On gamification

The Walk, which uses game mechanics such as the acquisition of badges and and interactive story, in a (failed) attempt to get me to take more walking exercise.

It’s about time I addressed the issue of Gamification. It’s a word that gets bandied about a great deal, and one which has inspiring proponents like Jane McGonigal. But what does it actually mean?

Nick Pelling lays claim (in this 2011 blog post) to coining the word in 2002 when he “began to wonder whether the kind of games user-interface I had been developing for so long could be used to turbo-charge all manner of transactions and activities on commercial electronic devices [his emphasis]– in-flight video, ATM machines, vending machines, mobile phones, etc.  Unsurprisingly, this was the point when I coined the deliberately ugly word “gamification“, by which I meant applying game-like accelerated user interface design to make electronic transactions both enjoyable and fast.” (I’m glad he calls it “deliberately ugly” – I was ready to rant on about it being a linguistically unnecessary Americanism when I first heard it. I’m over that now). Of passing interest is his 2003 consultancy web page (looking VERY Web 1.0) which announces gamification to the world. That consultancy shut up shop three years later because, broadly, no-one was interested.

Its interesting to note that what he was interested in doing was bringing game-like interfaces to electronic devices. Which, though I’m not sure he would agree, is not what gamification has come to mean. Towards the end of his post, he insists that “the underlying idea of gamification [is] making hard things easy, expressive, near-effortless to use.” Games (and computer games in particular, since this is what Pelling is talking about) may offer interfaces that are apparently easy to pick up and start playing, but they are (mostly) designed to get more difficult, that is part of the challenge of games, the challenge that contributes to (successful) games becoming intrinsically motivating.

And its motivation that is at the centre of the current use of the word. In their 2014 literature review Hamari, Koivisto and Sarsa say “gamification can be seen to have three main parts: 1) the implemented motivational affordances, 2) the resulting psychological outcomes, and 3) the further behavioral outcomes.” Their review covers 24 studies of gamification, and categorizes all the “motivational affordances” mentioned in those studies: Points; Leaderboards; Achievements/Badges; Levels; Story/Theme; Clear goals; Feedback; Rewards; Progress; and, Challenge.

These resonate with (but do not match) some of the emotional models I’ve been reading about elsewhere. Of course Points, Leaderboards, Achievements/Badges, Levels and Rewards can all be summed up with the Acquisition trigger that Sylvester mentions. Challenge exists in both models. Story and Progress fit with Sylvester’s character arc, and Theme (arguably) with his environment trigger. I’m a bit curious about “Feedback”, because, surely everything a system does in response to the user is “feedback” isn’t it?

Anyway, the Hamari et al’s thesis is that badges, a story etc (motivational affordances), should have psychological outcomes (engagement, enjoyment and yup, yer actual motivation) that change the user’s behavior, encouraging them to, for example, take more walking exercise (behavioral outcomes). Their meta-analysis of these 24 studies indicates that “gamification does produce positive effects and benefits.” But “some studies showed that the results of gamification may not be long-term, but instead could be caused due to a novelty effect.” The authors also point out that “As previous works on player motivations suggest, people in fact interact with game-like systems in different manners, and for different reasons. Thus, the experiences created by the gamifying motivational affordances are also likely to vary.”

My personal experience supports all these conclusions. Three years or so back, I took delivery of a new company car, that after a few hundred miles rewarded me with a “cup” to celebrate my fuel-efficient driving. I endeavored there-after not to lose any of the graphic flower petals each indicated things like keeping to legal speeds, not braking heavily etc which had contributed to my cup. You can chalk that up as a “positive benefit”. Other attempts have not been so successful – the insurance company Aviva have recently started to use gamification to sell and reduce the costs of car insurance. I downloaded the app out of curiosity and for the purposes of this study. It was infuriating, and lasted only a week on my phone. The novelty had obviously worn off. And about a year ago I downloaded another app, The Walk (illustrated above), I responded badly to its needless badges and dull story. I used it less and less and eventually deleted it from my phone. It was a recent bout of very high blood pressure and a stern warning from my doctor that worked better to motivate me towards a healthier lifestyle.

2 thoughts on “On gamification

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