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Gamification -- old wine in new skins
by Shava Nerad on 04/01/11 02:53:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Just to disclaim myself as a gray hair, I want a t-shirt that says (in VT-100 font) "USENET was my blog."  The information age is good at historical amnesia, rebranding and reinvention.  So I'm about to explain gamification to all of you from a boomer perspective.

Gamification is not new.  Since the first sales guy got paid on commission, and the first toy got put in a Cracker Jacks box, gamification has been with us.  Humans need dopamine -- that neurochemically transmitted psychological reward we get from achieving some goal. 

For early humans, that may have been from filling a basket with berries so the family could have fruit for dinner, or taking down a large mammal, or finding a really nice sex partner.  Humans like to create games for themselves; it's a collary to our ability to plan and set goals.

However, humans are pretty bad at setting goals for open-ended tasks.  We are not good at building psychological frameworks for habits, or for activities that others want us to make as habits.

For example, a young child may not see any future facing goal to do math homework.  The means of motivating her to do her math homework basically involve rewards and punishments.  If you don't do you math homework, no dessert.  Or, if you do your math homework, you get a gold star and bask in the warm approval of a good teacher.  These methods of behavioral reinforcement are authentic and they work.  This is not news, but in a basic way, it is gamification.

A kid might look at the cereal shelf and thinks, "This cereal had a cool toy last time we got cereal.  I want to have more of those toys, and collect them."  That kid is subject to gamification.

A salesperson looks at at the graphs of how his team is going this month, and thinks, "If I can pull out three more sales at the level of my average this month, I'll top out the ranks and get a bonus."  That guy is subject to the gamification of his job.

A teenager who knows that if he pulls in a GPA greater than 3.0 that her grandfather will pay for spring break.

Puzzles on the side of the cereal box.

Sashes of badges in Girl or Boy Scouting

There is very little new in gamification, except the name.  Marketers and managers have used reward structures for over a hundred years.  It's the science of motivation.  Motivational speakers teach you to set goals and reward structures for yourself.  Time management strategies allow you to create rules for your own games.

When the telephone was invented, people bemoaned that a phone call was not "real" communication.  We have had the same struggles over email, online chat, and virtual worlds.  Today, no one would say that a person you know through business only as a voice on a phone is not a real business relationship.  For email, most people would say the same.  Soon it will be the same in virtual world acquaintances.

Today, many people in games and in marketing are saying that gamification is not authentic.  I beleive that as it becomes less of a buzz word, both sides will come to understand that it's the same games humans have been playing since they embraced the concept of time and planning, and motivational tricks.

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Sting Newman
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I agree to some extent but somethings have changed for instance using the civilization engine to teach history or using full immersion of a FPS engine to model history or 'play' (and experience) history in depth will soon be possible and it will change some things. The problem is the timeline, even stacking normal games with appealing content is a huge undertaking, massively expensive and that is FOR PROFIT game making.

I do think there are a place for games to help us see and understand worlds that we cannot access (like our bodies). I find the whole concept of Immune attack very fascinating by rendering the hidden world of life in ways that are much easier to grasp and understand.

Basically it's the emergence of simulation as a VIABLE teaching tool, unfortunately I think the 'gamification' cheerleaders are underestimating the timeline, I think it's going to take decades/century or so before their are tools that allow teachers to create vast swaths of educational content inexpensively.

I think what is happening is just that people see world of warcraft and they are underestimating (by a longshot) the timescale and amount of work it's going to take to make it feasible everyday kind of thing.

JB Vorderkunz
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There are serious pedagogical issues with using the Civ engine for education - it only presents a materialist-reductionist account of history... and those issues face any simulation pedagogy: the realism provided by 'direct' perception may cloud the student's mind as to the difference between theory and fact...

But I agree with Sting that it's further out than the next 5-10 years (a decade is the soonest I can see such plug&play teachtech emerging).

Sting Newman
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The point is not to use Civ as a replacement for teaching it's to aid teaching. Not everything has to be dry bookreading and long talks by the professor (which history has a lot of if you've taken any courses).

Altug Isigan
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Good point.

I think you could use Civ in a course on the philosophy of history, and the professor still would give us long talks about the notion of progress, evolutionary social theory etc ;)

Anyway, the thing here is that games aren't "objective" learning tools, and them being interactive doesn't mean they bring us closer to reality. The idea that through play we experience things "directly" is in itself a reduction. Games (or simulations, if you wish) are, after all, representations, reflecting an ideology, or in more contemporary terms, being a discourse on something by someone.

JB Vorderkunz
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digital simulation is the most powerful communicative medium - but that power is ambivalent... my issue on the pedagogical side here is not at the collegiate level (where laziness is common but perhaps less damaging), but at the primary school level (elementary and middle school). Educators at this level can do as much damage by omission as by commission.

As an additional tool in the kit of an excellent teacher, digital sim will help us realize the dream of unlocking the huge potential in every kid. But in the hands of a lazy teacher, it's worse than worthless. I say that because I agree with Altug that calling a simulation 'direct' experience is reductionist, disagreeing only to the extent that a child's ability to fruitfully distinguish between the two is directly proportional to the state of development of their frontal lobe - a process which varies from individual to individual.

But that's all kinda tangential to the OP, sry :)

Moses Wolfenstein
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I'd just like to point out that work around games for learning (including games like Immune Attack, Kurt Squire's work with Civ for teaching history, and a whole spate of other research and curricula) predates the term gamification. Most of us who have done work around games and learning are probably not too happy with the gamification label being slapped on that work. At least, speaking for myself I find the conflation of gamification with any work with games outside of entertainment to be deeply problematic . . . maybe I just need to contribute my own gamification blog post to the growing morass.

Altug Isigan
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When I hear the word gamification, I can't help myself thinking of B.F.Skinner's utopia Walden Two.

Brad Borne
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Whenever someone mentions gamification like it's a new thing, my first response is, 'seriously? You never got a gold star before??'

Then again, the school system seems to always want to move away from a competitive environment, so maybe logical solutions need a buzzword yet again.

Jacob Pederson
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The modern twist is that instead of having a gold star next to your name on a list of your local peers, you have a gold star placed next to your name on a global list of thousands of your peers, along with a group score for your local peers ranked vs group scores for the whole world. You have this info in real time.

This can do wonders for the motivation of small teams. In fact, the motivation value is so high, people will literally pay you for the opportunity. (see WOW guilds).

Jack Garbuz
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I think gaming courseware COULD be used to teach many things, but mainly in "hands on" subjects. Subjects like chemistry, physics and other sciences where potentially dangerous experiments could be conducted instead using virtual experiments, which the individual student or the team could repeat until they "get it." I suppose some SIM software might have some use in teaching history and social sciences, but I'm less certain of their value in that regard.

Jack Garbuz
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P.S., USENET was my earliest internet "social network" as well.

Tim Carter
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Yes. It's just like "transmedia". We've had "transmedia" for years. Look at Lawrence of Arabia, from 1963 or so. First it's a book. Then a movie is made. Then another (the famous one, by David Lean); and this also spins off a really famous record.

Hakim Boukellif
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I don't think anyone's confused about how extrinsic motivation has always been used to promote certain behaviour in people. The key difference with this "gamification" movement, however, is that it seems to be aiming for a certain amount of universalization; that there's this great, big system that keeps track of you in however it can and gives points based on your behaviour. Not just getting points for buying something at a specific store or going to the gym regularly (which already exists to an extent in the form of loyalty cards, Air Miles etc.), but also for finishing reading a book on your Kindle or using your wi-fi enabled electric toothbrush for over two minutes at least twice a day.

I think that's the part that scares off most critics. Although extrinsic motivation can have merit and is sometimes even necessary (try to imagine what happens to the world if people no longer need to earn a living), there are also many things in this world that are pointless if not done for its own merits. If allowed to be taken to an extreme, gamification will become the religion of a materialistic world.

Shava Nerad
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Hakim, I really like your comment, but I have to point out that in my youth, there were many extrinsic cultural institutions, from Green Stamps, to the little savings books at school that, filled in, bought a savings bond (but also had cool stickers!). And then there were the little things like doing Trick or Treat for UNICEF, or signing up sponsors for a charity walk, or selling Girl Scout cookies.

For children -- because children have short attention spans and poor planning skills -- these programs were good framing for longer term goals.

On the other hand, many people feel that gamification is manipulative of adults...with short attention spans and poor planning skills. In some cases adults want to be manipulated (playing the point system for Weight Watchers), but in other cases, maybe the manipulation is for the state (America's Army) or commercial gain (Starbuck's Card) and might generate behavior that the individual might not engage in (enlisting in the military, buying lattes) at all, or as often, without the game attached.

The more games are institutionalized, the more the obligation to deprogram ourselves as individuals so we can see through the games and pick and choose how we want to play, and with whom.