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PlayGen: Gamification Can Bring A 'Gaming Layer' To Everything We Do
PlayGen: Gamification Can Bring A 'Gaming Layer' To Everything We Do
August 11, 2011 | By Phill Cameron

Over the past year or so, gamification has become a buzz word defined, in most, by only the vaguest of terms; a catch-all term that can mean nearly anything, that of applying game mechanics and principles to real life, to the end of... what, exactly? It's floated around, nebulous and imprecise, with its definition only now starting to take form.

At the Gamasutra-attended Edinburgh Interactive today, PlayGen's Kam Star and James Allsopp stand on the stage in lab coats, because they're gamification's equivalent of rocket scientists. PlayGen, a self-described "serious games and gamification development studio," works with the Ministry of Defense and education system in the UK, and while the thought of "gamifying" our defense budget is mildly worrying, they've certainly got confidence in the idea.

"We're all gaming right now," chief play officer Star begins, an opening salvo worth three points. "There's some sort of gaming layer that we're all playing."

In its basic essence, gamification is obvious in something like Foursquare, where people's basic movements are translated into points and achievements. Hang out in the same place enough, and you become "mayor" of that area, to be dethroned by another frequent visitor if you're not vigilant. Of course the question of what worth being "mayor" is arises, but that's not important. It's a "gaming layer," placed upon something as mundane as visiting a coffee shop.

The idea behind it is to take something that we might not otherwise be interested or engaged in and attach game mechanics onto it in an effort to draw us in through those systems. Attaching a high score to a location will make you visit that location more, so long as you want those points. Exploring a country on your holiday can be made a more interesting activity if there's some sort of "reward" for doing so.

Or, to put it in Star's words, "We're playing the relationship game; how many notches on your bedpost? We're collecting friends on Facebook. They're a commodity." One point for the frivolous treatment of human beings.

Tongue-in-cheek as it may be, there's a point here. And while it's not necessarily that gamification is a concept with merit, there is definitely something in tying our inherent competitive nature into our everyday lives. And the prevalence of mobile devices, coupled with the internet, allows such data to be digitized and stored in leaderboards, shown to you when you sign into the apps on your phone, or even on your desktop.

"Your bank balance is your high score." Two points for truth.

A lot of these systems were merely formalized by games. The high score is just turning social or physical supremacy into a tangible thing. Claiming that eBay is a game, as Allsopp does, because World of Warcraft has an auction house, seems a pointless recursion. Similarly, claiming that you can make people compete and brag about how many friends they have on Facebook through gamification rings hollow. People are already bragging about how many more friends they have than one another. You don't need to formalize it.

"Points are the cornerstone of gamification," Star counters with, scoring five points for prescience. "Points without a real point are pointless."

He's right, of course, which is the point. Gamification is something so new that of course there's going to be missteps on which particular parts of the game to reappropriate and translate into a real world environment. Incorporating a score into weight loss or rating how efficient you are with your taxes can really work, with the right kind of person.

During the presentation, the pair use a pack of playing cards of their own devising to create a game from the crowd-suggested topic of civil unrest, working through motivation, victory conditions, game mechanics and social interaction. It's the right idea; boiling gaming down to the bare basics, then converting them into something you don't need a console for. The problem lies in which basics really are the fundamentals, and which of them can be successfully separated from the games.

"There are three reasons for games and play," Star continues, scoring three points, just 'cause. "They are compelling. They are rewarding, and they are engaging."

Those are the basics of games. They're also the basics of a great deal of things, but for those that they're not, you can use the idea of gamification to make something compelling, rewarding and engaging. That's the idea behind it. That's why companies are excited; suddenly they've got a way to lure consumers in on a whole new level. Now the consumers can interact with them.

"I think gameplay should always elicit an emotional response." Another point for truth. "It's not just fun. It's much much bigger than just fun. You can use the game as a leverage to make it more interesting."

That's the crux of it, there. It's about drawing people in with basic game mechanics, and drawing in their friends, too. If a company can take a little part of one of your friends, even if it's just five minutes of their time and an achievement, they can show that to you, and pull you in that much quicker. Doesn't matter that you're not interested in the product; now you'll at least have a look at it. That's more than you would've done without gamification. Gamification gets 10 points from marketing.

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Christian McCrea
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I don't know how to express myself without using pagan words, so I prefer to remain silent.


Katharine Neil
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I bet you're just bitter because of your low scoring bank balance. Jeez, nobody likes a sore loser...

Life is a game, and there are winners and losers. If only poor people had more motivation to better their lot - like the possibility of badges and points on a leaderboard - maybe we could erase poverty all together. Just sayin'.

warren blyth
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McCrea: I agree that this is horrendous. but it's important not to remain silent? pagan words are ok? (Actually i have no real idea what you mean by "pagan words")

Neil: I hope you are joking? it seems like you're joking with that first line... but then you seem to go on to accept the whole premise that life is just a game, and trapping poor people into playing within a set of arbitrary rules might help them...?


oh my god you've entered jokification territory!

Katharine Neil
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My comment was absolutely serious. In fact, all my comments on gama are a conscious profile-building exercise with a view to setting myself up as an expert industry commentator and gamification consultant.

Todd Boyd
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NO, IT FRIGGIN' CAN'T. It's that simple. If you honestly believe that everything can TRULY be "gamified" (beyond just adding a point system), then you are contributing to the retardation of the gaming industry as a whole.

Leonardo Ferreira
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Oh crap, here we go again...

Tommy Leung
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To some degree, games simulate or try to simulate real life. Some games simulate "real life" in an unknown future or a historic past. Pac-man simulates running around collecting things while not getting caught. Space Invaders simulates an alien invasion. Missile Command simulates a cold war scenario. Zelda simulates a fantasy world of saving a Princess and destroying evil. Call of Duty simulates war. Mass Effect simulates a galactic future with aliens and the conflicts that might bring.

So, to some degree, games imitate life as it is, as we would like it to be, as we wonder how it could if.., or how it was. Gamification is to use the concepts of games--simulating something based in reality--to be used in reality.

So then gamification is really nothing. It's like taking corn, processing it into a bag of chips, and then taking that bag of chips and reconstituting it back into corn. If you were to go tell someone that you managed to turn corn into corn, no one would care. But if you said you took a bag of Doritos and turned that into corn, it sounds more impressive. But, what have you done? Nothing expect waste energy.

That's gamification.

Adding points to tasks does not make them more interesting--it might temporarily--but, everything we do or do not do already has a "points" system. It's just more complex and invisible than gamification. Gamification directs your attention to the pseudo point system as a distraction to temporarily motivate you to do something but, once you realize this point system is fake and doesn't really have any consequences, you revert back to listening to the unseen point system that's always been in place. If we believe that individuals act in their best interest--as they perceive it (praxeology)--then that's the point system. Gamification can perhaps temporarily make one think that these virtual points are in their best interest but, it will not override everything else in your life that you are juggling all the time to maximize gain--as you perceive it.

So, I'm really just thinking out loud while writing this and I as I wrote it, it hit me that praxeology might be able to debunk the effectiveness or usefulness of gamification.

warren blyth
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I dig your point (which i'd summarize as : "games are way to practice a subset of the complicated systems surrounding us in real life. Turning around and pretending that real life systems are a game is pointless").

but I think there is a sinister layer to it that is being overlooked. Video games often offer fake achievements and pointless stimulations. when people talk about "gamification" - all i can hear is "we want to apply fake achievements and pointless stimulations to every part of your waking life"

By gamifying real life, you break down the wall between practicing and doing. It reeks of finding a way to train people not to take their real life very seriously.

* (most pertinent example: I'm alarmed by how easily I am distracted by the hollow achievements/rewards of games when I should be working on the real achievements of my countless hobby projects. Comics, games, music, scripts, stories, are all projects I hope to be proud of on my death bed - but instead I waste days playing someone else's game).

* there was an interesting TED talk mailed out this morning that ties into this:

essentially he says that modern men are becoming "arousal addicts," through our involvement in video games, porn, and online-information-overload. (he points out that a drug addict seeks "more", while an arousal addict seeks "different" - sound familiar to anyone else?). This speaker seems to imply that the core problem is how willing industry is to supply endless variety to the arousal addict. but I feel like they are just preying on how many modern consumers are psychologically under-developed. I want to say the industry isn't the problem...

On some level you would hope a child has learned to differentiate reality from simulation before they grow up.

but on some other level : it's really not a fair fight. And crazy ass talks like this PlayGen farce are terrifyingly bold/irresponsible.


p.s. what i'm trying to say is one specific part of your logic ramble is likely incorrect. the part where you say " will not override everything else in your life that you are juggling all the time to maximize gain"

Adam Bishop
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Not all people seek supremacy. It's just that the people who do tell themselves that everyone else does so that they can justify their own quest for power as "natural".

This isn't just a misunderstanding of human nature, but of games, too. Just like people have different goals in life, people play games for different reasons too. Some people like high scores and achievements, sure, but some like exploration, others like story, some just play as a way to zone out and relax, etc.

Ian Bogost
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At least this week I don't have to go through the trouble of responding.

Christian McCrea
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"PlayGen, a self-described "serious games and gamification development studio," works with the Ministry of Defense and education system in the UK"

Cue vuvuzelas.

Carlo Delallana
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Does gamification affect our ability to connect with our actions on a more emotional level? If we are just breaking things down into simple rules, scoring them with points/badges/achievements with the goal of winning then we may miss the point of the activity altogether.

If everything we do is a game then we have robbed ourselves of any kind of meaningful and lasting experience at the expense of making something tedious "fun".

Robert Fox-Galassi
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I disagree with this sentiment.

Most games are preferably played not just against people, but with them. I see the benefits of 'gamification' in certain aspects of our life where engagement could use a boost.

Not only that, but I can speak for myself when I say that the games I play mean so much more when I do so with other people.

Brock Dubbels
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Awesome, someone is wrong on the internet again.

Ian Bogost put it succinctly here:

If you don't want to link, gamefication is a marketing ploy.

Want to get out those difficult stains?

Gamify them

Employees don't want to work Gamify them!

So we should make work fun for everyone? Ugh. Isn't the idea that we make some kinds of sacrifices for accomplishment? We feel good because what we did is hard?

Also, have any gamefiers actually read any human anthropology or learning theory?

If so, then they should be citing work that occurred over 50 years ago.

If not, then please read about game theory, read Mumford on Techics, or perhaps Geertz on Balinese Cockfighting, or maybe Jeremy Bentham on games and politics in eighteen-ninety-shit-that-was-along-time-ago.

Regarding research, there is actual research that says that testing makes people remember more and perform better

The body makes learning more memorable when we have struggled to learn. The same way stress helps people heal.

Do I get points for this post?

Mark Venturelli
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This is worthless.

Jason Withrow
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Now how did that go again... oh, right.

Robert Fox-Galassi
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I don't see what the real problem is. I welcome others, however, to spell out to me why this is an evil thing.

Kam Star
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Thanks for all the positive responses.

For the negative ones all I can say is 'you lose' (now don't think of the game)

For anyone who loves coming up with game ideas check out

Mark Venturelli
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I just lost 2 points of IQ.

Josh Wilson
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OK, so

1. trying to make uninteresting activities engaging by putting points on them is ridiculous and insulting,


2. this article implies (until the last paragraph) that gamification is all about points, and is therefore ridiculous in the same vein.

But you guys are just picking easy arguments to win -there's a lot of use in the "gamification as the use of game design and mechanics in real life" concept. I teach at a university in Japan and have good success with gamifying my classes. Examples:

1. For grades I give the students points that increase during the semester (game style) rather than percentages (academic style). It's more motivating and it shows how and where they can progress. It also allows me to grade more flexibly.

2. I give constant feedback (game style) instead of mid-semester or semester feedback (academic style), which improves student performance and motivation.

3. I make their scores semi-public -they can see every score, just not the name attached to it.

4. I quantify as much as I can in the class and assign points to it (eg visiting my office is an achievement) so that they can understand easily exactly what they need to do to be a good student.

5. I put on the game designer's hat when I design my classes by saying "how can I make my class challenging enough to keep my players on their toes, but winnable at the same time."

Anyway, Ian Bogost and others are on the money about the snake-oil salesmen, but don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.