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Gamification Dynamics: Choice and Competition
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Gamification Dynamics: Choice and Competition

December 14, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In the first installment of this series on gamification, Badgeville's Tony Ventrice looked to frame the discussion around what's possible with gamification by attempting to discover what makes games fun. Two dynamics he explored before were Growth and Emotion, and in this article, he tackles Choice and Competition.]


The word "choice" could be defined to describe strategic choices or tactical risks. But those are topics we already covered when we discussed growth, learning, and overcoming challenges. The definition I would like to discuss now is: the freedom to choose and the freedom to act. To put it another way, I'd like to talk about autonomy.

Many of our modern cultures are founded on the concept of autonomy as an inborn right. We give it names like: freedom, liberty, and expression. It is a favorite topic of philosophers, and an investigation of the subject could easily lead to the likes of Locke and Kant, but for our purposes it shouldn't be necessary to go that far.

Instead, I'd like to stick to simple definitions. To start, I think it's safe to say every autonomous choice implies three potential considerations: impulse, influence, and morality. The desire to effect change, understanding the results of that change, and the moral implications of those results.

I'll reiterate that these are possible considerations; a choice need not consider all three, but only a minimum of one (if it considered none, it would be essentially random, and not really much of a choice at all).


To act on a sensation. Impulse is a very rudimentary aspect of the human psyche. I want something and I take it. I wonder what something feels like and I do it. Yet, as these two statements probably have already implied, we cannot follow through with many of our impulses.

In fact, I would estimate most of our impulses go unfulfilled. We know the repercussions of acting out, the risks of ignoring consequences, and we restrain ourselves. But all this self-editing can be tiring. We yearn to express ourselves, to feel unhindered, free to do as we please. When people talk about "unwinding", they're talking about dropping all the restraint, the rules and restrictions -- of going someplace safe where they can fulfill at least a small subset of impulse; be it a den, a hike, or a video game.


Influence simply states that for an action, there will be a reaction; for a choice, there will be a result. In the case of pure impulse, this relationship is rather banal: I choose strawberry jam because it will give me greater sensory pleasure than grape.

But in the case of choice based on predicted long-term influence, influence can be profound and life changing: I chose to pursue a Computer Science degree in Los Angeles and that choice directly influenced every event in my life thereafter, from the people I met to the places I went and the things I've done.

It's also worth noting that choices not only have an effect on ourselves, they often affect others and our environment. And we typically like this. We the like feeling that our presence makes a difference. When it doesn't, our role comes into question -- sometimes even our very existence. If my actions have no impact, why am I even here?

To break this down even a little more, lets look into these different dimensions of influence:

Self. At the fundamental level, people in Western cultures feel a need to have an influence over their own fate. This is a primary expectation and carries some degree of responsibility (I am responsible for what happens to me). If I climb on the roof and fall off, I have to deal with the injuries I incur.

Environment. At the next level, people feel a need to have an influence over their environment -- to change the conditions that surround them. This is a secondary expectation, and carries a moderate degree of responsibility (I am part of an environment and my actions will impact the future resources of this space). If while climbing on the roof, I damage it, I will have to deal with the leaks when it rains.

Others. At the third level, many people like having an effect on others, to share in their autonomy. This is a tertiary expectation, and can carry a high degree of responsibility (I have an influence over what happens to other people). If I cause someone else to get on the roof, I may be responsible if they fall off and hurt themselves.


The third aspect of autonomous choice is morality. Morality implies that, for many decisions, there are universally acknowledged right and wrong options. The moral guidelines are defined by society and may not always be in agreement with the desires of the individual.

Morality becomes a choice precisely when the desires of the self and the society are not in agreement; does the individual follow personal impulse or the precepts of decency? One the one hand, personal gain; on the other, social approval.

In strong societies, the choice of morality comes couched in the threat of punishment. For the punishment-fearing individual, real moral choice may be limited to the mostly trivial cases. For example, I may make the immoral choice to turn right at a red light without stopping (a minor moral infraction), but I would probably never consider murdering someone (a major infraction).

What we are talking about are laws and laws represent just the simplest example of society's influence on individual choice. Society's influence comes in other forms, less formal rules, things like decency, chivalry, respect and politeness. Each a form of moral choice, each adherent to standards determined by society. The rules are less formal than laws and so are the punishments. If I am rude, I'm not thrown in jail, but I may find that other people are less willing to cooperate with me.

Morality becomes interesting and potentially fun when you remove the threat of punishment. Many consider this to be the true test of moral fiber -- will you defer your personal desires to those of the society, even when the society is unable to enforce its rules?

Impulse, Influence, and Morality in Games

Impulse in games. By virtue of the simple fact that games have limitations, they can be said to have rules. The player can not do anything he likes inside a game; in fact, there is very little a player can do inside a game compared to the real world. Yet, people often find games more liberating than real life.

This is because while many games model reality, these models are generally accepted to be simplifications or surrealistic interpretations. They are perceived as less limiting than reality because they focus on a narrow band of interactions and, within that range of focus, key restrictions have been removed.

For example, in Grand Theft Auto III, I can't enroll in cooking classes, lie down on the beach, get a tattoo of a manatee or a thousand other things. But I can shoot someone with limited repercussions or steal any car I want and tool around town on the wrong side of the street until I crash and pop out, free from injury.

The thousands of things I can't do are out of the scope of the game -- as long as I don't expect to be able to do them, they aren't acknowledged as limitations. Impulse only disappoints in a game when the game sets the expectation of being able to do something, only to prevent it from being done.

For example, in a game where boxes and crates can be destroyed, finding two crates blocking a doorway that cannot be destroyed disappoints the player's impulse to find out what's through the doorway. But if the door was never there in the first place, the player would never wonder what was on the other side of the wall.

Impulse also covers the dimension of decoration. A game that allows for decoration, such as The Sims, allows players to redecorate as the whim strikes them. Blue wallpaper today, red stripes tomorrow. This sense of capricious personalization is not limited to virtual dollhouses; it frequently turns up in the form of avatar builders that let the player change or evolve their in-game appearance.

Impulsive choice is a powerful aspect of games that is becoming increasingly relevant as games are able to model the real world more and more accurately. As games become deeper and more realistic, players will be enabled to indulge a wider range of impulses without risk of consequences.

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