Making Games is Hard
The name "serious games" may help organizations overcome an initial fear of the form, but it does little to address the terrifying reality of actually making a game. Executives and military brass and doctors and politicians aren't idiots, and they realize that good games are hard to make. They realize that commercial games are big and shiny and cost millions or tens of millions of dollars.
They realize that hundreds of people are sometimes necessary to create them. They realize that games are different from the kinds of products most organizations produce, and that they are therefore fundamentally incompatible with existing ways of doing business.
After the initial calm the term provides, "serious games" fails to quell the resulting storm. And unfortunately, as serious games have progressed, only a few have succeeded at riding the thunder.
There just aren't enough high-quality games that also serve serious purposes effectively. Making games is hard. Making good games is even harder. Making good games that hope to serve some external purpose is even harder.
Efforts like the Serious Games Initiative, the Serious Games Summits at GDC, and the many efforts in research and design around games beyond entertainment by people like me, Jim Gee, Jane McGonigal, Katie Salen, Ben Sawyer, and others had already made the idea of using games for broader purposes more appealing. But serious games and their ilk had done a terrible job making games seem viable to create, deploy, and use.
The Rhetoric of "Gamification"
This is why "gamification" is such an effective term. It keeps the term "game" and puts it right up in front, drawing attention to the form's mysterious power. But the kicker comes at the end: the "-ify" suffix it makes applying that medium to any given purpose seem facile and automatic.
When you -ify something, you put it in a particular state, or you fill it with a particular quality. We can purify water by running it through a filter. We can clarify a confusing topic through explanation. We can amplify a signal by boosting its oscillation rate. We can beautify a city by planting trees or removing litter. We can falsify a report by interweaving lies with truth. We can humidify a dry bedroom by introducing water vapor into the air. We can magnify an image by placing it behind an optical instrument. We can terrify a child by jumping out unseen from behind an obstruction.
In some of these cases, we've invented devices that perform the actions, solutions that represent definitive answers for a particular problem, be it increasing the amplitude of a signal, removing impurities from a liquid, or increasing moisture in a room.
But in most of these cases, the details of -ification are abstracted, left vague. Does urban beautification really just involve new green space, or does it also relate to the underlying planning of a city? By taking a goal or a quality and framing it as -ification, a speaker makes something seem easy to accomplish, even if it is in fact difficult.
And this is precisely what gamification is all about. Here's a characteristic excerpt from the gamification movement's Dark Lord, Gabe Zichermann:
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, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place.
Note how deftly Zichermann makes his readers believe that points, badges, levels, leader boards, and rewards are "key game mechanics." This is wrong, of course -- key game mechanics are the operational parts of games that produce an experience of interest, enlightenment, terror, fascination, hope, or any number of other sensations. Points and levels and the like are mere gestures that provide structure and measure progress within such a system.
But as Frank Luntz has shown time and time again, reality matters far less than perception. When people hear "gamification," it's this incredible facility that registers, the simplicity, smoothness, and ease with which the wild, magical beast of games can be tamed and integrated into any other context at low cost and high scale.
Margaret Robertson has critiqued gamification on the basis that it takes the least essential aspects of games and presents them as the most essential. Robertson coins the derogatory term pointsification as a more accurate description of this process.
As compelling as we might find Robertson's critique, it attacks a problem that just doesn't bother gamification's proponents. The sanctity of games' unique means of expression is just not of much concern to the gamifiers. Instead they value facility -- the easiest way possible to capture some of the fairy dust of games and spread it upon products and services.
Games or points isn't the point -- for gamifiers, there's no difference. It's the -ification that's most important. Zicherman makes the point for me: "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."