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January 20 2012

Four short links: 20 January 2012

  1. On the Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA (John Battelle) -- My first step will be to read this new book from Larry Lessig, an intellectual warrior who many (including myself) lament as bailing on our core issue of IP law to tilt at the supposed windmill of political corruption. But I think, upon deeper reflection, that Larry is simply playing chess a few moves ahead of us all. It’s time to catch up, and move forward together. THIS.
  2. Google+ Scraper (GitHub) -- Instead of scraping the HTML code itself, this script fights its way through OZ_initData, a big, mean and ugly inline JavaScript array containing the profile information. (via Pete Warden)
  3. Student Study Techniques -- How to focus in the age of distraction. cf Clay Johnson's Information Diet.
  4. Code Racer -- interesting addition to the "teach me to program" world: a competitive game to drill your HTML/CSS recall. You race to add HTML and CSS in response to prompts like "add a level 1 heading with the words: Racing Car". Requires Facebook login. It's how kids learn to type these days, so it just might work for web design too. (In my day it was with a typewriter and a bib)

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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