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.