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Gamification: Framing The Discussion

November 2, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

[As a prelude to a full-on examination of gamification, Badgeville's Tony Ventrice digs deep into what makes games games, using work that's come before as a basis to explore this new tool -- the first of his ongoing series of articles on gamification.]

A lot has been said about gamification recently, and a lot of circular arguing has gone around what it means to compare an experience to a game.

I have two responses to this discussion:

  1. "Gamification" as a term is indeed opportunistic and vague. While the word seems to imply a land-grab for everything that is great about games, in current practice it only represents points and badges: loyalty and reputation systems.
  2. Games have a lot to offer, and the current form of gamification isn't a bad place to start. There is a lot to be gained from tying loyalty and reputation systems to a website or product and, as the concept evolves, other aspects of gameplay are sure to follow.

What I would like to do is define the full scope of what makes games fun (not a trivial task by any means) and then explore the practical application to real-world businesses. This journey will be made in multiple parts.

  • Part 1 will be to dissect the concept at the intersection of the following words: Game, Fun, Play. The objective will be to end with a list of aspects -- aspects of what make games fun.
  • Each of the following parts will explore how these aspects might be applied to business enterprise.

What Makes a Game Fun?

This question has been asked many times, by both academics and game designers. A common conclusion on the game design side is that games represent choice and learning. I'll let a few of the most prominent experts in game design put it in their words.

Raph Koster says in A Theory of Fun:

Fun is the act of mastering a problem mentally.

Jesse Schell says in The Art of Game Design:

A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.

I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I came to basically the same conclusion when I defined gameplay for myself as: interesting decisions (apparently Sid Meier said the same thing -- I may have got it from him.) I came to this conclusion because personally decisions and challenge are what I enjoy about games when I play them.

And this definition is perfectly functional if you're designing games for people like me and Raph and Jesse; games like the video game industry has been designing for the past 30 years, and will go on designing for the next 30 years. A deeper understanding is only really useful if it's your job to deconstruct a game and rebuild the "fun" in a completely new context, like, say, a corporate website.

An Unexpected Truth

Gradually, we've seen examples of games where the learning has been peeled away. FarmVille and Foursquare are evidence that people are willing to call something a "game" even if the decisions are vapid and the learning is simplistic. Defining a game by choices and solutions doesn't seem to be enough anymore.

An argument can be made to defend the old definition. There is learning in FarmVille, if just a little bit. And Foursquare, well, I suppose you learn where you have a chance at maintaining mayor status and where you don't...

But I'm not buying it. The fact is, the learning aspect to these "games" is so thin it hardly counts. Even if you posit that the average FarmVille player is less intelligent than the average "real game" player, it doesn't explain why FarmVille players play for so long -- we're talking about months, more than enough time for even a simpleton to learn everything there is to know in the game.

The truth is, we have only two options: either refuse to call these things "games" or admit that there is more to games than just learning.

But before we move on, we'll give the old definition one more chance. We'll note that Schell and Koster didn't say games were just learning, they said games were learning with a playful or fun attitude. Raph elaborates:

The lesson here is that fun is contextual. The reasons why we are engaging in an activity matter a lot.

So, the definition of a fun game is more than just learning, and neither Koster nor Schell has found it simple enough to condense into a one-sentence definition. Fun, it turns out is a very tricky word.


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