At GDC 2011 on Tuesday, a panel of game makers debated over a term so new that it hardly even has a definition: "Gamification."
The panel was separated into two teams - team "We've Already Won," which was in support of the idea of gamification - and the randomly-named team "Charlie Sheen," which argued against many of the concepts associated with gamification.
Schell Games' Jesse Schell - one of the main reasons gamification has become widely discussed in the last year - defined gamification as "Taking things that aren't games and trying to make them feel more like games."
Schell spoke at the Las Vegas DICE Summit in 2010, and during a compelling talk he envisioned a game-inspired world in which people earned transferrable points from companies or the government for doing anything from brushing their teeth to taking public transportation instead of personal transportation.
Team Charlie Sheen's Ian Bogost with Georgia Institute of Technology is staunchly against the idea of gamification, defining it as "The easiest way to talk to marketers about games." Microsoft's Ross Smith added that it's appropriate that "Something so vapid is so vapidly named."
Schell argued, "Games, unlike most things, they're just structures of pleasure." When people say they want something to be more like a game, "what they mean is they want things to be nicer, more pleasurable," he said.
Bogost shot back arguing that gamification is not about making things "more pleasurable." He said, "It doesn't really matter if you capture the essence of games or not [when 'gamifying' something], because the purpose of gamification is not to make things more enjoyable."
He added, "[Gamification is] a very efficient way to get a hot cultural commodity into your product."
While he was on anti-gamification Team Charlie Sheen, OneTrueFan's Eric Marcoullier expressed some concern that the basic idea of gamification has potential to be a positive force. "We're in danger of stillbirthing a pretty interesting idea," he said.
Playmatic's Margaret Wallace said that the idea of putting all kinds of aspects of life into a virtual skinner box would be ultimately unsatisfying to people. "I think that if things are designed to be skinner boxes like that, it becomes very transparent," she said.
But with such debate over "gamification's" merits and shortcomings, should the games industry just try to dump the term altogether?
Marcoullier said, " ... It makes me want to vomit when I say it. ... Just don't use the term any more. There's something very simple called 'game mechanics.' ... So let's just use that," he said, which earned applause from the industry audience.
But having a rather provocative term such as "gamification" has put a spotlight on a category very closely related to "serious games." "Gamification," after only about year of existing, already has 552,000 Google references, while the at least decade-old term "serious games" has 770,000.
Bogost said, "Words really do matter." He referred to the terms "global warming" versus "climate change," which both carry different connotations. Bogost said "gamification" carries a connotation of "something that you just strap on," so he finds "gamification" an appropriate term.
Hide&Seek's Margaret Robertson, who sat on the pro-gamification side of the table but still expressed disdain with the direction of gamification, said, "It's an odious word. I feel quite dirty just being here," she laughed. "... It's awful on every level, but we're stuck with it."
Schell put his opinion succinctly when he said, "Words are crap. We should all shut up and make stuff."