player has in the game and report it all back to a central server. This has immediate applications for game design itself. Zynga, for example, uses data to determine which design choices create greater tendencies for players to stay engaged longer, involve more friends, or pay to enhance the game experience. I expect this kind of data collection and analysis to become the norm because companies will be more successful the better they can do it.

I would suggest that financial services could be one of the biggest secondary beneficiaries of such data because there's so much to learn about how people make financial decisions under different circumstances. Staying with the Zynga theme, suppose players have the option of investing in any of a variety of different farm crops, each of which has different strengths and vulnerabilities to environmental conditions. How do players choose which ones they should purchase? How do they appraise risk and reward? Which presentations of information lead to a better understanding of a crop's attributes? Which lead people to make more appropriate choices for their goals? All of these questions can be examined quantitatively through games and can lead to greater insights into the innate qualities of human psychology that drive investor behavior and decision making.

What are some emerging best practices for game technology?

John Ferrara: Best practices vary widely depending on the game and the type of player motivations to which it appeals. For example, games meant to promote a sense of immersion like "Red Dead Redemption" remove as much of the user interface elements from immediate view as possible. Data-intensive games like "Tiny Tower" benefit by compressing as much information and as many functional controls as they can into the smallest possible space.

With that in mind, there are some clear universal principles for the design of all games:

  • Skip the manual and embed as much instruction into the gameplay as you can.
  • Fit the game into the player's lifestyle so that he or she can play when and where it's convenient.
  • Don't cheat — people recognize when a game unfairly stacks the odds against them and they resent it.
  • Make sure players always have a clear sense of cause and effect, and that they understand what actions are available to them.
  • Above all, playtest, playtest, playtest. It's impossible to fully anticipate how people will react to a game short of actually watching them play it.

In the book, you argue that games should be used as instruments of persuasion. Why is this?

John Ferrara: To be clear, it's not that all games should be persuasive but that people who want to persuade should look at games very seriously; I believe they present an ideal way to convince people to adopt a particular point of view or to move them to action in the real world. Ian Bogost describes games as a form of "procedural rhetoric," meaning that they communicate messages through participation in the experience. This creates a lot of advantages for persuasion. For example, it allows a kind of self-directed discovery where people adopt the designer's message as a working hypothesis and then test its truthfulness through the gameplay. That's a really powerful way to get your point across. Furthermore, it builds a sense of personal ownership of the insight the player has uncovered.

Are there ethical concerns related to persuasion in gaming environments?

John Ferrara: As there are for any medium, certainly. Film, television, books, billboards, oratory, and posters have all been appropriated for less-than-above-board purposes. Whether it's propaganda, demagoguery, misleading advertising, or dirty politics, you'd expect that games would be subject to the same kinds of unethical practices. It's especially important to be aware of this in the case of games, considering how compelling a procedural rhetoric can be. Rather than casting a negative light on games, however, I think that speaks to their power to effect meaningful change in the real world. I believe that games can achieve great things, and I expect that over the next decade we'll see them doing a lot of good.

This interview was edited and condensed.


July 28 2011

ePayments Week: Freemium is fruitful for mobile games

Here's a few payment stories that caught my attention this week.

Freemium revenue rises

In-App purchaseA report this week from Flurry Analytics, which tracks mobile games and other apps, says the freemium (also called free-to-play) model is rapidly becoming the dominant track for generating revenues from mobile games. Earlier this month Flurry had reported that the percentage of revenue from freemium games (free download, then in-app purchases for new capabilities or levels) in Apple's U.S. App Store had jumped from 39% in January to 65% in June. This week, Flurry's general manager of games Jeferson Valadares, followed up on that report with a post noting that the average in-app purchase in a freemium game is $14. Averages can be tricky, and a small share of high-end purchases pulls this amount higher than we might otherwise expect. Looking closer at the stats, 71% of transactions are for less than $10, 16% are between $10 and $20, and 13% are for more than $20. Up at the high end, 5% of the transactions are for $50 or more.

All of this revenue comes from the 0.5% to 6% of players who make even a single in-app purchase on these free-to-pay apps; the rest never get engaged enough to pay for it. But Valadares and Fierce Developer's Jason Ankeny both note that the revenue from this small percentage is now greater than it might have been had developers charged $0.99 for their games. In other words, a free download followed by in-app purchase makes it possible to create the widest possible opening of the funnel to find a large group of hardcore gamers willing to engage at a deeper level with a game — $14 deep, on average.

Flurry estimates that game revenue on iOS and Android platforms will top $1 billion in 2011 — a symbolic number that should help mobile developers gain a little respect from the old-guard gaming platforms, whose executives have, from time to time, dissed mobile games for lacking the excitement of console games. To help make sense of the various platforms, Gamasutra published this week a rundown of pros and cons for the two leading smartphone platforms and Windows Mobile, with insights from leading game developers about the relative pain points of each.

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Report: iOS 5 to offer facial-recognition APIs

Last week I reported on common iPhone passcodes and lamented there was no easy way to put more sophisticated technology to work in securing the data in increasingly important smartphones. One reader commented that biometrics would be a welcome addition. This week there's news that Apple is moving quickly in that direction. Apple-watching site 9to5Mac reports that iOS 5 will include facial recognition as a public developer API for iOS 5 applications. So don't expect to see it soon as a security preference in the iPhone's settings, but we might see third-party apps with a biometric lock available at some point, perhaps this fall. 9to5mac also reports that the technology is most likely from Swedish facial-recognition developer Polar Rose, which Apple acquired in 2010.

Here's a video showing the Polar Rose tech in action:

Credit cards on webcam: Payment through video capture

This isn't exactly what we meant by swipe-and-pay, but mobile payments start-up Jumio introduced this week another new way to pay online with old credit card technology. Jumio's Netswipe would let a consumer pay for goods and services purchased online by holding their physical credit card up to the webcam on their computer. The idea isn't just to capture the 16-digit credit card number. Netswipe uses video streaming to guard against fraud detection, noting characteristics of the card, including how the letters are raised, its size and depth, and even what material it appears to be made of. Tapping in your 3-digit CVV code from the back of the card adds yet another layer of security. Netswipe forces users to mouse-and-click on a graphical keyboard rather than keying in the numbers, for further security against automated hacks. A mobile version supporting smartphone cameras is planned for later this summer.

Here's a demo of Netswipe:

Got news?

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.

If you're interested in learning more about the payment development space, check out PayPal X DevZone, a collaboration between O'Reilly and PayPal.


June 15 2011

Gamification has issues, but they aren't the ones everyone focuses on

Critics of the gamification movement — mostly composed of academics and traditional game developers — have written a range of impassioned blog posts and gone on rants at legacy game industry events.

I think you deserve to hear a good, substantive critique of gamification. That's why I ensured that opposing viewpoints were heard — unobstructed — at GSummit in San Francisco, and why they will once again be front and center at Gamification Summit NYC in September. That's also why I've decided to write an earnest critique of gamification here. I'll present the arguments that I think are meaningful and important, and you can decide if you agree. Constructive dialogue welcome.

Let's get a few common arguments out of the way up front.

First, that the word "gamification" itself is inappropriate or bad. The term has entered the popular lexicon, rising from nearly zero hits on Google 18 months ago, to around 900,000 today (and climbing). As with most powerful tech neologisms, it's probably not going anywhere, and no small part of its success is that it genuinely is the first viable term to encapsulate the concept of using game concepts outside of games. It has also hit the zeitgeist at the appropriate time.

gamification interest chart
This chart shows interest in gamification from January 2010 to June 2011. (Click for additional information from Google Insights for Search.)

Semantically, many game developers also argue that gamification demeans "games," quickly forgetting the fluidity of market categorization. At one time or another in the past decade, casinos, amusement parks, virtual worlds, casual, mobile and social games have all been questioned as belonging to the games industry. The simplest and best argument I've heard for this was made by Nick Fortugno, co-founder of Playmatics and designer of hit casual game Diner Dash: "Gamification is to games as jingles are to music." In summary: they are different but related disciplines that leverage similar techniques and technologies.

The argument made most often, and least compellingly by detractors is in essence that bad gamification is bad. Sometimes this takes on a solipsistic angle ("I don't like Farmville, so it's bad"), and is almost always condescending to the hundreds of millions of people who engage actively with these gamified experiences. These critics seem to be arguing that if marketers, enterprise architects, HR professionals or product designers get hold of game mechanics, they are certain to demean the art form (worst-case) or build something pointless (best-case).

Obviously, these arguments are circular. Any bad design is inherently bad — and terrible games suck just as much as bad film (though with generally far less camp value). Every game designer has some successes, and some failures — the same is true of most marketers, product designers, book publishers and entrepreneurs. Businesses seeking gamification almost always want to hire skilled, experienced game design talent — and I believe the market will demand more than 10,000 trained designers in the coming decade for industry, government and non-profit gamified design. Game designers can readily be part of the solution if they choose.

Now let's talk about the important stuff. In my opinion, there are three credible concerns about gamification that require further scientific inquiry and should be explored.

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Replacement and over-justification

In my undergraduate work, I studied the psychology of gifted children. Prominently featured in the literature was a concept called over-justification. In over-justification, children who are intrinsically motivated toward a specific activity — playing piano, say — can have that intrinsic desire extinguished by the introduction and subsequent removal of extrinsic rewards, such as trophies or cash. So even if your child always loved to play the piano, winning and then losing at conservatory competitions may stop your child's piano playing for good. In a sense, their intrinsic desire to play was extinguished by a failure to maintain continuous rewards from the outside reward system.

Though the behavior extinguishment loop is well documented, what to do about it is another issue entirely. Taken to its logical extreme, this phenomenon argues for the complete elimination of external reward and competition. It would seem that in order to preserve intrinsic motivation, parents should never encourage their children to compete at something they naturally care about, lest that spark be eliminated.

Obviously, that's facile. Competition is part of our society and always has been. Moreover, extrinsic rewards are essential in capitalism (our salaries, bonuses, dividends, titles, etc. are all forms of extrinsic rewards). We can't remove them without dismantling our economy — and why would we? If you are successful at pursuing your intrinsic dreams, over-justification isn't a problem; successful piano players generally don't suffer a lack of motivation. The best thing parents (and designers) can do with the knowledge of over-justification is to teach children how to combat negative reinforcement so they have the emotional strength to overcome adversity.

But if intrinsic motivations are ignored in gamified design, the resulting product is likely to be shallow, with engagement loops to match. This means that aligning internal and external benefits makes gamified apps that much better. It also means that gamified apps that are designed from scratch have an inherent advantage over those where gamification is added later.

True cost of ownership

As a relatively new field, total cost of ownership is a misunderstood concept in gamification. In most kinds of marketing programs — even those with long lifespans — there are finite ends to promotions based on either time or budget. By contrast, gamified systems are more like multiplayer online games and loyalty programs. Once users become accustomed to the interactions we design, they expect the rewards to continue and evolve with both their mastery and tastes.

Even a few years ago, gamifying something meant building the whole tech infrastructure from scratch — a costly exercise that is no longer necessary due to the work of companies like Badgeville and BunchBall. Today, the biggest up-front cost of gamifying something is in the design and testing — which is a boon to the market. However, there are critical ongoing costs that are not always obvious, including compliance/legal costs and economic balancing (if you're running a virtual economy), community management and policing, and continuous creative (avatars, challenges, etc). If you use agile techniques to roll out gamification, you can optimize the chances of success and phase investment accordingly. Regardless, if you do your job right, gamification is a multi-year project, and you must budget and prepare accordingly.


Although we have many successful implementations, the long-term effect of gamification on users is only starting to be understood. As with over-justification, we can make certain assumptions based on the psychological literature and comparable experiences, but we lack direct data on harmful effects.

One thing that we can and must take responsibility for up-front is
the potential for people to become addicted to — and
substantially influenced by — gamified experiences. Unlike our
peers in the casino industry who advocate a Randian view of free will,
and game designers who repeatedly claim that users can easily
distinguish fact from fiction, gamification shows us a more nuanced

Games are the most powerful source of non-coercive influence in the world, and are frequently designed with mild addiction and extreme flow in mind. The latter effect in particular puts users into a state where they are markedly more likely to accept what the system tells them, and to respond to its stimuli (if only just to beat the level). We cannot continue to argue the power of games to teach and engage on one hand while ignoring the other side of the coin.

That's why I advocate a voluntary code of conduct for gamification design that vastly exceeds an ethics dialogue — let alone standards of conduct — in games and gambling. At its heart, the core concept is to allow users to make informed choices about their engagement. It also means not using these techniques for anything that would cause direct harm to users.

Without exception, every gamification project I've been involved with has had good intentions, and I've seen little reason to worry about nefarious actors. Game designers often like to see an epic battle between good and evil — even where there isn't one — but that's part of the charm. Even if there is no current threat of harm from gamification designers, we should nonetheless have the dialogue.

Fundamentally, gamification is a new industry and discipline that is delivering unprecedented results across many different verticals. The concept's meteoric ascendance has given rise to a number of debates, most of which have yet to capture meaningful issues in the discussion. In outlining three viable concerns — over-justification, total cost of ownership and addiction/compulsion — I've endeavored to share some of the more substantive issues that should be front and center in the dialogue.

Headed to OSCON in July? Be sure to catch Gabe's session on using fun and engagement to build great software.


April 26 2011

The purpose of gamification

Point A to Point BFrequently couched either as a question about demographics or as a personal statement ("I don't ever play games"), gamification is dogged by questions of suitability of purpose, appropriateness of context, or even the semantic conflict around the use of the word "games" itself. Whether you fall into the supporter or detractor camp, you can't argue that gamification is inspiring debate and raising questions: play vs. work, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, authenticity vs. contrivance, just to name a few.

So perhaps the best place to start addressing these issues is with the basics: what can gamification do, why do we care, and what are its limitations.

Gamification's main purpose is to help people get from point A to point B in their lives — whether that's viewed through the lens of personal growth, societal improvement or marketing engagement. We all have the intrinsic desire to be the best possible people we can be, and to make the world in our image of its maximum potential. However, most of us lack the systems thinking (and discipline) required to get to that goal. What games do well is expose complex, learnable systems that users can engage with to achieve personal mastery — and thus accomplish something aspirational.

Weight Watchers is an example. If you ask someone who has successfully lost weight how he or she did it, they might answer with an emphatic "Weight Watchers!" What they don't say is "diet and exercise," which is actually what they did to lose the weight, regardless of pedagogy. Mastering the system — in this case Weight Watchers' gamey approach of points, levels, challenges, leader boards, etc. — becomes what the user most identifies with as having caused their success.

In this way, creating complex systems that can readily be mastered by users across a span of time produces a unique affinity between player and brand. If successful, it's a lifelong connection that transcends the mere exchange of cash and clicks common to most commercial connections. Good gamification has more in common with other complex systems in the world around us than it does with games, per se.

In tactical terms, gamification can be thought of as using some elements of game systems in the cause of a business objective. It's easiest to identify the trend with experiences (frequent flyer programs, Nike Running/Nike+ or Foursquare) that feel immediately game-like. The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leader boards, rewards and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place. Increasingly however, gamification is being used to create experiences that use the power of games without being quite as explicit. In spheres as diverse as HR, healthcare, finance, government and education, companies are pushing the envelope of engaging design with things they learned playing Farmville or World of Warcraft — without trying to build the next Salesforce-branded Angry Birds clone.

One of the biggest weaknesses of gamification lies in the motivation of its creators. While game designers generally credit themselves with a benevolent desire to expand consciousness, most marketing folks don't have the same inclination. So gamification efforts have come under criticism from many in the games industry for being shallow — that is, lacking the narrative quality of games made with a pure entertainment motive.

However, gamification is providing marketers with a new, measurable discipline that can improve the quality of game-product interaction. Over the past decade, there have been a number of false starts between games and brands — notably in advergaming (fully brand-centric games) and in-game advertising (putting ads into fictional games). Neither of these categories has been hugely successful, mostly because they failed to take into consideration the user's conflicting motivation for playing games and consuming commercials.

What gamification does is allow marketers to focus on what they know best — convincing consumers to take loyalty and purchasing actions — using a powerful toolkit of engagement gleaned from games. Armed with a new understanding of what makes people tick, and how to wind them up, marketers can build experiences that are enduring and engaging.

Of course, some gamified efforts will be weak and shallow, trying to overcome bad products or poor design with badges and incentives. Any good marketer knows this isn't a good long-term strategy. Most of the brands that I work with are very clear on the need for fundamentals: gamification is no panacea. And though there have been some duds, I'm quite confident that the overarching trend is for the use of good mechanics with good products to create value in every ecosystem.

I'm also certain that gamification, and the underlying motivations to succeed and connect that it exposes, are not just for kids. The evidence of this is all around us. Whether it's jostling for attention at a bar on Friday night or on a conference panel, making sure our kids get into a good college or getting that promotion at work, adults definitely care about mastering systems.

Gamification makes it possible for big brands and startups alike to engage us in meaningful and interesting ways, with an eye on aligning our personal motivations with their business objectives. The net product of this effort will be more engagement, better products and — generally — more fun and play in all spheres of our lives.

Gamification Master Class: How can game mechanics and game design help you deliver an engaging experience to your customers? This video master class shows you how to take advantage of gamification. You can also check out an early release of the forthcoming book "Gamification by Design."


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