Thursday, December 1, 2011

Wherigo geocaching

Today I had the opportunity to test Wherigo. It's a toolset for creating GPS adventures for GPS devices. My friend got a Garmin navigator that included an implementation of Wherigo, so we went off to seek one of the two Wherigo caches in Oulu.

This one was much like a multicache with one important difference: because the waypoints were just pieces of code in the virtual game world inside the device, the cache creator was able to enforce rules for traversing between waypoints. In this particular example, there were danger zones scattered around the area where the waypoints were located, and ending up in one of them forced the seekers to start the entire thing over. There were also timelimits for some of the waypoints and again failing to meet those meant starting from the beginning. There was no map, so detecting threats had to be done by looking at their distance and direction. We got shot down a few times when we were still figuring out how exactly the system works. Overall it took us about an hour to go through the entire adventure.

The experience was indeed different from any other caching experience because of the enforced rules. I wouldn't like to do this all the time, because much of the fun in caching is in the freedom to choose one's own approach but it's cool variation from time to time. I don't know the limitations of the toolset just yet, but using what I saw in this one cache could do stuff like actually enforcing limitations on transportation choice for people who want to create no-cars multicaches or whatever.

This was my second time playing an alternate reality game that places virtual objects into real world coordinates using GPS. It was kind of interesting, like navigating threats based on just a radar (or in this case listening to a radar officer, since I wasn't holding the device). The first time was when I playtested a submarine warfare game, and it had some of the same feeling. The submarine game had somewhat better immersion because the enemies were other players, visually present in the environment and also detectable using sonar. I think one important thing in alternate reality game immersion is to make a plausible explanation for why things in the game cannot be seen in the real world.

Anyway, to summarize, Wherigo seems like an interesting addition to geocaching and I'll be reporting if I encounter some fresh concepts that make use of it. We'll be doing the second local cache next week and I've heard it should be a different experience, and also more frustrating. Waiting to see how...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stage Autumn Game Jam

Nothing new to report really. I've been working on my framework's code structure. It doesn't really make for interesting conversation... However, I did participate in yet another game jam. Unfortunately this time our team didn't quite finish the game in time, but we got quite close. I've written about some of the problems we faced in my other blog. Go check it out!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Yet Another Blog

A quick ad. I started another blog called Shouting from the Sidelines. Unlike this blog which focuses on academic stuff and beneficial games, the new blog is 100% game design. I'll be analyzing games and also occasionally writing about my own designs.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Body Strikes Back!

This post is more of an observation and summary than anything else, but I decided to share it anyway. This is a somewhat brief summary of one discussion session we had at the summer school workshop.

Before the era of video games, play typically meant something physical, an activity that involved using the entire body. Certainly there were some board games but nevertheless, play was more physical. We can roughly say the same about work, although the shift from entirely physical labor to office jobs happened a little bit earlier than video games, and there have been professions such as scribes who worked on a desk. Nevertheless, even though we cannot point it out directly, there is some point in history where the balance tipped towards work where people mostly sit down. For games, we know that this shift started with video games, so I'm mostly going to discuss what happened there.

The arcade cabinet and especially old mechanical flippers were in fact quite physical, at least compared to home computers and consoles. At the very least, players had to stand in front of arcade cabinets. According to research, sitting is slowly killing us, so at least ye olde arcade games were marginally healthier. Eventually though, gaming moved from arcades to homes in form of consoles, and players were planted on their sofas. The ergonomy of older console controllers and computer accessories was pretty hideous. At that point, most likely nobody cared. What was important was what these wonderful new devices could do, not how comfortable they were to use. Besides, you can play from your couch! How more comfortable can you get?

If we fast-forward to the 20th century, gaming has become more widespread and the new generation of kids is practically growing up playing games. Outdoors playing and sports are not out of the picture, but as is evident from the growing obesity problem, they do not get performed as much as they used to. Technology has transformed play. What was once play of the entire body has now become play of the mind. The percentage of work that's done on a desk is on the rise. We have started to care about ergonomy and game controllers have assumed much friendlier and rounder shapes. This transformation of play happened in a relatively short time (compared to the entire history of play).

The interesting this is what happened next. The 21st century came around, and gaming technology keeps getting better and better. A lot of technology is devoted to creating better graphics, what with the HD resolution and all. However, something else is happening as well: Guitar Hero introduces special controllers to the wider audience. The already iconic plastic guitar makes gameplay a lot more physical in one sweep and becomes a hit. Not to forget dancing games, a phenomenon somewhat older than the guitar concept. Before the next console generation, there are also gadgets like EyeToy for the PlayStation 2. This particular gadget uses a camera to make the user's entire body a controller. Too bad the games were not particularly great and the tech was somewhat limited.

Then, bang, next generation. Nintendo announces Wii (initially titled Revolution) that uses a motion controller as its primary controller. The vision is clear: get people more physically involved in gaming. The console becomes an instant hit, selling to new markets, and the one killer app is the simple Wii Sports, a collection of mini games that make use of the new motion controller. This is curious because not so long ago people were drawn from sports to video games, and now a game that has the players perform mock sports motions becomes a hit. Then Nintendo releases Wii Fit with a balance board controller. Wii becomes an exercise assistant.

Now Sony and Microsoft have followed suit with their own solutions. Move is basically a higher tech Wiimote, with better accuracy and whatnot. Microsoft Kinect on the other hand uses infrared camera technology to do what the EyeToy wasn't able to fully deliver: transforming the player's body into a controller. We've gotten back to standing and waving our hands. It doesn't end here though. While home consoles are playing with motion tracking, mobile game developers are commercializing the concept of alternate reality games run on mobile phones. Running around in the real world is the name of the game. Sound familiar?

It's not like couch gaming has come to the end of its reign. Most mainstream games are still played in the traditional way, using a controller with some buttons. Regardless, the option to play more physically is available for players of video games. We have yet to see the killer game that really sells physical controls to core gamers but in the meanwhile, a lot of people can enjoy more physical activity in front of their televisions and computers. Or they can go outside where with mobile technology and pervasive games even adults can play in a socially acceptable fashion.

So, in a sense, gaming technology has taken a detour. The body lost the game for a while, but now it's back with a vengeance.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

How the World Affects Games

Back to the topic of the world and games, it's now time to explore it the other way around. Previously it was concluded that games do indeed have a transforming effect outside the game itself. The term of the magic circle, introduced in Homo Ludens (Johan Huizinga), and explored in detail from the perspective of games in Rules of Play (Salen & Zimmerman), is important in the analysis. As already stated by Salen & Zimmerman, the magic circle blurs in certain gaming activities such as live action roleplaying. This blurring has two directions, games affecting the world, and the world affecting games.

What we mean by the blurring of the magic circle is that: 1) the game is no longer entirely determined by its rules alone but rather affected by external influences and 2) the game's influence is no longer limited to its participants and the area of the magic circle. When we were discussing how the meaning of places changes for geocachers, we were talking about the second point. Ditto for discussion on sub cultures emerging around games. This time we're going to talk about point one. It's quite convenient for me to start with something familiar: geocaching.

If any game is highly affected by the environment where it's played, geocaching fits that definition. Caches are hidden into the environment. The play experience of hiding a cache is defined almost entirely by the physical environment: what are the possible places to hide, are there any interesting terrain challenges available, etc. Similarly, the play experience of seeking a cache reflects these environmental influences. This is largely expandable to any game that takes place in the real world but especially true for games where the arena of play is not involved in the game's design. A live action roleplaying game that is bound to a certain area can be designed with full knowledge of the playing area. Geocaching as an overall game cannot.

If we get back to the magic circle, in the LARP example the magic circle is still effectively closed. The area is bound, the game is played within a certain time frame and people inside the playing area are all participants in the game. LARPs that are not bound to a certain area or time frame are different, and indeed they come closer to what we call alternate reality games. The concept of the magic circle becomes more blurred in these cases. In a sense, a geocacher is always inside the magic circle. However, it is clear that they are not constantly actively participating in the game. When I'm seeking a cache, I have the intention to play, and therefore I am in the game. When I do not have the intention to play, my actions nevertheless affect my performance in the game.

This might need some clarification. Suppose I am playing two games: one on my Playstation Portable, and then geocaching using my navigator. If I choose to travel to Helsinki on a weekend, I can take both of these games with me. However, when I power up my PSP and resume playing a game, the state of the game has not changed due to my being in Helsinki. Geocaching on the other hand has definitely changed: I now have access to caches hidden in Helsinki, but not to caches hidden in Oulu, even though that's where I "signed off" from the game. I have traveled inside the game's world without active participation. From theoretical perspective, when I turn off the PSP, the magic circle effectively goes away entirely; this is not so with geocaching. The circle persists even though I choose not to be actively inside it.

So what's the significance? This: since the magic circle is ubiquitous in alternative reality games (and similar), what follows is that any action can affect the game world. Location-aware gaming is just the tip of the iceberg. Link in data from physiological sensors, or even brainwaves. Suddenly it becomes possible to make a game of everything if we so desire. We can skip points, leaderboards and badges - we can do much better than that. The tech is not so far in the future either and we can start with what is available now.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Lesson from Games: Discarding

This is something I have occasionally thought about, so I'll write it down now. I'll get back to the relationship of games and places next week. It applies especially to board games that require strategic thinking.

In board games, players are typically faced with a certain set of options, and they hold a certain set of resources. Good design principles state that games are designed in such a way that playing them is a series of interesting choices with relevance, and this is especially true of board games where play time is typically limited. This is different from e.g. single player digital games where it is more often possible to explore all the options by spending more time playing. A board game always has a limited duration. To win, each player tries to make the best of each of their turns. One really important strategical decision in many board games is to choose what to pursue. It is often necessary to also commit to this strategy, and this is the important thing. The old proverb about two hares is often very true.

Reiner Knizia, a famous designer, has a particular habit of making games where it is highly important to recognize when something is no longer worth holding on to. In one of his best games, Tigris & Euphrates, the best advice that can be given to new players is "there is no such thing as 'my kingdom'", meaning players should not desperately defend a particular kingdom, even though they have built it (in T&E, players get points for building and destroying kingdoms, not for holding kingdoms). Board games often force players to decide what is least relevant to them by forcing them to sacrifice some resources of their choice. In general, to make the most of their turns and resources, players need to recognize options that are not highly relevant to their strategy and promptly discard those options (e.g. choosing to not produce certain resources in 7 Wonders, effectively closing the opportunity to play certain cards).

The lesson of discarding the slightly less relevant is important for many aspects of life. Especially design. New game designers are always advised to simplify, and then simplify some more. In game design, it's a necessary skill to be able to let go anything that doesn't directly support gameplay of the game. This is no different from, say, user interface design. Simplify, discard, don't fall in love with anything. In programming, this can translate into realizing when a piece of code has to be discarded and written again from scratch to improve the overall code structure. In life it's typically better to find a small amount of things to really focus on.

The reason why I find it cool that games teach this stuff is that we humans often behave against this strategy. In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely has devoted one chapter to our irrational behavior of trying to keep all of our options open. It is psychologically hard to let go of an option, as long as there is a at least a chance that something might come of it. Of course, games are different in this sense, because it is much easier to accurately know whether an option is going to be any good - still, it's not for certain. If we think rationally, we can assess the potential of our options in real life as well. It's beneficial if we can do this and discard things that are not really relevant.

This is of course part of a larger context of strategic thinking that games, especially board games, teach us.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Back to Work... Let's Talk About Geocaching

Vacation's over and it's time to get back to work. Fortunately talking about play is part of my work, so let's continue on the subject. This would be a good time to talk about geocaching, since it was quite a big part of my vacation. Coincidentally, it's also related to the last blog entry.

Last time, before vacation, I started a series of posts about the relationship of games and places. The first topic was how games can change physical locations. Geocaching (and other similar alternate reality games) is more about changing the player's perspective and perception of physical locations. Explained very briefly, the entire hobby is about finding caches hidden by others, and logging your finds. Anyone can also hide caches, if they follow a few simple rules (mostly common sense). The entire truth is a bit more complex, but we can go on with this description. Read more here. There are many cool aspects. This time we're going to focus on places though.

Quite often geocaches can take seekers to interesting locations they never knew existed. Cities, towns and villages have a lot of cool places that are not in tourist guides nor can anyone realize their coolness by looking at a map. It's a good way to find interesting spots in one's home city. It gets even better when visiting a less familiar city. Geocaches are often found in places with the best scenic views and the most interesting terrain. It also gives more meaning to places. There's no need for me to take photographs of places I've been geocaching in, because I have truly experienced these places. I can easily visualize these places in my mind afterwards and I have much better recollection of a city's layout after looking for caches there.

For a geocacher, certain aspects of places have meanings other people don't really think about. Places can be classified by the types of hiding places they offer. Bridges are to be ducked under. Trees for climbing. Loose stones hide something behind them. Metal structures make one look for magnet caches. At night it is easier to avoid the gazes of geomuggles (people who are not geocachers). Each time I encounter a new cache type my world view expands. Discovering something new is akin to enlightenment. Sometimes it's not just about finding the cache, but also the actual physical challenge of getting to it. I've had to climb trees and navigate building mazes.

Geocaching is not beneficial in a larger scale, but on the individual scale I think it is. For me it has changed the outdoor experience into a much more interesting one, and I get out of my apartment a lot more than I did this time last year. It can also be a social activity. Adult geocachers can go out with their entire family and there's fun for everyone. Some geocaches are quite hard or even impossible to get alone. As with any other game, geocachers can also tank endlessly about their hobby.

In short, geocaching expands and transforms the way the world is seen by an individual. They discover new places, and new aspects about the places they visit.

Monday, June 27, 2011

How Games Affect the World

Finally I have some time to write about the summer school topics. These are some thoughts about how pervasive or ubiquitous technologies can affect the relationship of games and the world.

If we think about games and culture, the relationship is similar to that of games and play. In one way, games are a subset of play. In another way, play is a part of games. Repeat for culture. Even though the concept of the magic circle makes play happen in a kind of a vacuum, this is not exactly true. There are entire sub-cultures built around games. Sports being a more known example, but also in many countries, there is now a huge tournament culture around certain highly competitive games. This game culture is known commonly as eSports, which shows its relation to traditional sports. Of course, there have been huge cultures around games in the past as well. Chess is a popular example of a traditional game.

However, simply building a sub-culture around something does not necessarily mean that it changes our culture as a whole. If games are to have a truly transforming effect it is not enough to simply spawn small sub-cultures. The most important sports events are tied strongly to national identity. We used the recent ice hockey world championship won by Finland as an example a lot. While the game itself happens in an ice rink, it is being followed in households all over the country. This year our victory briefly transformed our marketplaces into huge public sites of celebration. To have a bigger effect, a game has to affect even those are not directly involved.

We can design games like Cruel 2 B Kind (McGonigal et al.) This game is played in a public place. Players, not knowing who are the other players, try to finish each other off with compliments. Of course, this results in the innocent bystanders being also targeted by compliments, which is a good thing (although in Finland especially could be seen as very weird!) For the duration of the game, the playsite transforms into a much kinder place. This and other games like it are a promising start. However, for a larger transformation, we need pervasive games that are not run by any organizer, but that run constantly with the help of computing technology. We have entertainment alternate reality games that run without organizers (e.g. Shadow Cities) and beneficial alternate reality games are bound to follow.

I believe that we need to bring technology into the equation of beneficial games. We can show how the concept works with low or no technology, but eventually, to really have an impact, technology becomes almost a necessity. I'm saying almost, because it's always possible to make a massively multiplayer alternate reality game without much technology (geocaching is a good example, although it uses a GPS, you can play the game without one too). However, the options are more limited without technology. Using the right technologies, we can achieve anything. This is the UbiComp vision that I subscribe to. Be it games or whatever, the technology of the future pushes us to save the world, and we'll have fun while doing it.

The ultimate point is that eventually bystanders need to gain benefit. It's not plausible to expect a majority of a population to be engaged in a world-saving game. However, it is quite possible that the play efforts of a certain group can improve the lives of everyone. Designing games for self-improvement is a challenging goal - designing games for "positive collateral damage" is even more challenging. We can all change the world a little by becoming better, but real change requires more effort - and better games.

This was a brief look into the subject. I'll dig into other aspects in future posts.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Serious Games and Gamification Seminar Talk

This is the talk I gave at the seminar. Or, rather, the script of the talk. I didn't really follow this script to the letter, but I said pretty much the same things. Except because of time constraints I had to skip the player types section.

Slide 1 (Intro)
Hello. I’m Mika Oja from the computer science and engineering laboratory, where I study games and gamification, especially in the context of ubiquitous computing. The topic of this talk says gamification principles but it’s not entirely accurate. I tried to avoid the fundamentals as such. So now that we have seen lots of examples of serious games and gamification, it’s time to let the academic loose. In this talk I will mostly raise questions which I think should be seriously considered when thinking about gamification. I am more interested in gamification for good. Marketing gamification makes me feel a bit uneasy. But I guess that’s how marketing is.

Slide 2
The first big question is of course, what is gamification? Here’s the thing: there are two views of the subject. This is a very recent academic working definition for gamification which was presented at the introductory part of the gamification workshop at CHI this year. “gamification is the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”. It sounds pretty self-explanatory, no? Except, what is a game design element? According to the authors, this can be a lot of things. To translate this into English, it’s more or less designing game-like elements that enhance the experience of doing a task.

So, what is not gamification? Serious games are not gamification, the definition specifically excludes complete games. This is a rather fuzzy border and I’ll come back to it the end of my talk. This academic definition also makes a distinction between gamification and playfulness by stating that gamification only includes games, not play. Again, if we look at some definitions of play and games this is a very fuzzy border. Finally, gamification is a design paradigm thus excluding the use of game technologies and development practices from the definition.

However this is just a working definition and there is no certainty of whether it will stick.

Slide 3
And here’s the second answer, the public opinion. It seems to be a rather general view that gamification is a marketing trend which emphasizes the use of simple things from games. Scores, leaderboards and so on, you know the drill, and if you don’t, we’ll get there soon enough. The presumption is that these are easy to use, which is quite a bit removed from the truth. This type of gamification has penetrated popular web sites far and wide, which is a probable contributor to how the word is presently understood. Nevertheless, this general opinion of the term’s meaning seems to have its share of negative connotations, and many designers dislike the term.

Since it is widely popular, and just growing, let’s take a look at the trend.

Slide 4
Here is the basic toolkit of gamification. Points, levels, leaderboards and achievements. Looking at the list we can easily say that these are all pretty shallow examples of game mechanics. These are not really central pieces in games, just some tools that make games better if used right. Next we are going to take a closer look at these, to get a good grip of what’s going on.

Slide 5
Let’s start with points. That’s my profile from Gameful, a site that uses both points and levels. In games players get points for doing things the game designer wants to encourage. In gamification, the premise is the same. There are two basic schemes of using points. The simplest scheme is simply racking up points for doing actions on a website. This can act as a feedback mechanism, giving the user some information of how well they are doing. Points are also a status indicator in a sense. Although not exactly points, discussion boards typically track and show the number of posts made by each user, and typically users with more posts are taken more seriously.

Points can also be redeemable, in which case users can gain virtual items or even actual prizes by spending their points. In this case the points are more like virtual currency. Think experience points versus money on role-playing games - the former accumulate indefinitely while the latter is spent on regular intervals. Experience is status, money is a resource. Often in virtual currency economies the points can also be given to other users in trade for favors or other virtual resources. For example, users can offer rewards to those who answer their questions. As we all know, virtual currency in games can become a really serious business and points in websites are no different. If the points have high perceived value, they can influence participation and decision making.

Levels are almost entirely a status indicator. In this sense they are quite similar to badges, but not exactly. Again, there are two basic schemes for gaining levels. One is simply tied to points like leveling up in World of Warcraft - rack a certain amount of points, go up a level. Unlike points, levels typically are tied to a scale where there is a maximum. Levels are typically better for indicating user ranking on a site because the numbers are much simpler than points. Levels also act as milestones in a point-gaining system. Levels are not always tied to points however. For example in Gameful levels are gained by completing a bunch of requirements, different for each level. These assignments act as a tutorial for interacting with the site and other users. In this sense levels are like achievements.

Slide 6
Leaderboards are also often linked with points, and they are yet another indicator of status. Put simply, a leaderboard is a ranking system that shows who’s got the most points. They are more competition-oriented than levels, they are, after all, a clear ranking. Leaderboards allow users to set goals for themselves but unlike levels, these goals are tied to performance of other users instead of preset limits. Typically users can see different subsets of the leaderboard, which allows them to set realistic goals for themselves. While getting on top of the all-time global leaderboard can be nigh-impossible, being the best during a single week is more achievable, as is being the best among one’s peers.

However, the suitability of leaderboards can be questionable in many contexts. Not everyone likes competition, and being on the last places of a leaderboard can be discouraging rather than encouraging. Whereas the highest level in a system is achievable by anyone, the top positions on a leaderboard are achievable only to a selected few. This can lead to a situation where users are unable to set realistic goals for themselves and give up trying. This can happen if leaderboards are the only way of setting goals. Smartly designed leaderboards where it is possible to compete in many categories alleviate the problem, but regardless I would say that out of all these techniques, leaderboards are the ones that have potential for doing harm.

Slide 7
Achievements, or badges as they are typically called, have a variety of purposes. These are nowadays really common in video games and also appearing on websites. In a rather recent social psychological analysis five uses for badges have been identified. As with levels, one aspect of badges is goal setting. The badge itself incorporates a goal, which is something that needs to be done in order to gain the badge. They also have an instructional role. Badges can inform what is possible in a system, and also nudge users towards desirable action. In a web community badges can represent the community’s values.

Badges can also tell more about a user’s identity than simple points and levels. They can tell a user’s interests and the ways they are interacting with the site. Badges are also status indicators in a website. The number of badges is one metric, but also the difficulty of gaining various badges can bring larger status rewards to those who hold the toughest ones. In games there are often different levels for achievements to show which ones are harder to get. The discussion that is going on about game achievements is largely applicable to website badges. Good badge design can improve user engagement and experience.

In a way, badges are a step up from levels, and another sideways. When badges get more complex, they can not only provide a goal but also additional requirements such as a specific way of doing something. User-created challenges are also badges of a kind, and even challenges that depend on self-reporting fall under this category.

Slide 8
First we’ll look at the topic of motivation. Extrinsic motivation means being motivated by rewards that come from the outside. A lot of boring jobs are typically motivated by paychecks only. Intrinsic motivation on the other hand comes from the joy of performing a task. A common perception is that intrinsic motivation is the one that drives behavior change, which is a desirable result in typical gamification applications. However, it does look a lot like these basic techniques we just covered are just adding more virtual rewards into the mix. However, this is not exactly that straightforward. Let’s take a quick psych lesson.

Slide 9
The flow theory, familiar for game designers, is a kind of recipe for optimal experience. I’ll explain it quite briefly as it is an important factor in understanding why playing games is so enjoyable. These are different aspects of flow. In flow, the person’s skills are on par with the challenges of the activity. In a sense, the person becomes one with the activity. Track of time is lost. Almost anything can become a flow experience but it’s often not simple. The theory deserves a lot more attention, but unfortunately we have to go back to the topic of gamification. In flow motivation is intrinsic. The question is, does gamification induce flow?

I have circled the aspects of flow where gamification can be useful. First and foremost, the gamification techniques we’ve discussed have two important features: they allow users to set goals for themselves and they act as a clear performance metric. Adding point scoring to activities can make them in a sense measurable. Accumulated points are a clear indication of the effort we have spent doing something. Popular services like or devices like pedometers all basically do the same thing: they provide us statistics of what we have done. These statistics can increase intrinsic motivation, because they enable us to follow our progress towards our goals. Without a sense of progress, there is no flow.

One problem with gamification is the fact that the actual task is often untouchable. Tasks need to be done in a certain way, and no amount of virtual enhancements change that. However, what gamification can do to alter the difficulty of tasks is to guide people towards those tasks or parts of tasks that match their current skill. These people are also more aware of their skill levels as we just discussed, so they are more able to choose suitable challenges, ones that keep them in the flow channel. In a system where all tasks need to be done eventually this only works to a certain extent though.

Even though there are a lot of things about flow that cannot be directly affected by gamification, enhancing just these two aspects can be helpful. Studies on motivation technology seem to show that it is worth the effort.

Slide 10
Next let’s take a look at Bartle’s player types. This is yet another familiar thing for game designers, but I’ll recap briefly. Killers are players who gain enjoyment from beating others. This can take variety of forms from healthy competition to ruining everyone else’s experience. Some competition aspects of gamification can appeal to these players. However, in gamification it is often much more important to prevent anyone from spoiling the fun of others. Like in a work environment, this kind of behavior would be totally unacceptable.

Achievers are interested in beating all the challenges a game has to offer. If we look at all the gamification techniques so far, it’s pretty clear that they are the best fit for achievers. Whether it is higher levels, leaderboard positions or badges, anything can be a goal for achievers. Socializers are another thing entirely. They mostly seek the company of others from a game and fulfilling the game’s goals is not that interesting to them. I’m not sure if these people even need gamification. Badges could have some utility, in the form of connecting like-minded individuals. If we go too much into this topic, we’ll eventually have to discuss the “social” games on Facebook, and I don’t want to go there.

Finally there’s explorers. Their pleasure comes from exploring a game world and finding possibilities in it. It is again questionable how much these simple gamification techniques can offer for explorer types. Hidden badges and other rewards can be useful, but only in a context where there actually is something to explore. In a more complex system, explorers can also find pleasure in finding new ways to use existing resources.

All in all, it would seem that at least with these basic techniques, achievers are the primary target for gamification. While it is worth noting that people don’t really fall exclusively into one category, in designing gamified systems it’s important to consider all the player types. It would seem that this requires moving away from simple gamification towards more complex systems.

Slide 11
Here’s an interesting question: how much game design can be applied before gamification starts to look more like a serious game? In this graph, on the blue end is a task that has no gamification whatsoever. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a game that is designed for pure entertainment. We are now assuming that there exists a group of games that do not provide any actual benefit. You know, for the sake of argument. If we move from tasks towards games, we can find some solutions that use some gamification, like points to provide some kind of feedback.

Likewise, in the game end of the spectrum, when we move a bit from pure entertainment we’ll find games that are not designed to be serious games, but nevertheless teach some useful skills. Games that involve some mathematical skills are an easy example of this category. Closer to the center on the gamification side we have really finely crafted gamified systems, which make use of many of the techniques we discussed. This is where it already starts to get quite blurry. Likewise on the other side of the fence, there’s serious games like training simulators which do not really have much entertainment value left in them.

So, what happens in the middle? I don’t really think there is any clear border where something to the left is gamification and something to the right is clearly a game. Still, it seems to be clear that designing a gamified system is a different task from designing a serious game.

Before finishing, I’ll take a quick poke at this subject. One perspective to look at the difference is the starting point of design. Gamification is essentially designing enhancements around an existing activity. The activity in itself does not really change, it is simply made more engaging by auxiliary means. In a sense, the goal of the users is to complete the task, and the goal of design is to make them more engaged in doing so.

Serious games on the other hand start with the game. Typically we are designing a game where the intended task is one of the game mechanics. The goal of the player is to win the game, and the task gets done as a side effect.

The important question is: which one you really want to design?

Slide 12
Thanks for listening, we probably have some time for comments and questions now.

Monday, June 6, 2011

2nd International UBI Summer School

I'm back again. There's been a short break in my updates for two reasons: first there was the summer school, which took one entire week, and then there was a tiredness and a short vacation. I actually started geocaching during my short break, but more about that later.

The UBI Summer School was organized again this year, this time with even more hard work (but hey, more credit points). Unfortunately some workshops had to be cancelled and overall there were not as many students participating as last year. This year I was participating in professor Leopoldina Fortunati's workshop "Social and Cultural Aspects of New Media". This year's experience was quite different from last year's relatively programming oriented workshop - I barely touched my laptop and not a single line of code was written. So what did we do then? Discuss. A lot. And then some. So much in fact that I got some serious mental fatigue from all the thinking and talking. Seriously, I've never been so exhausted.

All the tiredness aside, the workshop was really, really good. We discussed how technology relates with our society and culture from five different angles. Topics included how technology affects space, how emotions are linked to technology and so on. In this workshop it was often my task to consider these questions from one specific point of view: games. I won't go into detail in this post for a particular reason: all the insight from the workshop could fill the pages of an average size textbook. However, my next blog posts will be about topics that were most interesting to me in the workshop. Yes, it will mostly be about games but perhaps other matters as well.

So the workshop was really awesome. I would like to thank everyone for the insightful discussion, and especially our instructor for being there and bringing up all those interesting topics. Hopefully we will see the 3rd International UBI Summer School next year. This year certainly set the bar quite high, so let's see if next time will be even better (assuming there is a next time).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Two Angles of Attack

When considering use of games and game design in non-gaming contexts, I think it's safe to say that we can clearly separate two approaches: starting from the game and starting from the activity or task. Nothing spectacular here, but let's discuss this anyway.

I'll start with starting from the task. This is what is called popularly gamification, or what I previously decided to call game designed activity. I am not sure if I'll stick with that though. In an article I'm writing I'm using the term game-enhanced task. Moving back to the point, the core of this approach is that we have a task and by applying game design or game mechanics we seek to increase motivation in people to undertake that particular task. Scores and other means of virtualized feedback can be considered the basic case. The task is typically measured. We can introduce goals and challenges to improve the task's completion structure.

The other angle starts with the game. This is basically what serious games are about. Instead of adding enhancements onto a task, we take the task and include it as a key mechanic in a game. The key difference is that we re-frame the task entirely. Players playing the game need not even be aware of the actual task that is being done. To them it is simply an essential part of the game, and any benefit produced by the task is, again from their point of view, a side product. This bears a whole lot of resemblance to what is suggested by McGonigal (and many others I am sure) in her book and talks.

One interesting question is that do these approaches converge at some point? If we enhance a task enough with game-like elements, do we arrive at a point where there is so much additions around the task that has in fact become a core element of a game. Or do these two approaches start off in entirely different directions, resulting in applications that will generally not resemble each other. This is an interesting question, and one that I believe will be answered in the coming years when simple gamification techniques lose their novelty due to overuse. Soon the easy way will cease to work, then what?

Let's face it, the latter form is much harder to design. Some tasks are really hard to make into a game mechanic, even though it is possible to enhance them with game mechanics. Educational games seem to be running into this problem a lot: making an educational game that really teaches the subject while still being clearly a game is not an easy task. Mathematics has it easy: math is problem solving, games are problem solving. Framing mathematical problems as game puzzles is as straightforward as it gets. This doesn't make it easy of course, but easier. However, initially I think enhancing tasks with game mechanics will seem much more attractive, especially since the name gamification carries the illusion that it is easy (which it is not).

It is unavoidable that both of these approaches will face the same problems as games, or any products really. Novelty wears off quickly and after that only quality matters. However I believe that the future belongs to the game angle, at least where it is applicable. And it will become more applicable with ubiquitous computing technologies and smart game designers. However, all our beneficial games will have to compete with entertainment games (which is one problem with educational games). Are we up to task this time around? We shall see.

Anyhow, the implications of these two angles are an interesting question that I believe has not been asked yet. It is not a straightforward topic to explore, because whenever two approaches are combined there are a lot of variables and it is hard to control the ones that are not relevant to the study. This could well be my topic.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Education: The Game

Just a short post. If we think of typical university education as a game, it is horribly flawed. I'm going to use one abstract course as a test unit for this analysis.

The game starts with the player having some resources (including skills etc.) which they have earned from previous games. Hopefully they can remember all that stuff, because this game is not going to re-iterate over that material. Often they are at least told what resources they should have before starting this game. When the game starts, it's level after level situations where the player gains resources. They just are not told what these resources do and how much they actually have them, because this information is completely invisible. Often these levels feel like grinding. Grinding for random drops, but the player doesn't even know what is dropped.

Skip to the end of the game. The infamous boss monster, The Exam. Now the player is rewarded for having all those bits of resources they have gained. Most players go grind for resources in completed levels just to be sure. Some just run through the levels, and only start getting resources a few days before the boss fight. After the boss dies, the player has to wait a while. Then they are told whether the boss actually died.

Our education system is like a game where all meaning is packed to the very end. We just grind through the levels until we get to the end and only then it is revealed to us whether that grinding was useful or not. Would you play this game? If it takes 40 hours? Or you could just skip the grinding for permanent resources, do a quick grind for some one-time items and defeat the boss. You get the same reward but your character has gained next to nothing. The game doesn't really reward you for having a better character, only defeating bosses.

I think this needs to go.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Name Game

After reading this article by Ian Bogost I thought I might as well redefine my relationship with the word gamification.

The word is currently a bit fuzzy. For some or most people, it seems to mean applying only the easy stuff from games to other contexts. Namely: scores, leaderboards, achievements and rewards. Some people on the other hand like to lump all use of game design for other contexts under the same term. This is bound to create some confusion, especially since there are a lot of people who think gamification (the shallow one) is evil. I think that too. In my earlier post when I defended gamification, I did so in the larger meaning of the word. Now I'm thinking I should abandon the word as well.

The problem with (exploitative) gamification is that it will give more beneficial efforts a bad name. It does not seem very fair to group together something repulsive like frequent flyer points and, say, Sparked. The latter is aimed for a really beneficial cause, the former is aimed for suckering people into flying more. Nope, not really appropriate. Their abundant use of scores etc. can also weaken their usefulness over time. It might be cool for a while, but I cannot help thinking how quickly it gets really tired. We need good game design to survive that.

In my papers and talks, I have been and will be careful not to call my work gamification. I have not yet decided on a really good name, but at the moment I like to call it "game designing activities" or "game designed activities". For one it's a fairly descriptive title. I also don't want to use anyone else's term at the moment because there is no consensus whatsoever. I don't want to pick sides, so I'll just use my own definition for the time being. Once the community agrees upon a name, then I can start using it. Whether it's going to be gamification after all or something else, as long as it's definition fits my work I can use that.

So in the future when I'm talking about gamification on this blog, you should assume I'm talking about the evil, shallow, exploitative marketing trend. If I'm using some other term, then I'm probably talking about the good stuff. So, just FYI.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Moment for the Tech

Let's take a sidestep. It's been mostly design, fun and games here, but of course there's another aspect which should be discussed from time to time. I mean, the title I'm working towards is in fact doctor of technology. In this post I'll present my current opinion of what technology will afford my goals. I have certain strong opinions about tech. I gravitate towards free, open-source technology for ideological reasons. I'm not 100% allergic to proprietary but I avoid it where I can.

When it comes to ubiquitous computing systems, connectivity is key. And in the center, I see web services. Extended to multiple platforms in various scale of course, but ultimately it's the internet that connects services. Ubi infrastructure is beyond the scope of my research but its application is not. At the moment most of the stuff is happening on the mobile device level. Tangible interfaces are still mostly in the lab. Computing has not yet escaped into the open world, sticking to our walls and desks. However, taking advantage of the ubiquity of smart phones and other devices capable of reading RFID or NFC tags, that future could be here any moment.

These technologies will be an important first step as they are inexpensive. The installation cost is minimal: just slap some tags into the environment. All done, and no walls were torn down. These tags can activate services over the web or simply contain information. The interesting part? Tags are tied to location and a specific task. Put another way, it's much easier to understand the context when these variables are fixed. This is a significant aid if we compare it to unaided mobile applications. There is no need to worry about locationing because the tag knows its own location. There is no need for the user to browse the mobile phone's crammed menus to find the application they're looking for, because the correct application is launched when they touch the tag.

While the use of tag-based technologies is ultimately limited, with creativity a lot can be achieved with them. The biggest limitation in fact are the mobile phones themselves - not all models have those necessary readers. This brings us to the next technology, which is way more available: the world wide web itself. Browsers are available in mobile phones, all kinds of terminals and of course desktop computers. These days, almost anything can run in the browser, at least with the correct plugins. The problem with plugins is that they are a bit "pick your poison" variety. Even Flash, the most ubiquitous plugin, is not available for iPhone users. I have chosen to go with HTML5. While it still has availability problems, at its core it is the most available solution, running basically anywhere where JavaScript is enabled.

While at the moment HTML5 with JavaScript cannot do as much as certain plugins, it is slowly getting there with Canvas, SVG, WebGL and HTML audio. A variety of good JavaScript engines, frameworks and libraries exist. I am mostly interested in game development engines. They provide interaction features beyond standardized web user interface widgets. Indeed, I believe that game engines are in many ways the future for interface programming. Sure, they require somewhat more work than widget-based toolkits. However, they are not that hard to work with. Besides, gameful applications won't look very gameful if made with widget toolkits - the association with conventional software is too strong. I am currently favoring Crafty JS. With my current project I will see how far it carries.

Finally, when talking about web services, there's the choice of a backend. Because of my background and general preferences, I'm determined to stick with Python. One of the primary reasonable reasons is the availability of high quality web development frameworks. I have chosen Pyramid. Well, actually I chose Pylons initially, but as it went into legacy state, I decided to pick up Pyramid instead. Fortunately I had not done too much programming with Pylons. While I don't have any particularly good reason for choosing Pyramid over, say, Django, its way of doing things feels better to me. I will also be using Python to program the core server facilities which will communicate with mobile phones reading RFID or NFC tags.

So I think this is the future for me. Web applications running on Python, with HTML5 and JavaScript frontend. The systems will be extended by RFID or NFC tags to provide location-specific services. My choices are, most importantly, feasible for a researcher. There is no need to create different versions of applications and no need for special hardware. And no need to tear down walls, which will be a huge benefit for getting permissions to do live experiments... There is one particular system with which I will be working with for majority of my time, and it will provide me most of the research data I need to write that thesis.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Random Bits

I don't have a big subject just now, but I do have some random things I want to write about. So let's get them out.

I modified my job game a bit again. I realized that the achievements that require me to gain exp every day can be harmful. The problem is with requiring side-quests on weekends. While it's all good to set some goals to do game design on weekends it kind of pushes all the game design tasks from week days to weekends because the exp needs to be gained then. So I ditched those achievements. I might bring them back and limit them to working days only. That was more productive. Note to designers: achievements should be thought out really carefully. Faulty goals can ruin the experience and change the way the game is played.

I have reached level 3 and hacked my way to level 7 bosses. The last one I defeated was Prismatic Ghost. I just make up the names after I've randomly generated the requirements for defeating the boss. I also renamed the skills in the game to theme it into a fantasy setting:

Programming -> Melee
Writing -> Sorcery
Game Design -> Creativity
Reading -> Lore
Networking -> Cooperation
Research -> Experimentation


My paper "Designing Ubiquitous Computing Systems to Transform Activities into Games" was accepted to the doctoral colloquium workshop in GPC2011. I have not yet received the reviews of my paper but nevertheless it does mean two things: 1) my thesis topic has received a certain level of acceptance; 2) I will get to present it to an audience and receive feedback from people outside my research group. I will tell you more about the exact contents of the paper a bit later after I have read the reviews, given the presentation and received feedback. It will also be available in the proceedings of the conference.


As a final note, Jane McGonigal's awesome talk at the Game Developers Conference is available for free here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Saving the World. With Games!

I was supposed to write this post last week but turns out I actually had something more important to do. If for some reason you did not guess from the title, this post is about Reality is Broken (Jane McGonigal).

Here's a really brief summary. The youth of today are gamers. Almost everybody plays games at least to some extent. They are becoming extraordinary at something, but what exactly? Putting the emphasis on players of multiplayer games, McGonigal suggests that collaboration is one of their most important superpowers. However, they are presently using their powers almost exclusively in virtual worlds because the real world cannot compete. Reality is not a very well designed game. That is why, she suggests, if we could make reality a better game, we could harness the power of all these gamers and truly save the world. We could also design games to make these gamers happier by guiding them to do what are called happiness activities.

The book is really inspiring and I strongly suggest reading it. It is highly optimistic and you might find yourself not in entire agreement, but nevertheless, it is a compelling vision. Do I subscribe to it? Mostly, yes. I mean it is clear to me that politics has failed to save the world, so we the people must do it ourselves. I also know that it just won't happen if we don't make saving the world interesting. Even if we choose to look past McGonigal's optimism, the baseline she proposes in her book is valid: we need to get epic wins in reality. We need feedback and meaning. World saving is too often an activity that feels meaningless, lacking feedback. Feedback, how strange the way we always seem to get there.

If we return to reality (do we have to?), it would take some really compelling game design to make world changing games that people would truly want to play over the ones about saving virtual worlds. It is easy to get people already interested in world saving to get involved in world saving games. They have the initial drive to save the world. The bigger challenge is to get those people interested who could not care less. This is the part that makes me doubtful. Is it even doable? I'd like to see it happen but I'm a bit too cynical to believe in it just now. I think the same largely applies to any other means of trying to activate people. However, I think this problem goes away if we don't try to think too big.

The second part of McGonigal's book is the most interesting in my opinion. It keeps gamification on a personal level. The goal is to improve lives of people as individuals. Happy people are more likely to take interest in matters beyond their own. Depressed or other wise anxious people (alarmingly huge part of today's youth) are very unlikely to lift a finger. With projects like Quest for Learning I think gamification is an important method to return people to life. The first step in saving the world is to save us from boredom and negative stress. Only then it becomes possible to engage people in more lofty goals. The ironic thing about happiness activities is that people don't feel like doing them when they are not happy.

All in all, I mostly stand in agreement with McGonigal (and indeed, she says much of what I just did, just with different emphasis). My view however is less optimistic. I expect people to be self-centered. It might not be very nice of me, but I think it's an aspect that should always be kept in mind when designing. The bottom line is what counts though, and that's where I think McGonigal is right: games can save the world. They can do so gradually, piece by piece, mending people as individuals. Every small improvement is a victory. After all, we need to see our progress to stay motivated.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Look at Games - Chime

It's been a while since my last look at games. Should write more of these. Really should. But I live under the fiction that I can write reviews of everything I play, and that most of those games are not relevant. Reality is, I am now some twenty games behind on my reviews, so it's not looking too good. I could perhaps give myself game design experience for writing reviews. Anyway, back to the point. Chime is finally available for the PlayStation 3.

So what is Chime? It's a puzzle game where the gameplay affects the background music. Remember Lumines? Same concept, but really different gameplay. What these games have in common is the beatline that erases complete blocks (called quads in Chime) from the board. However, in Chime, the beatline also 'plays' the blocks laid on the grid, creating sound effects to go with the music. The goal of the game is to fill the grid. Erasing a quad colors the grid filled underneath it. The player places blocks that are much like Tetris blocks, except these are made of five squares against Tetris's four, which allows more varied shapes. The trick in Chime is this: only a subset of all the available pieces can be used in a level. Better rethink that strategy!

Quads leave fragments. Fragments vanish after a few passes by the beatline, and when that happens, the player loses their score multiplier, which is a big loss. Building perfect quads avoids the problem as there are no fragments left over from the quad. Basically that is all there is to it. The gameplay is not as simple as, say, Lumines, but it is far from complex. Does it work? Hell yeah. Chime feels a lot more relaxed than Lumines. Then again, I'm not very good at it yet, so this will most likely change when I go from "recognize the possible quads" to "do the quads at crazy speed". I like the puzzle aspect of figuring out how to form perfect quads from sets of different blocks.

Chime has awesome atmosphere. The music component seems to work even better than it does in Lumines, which is an impressive achievement. Especially some of the songs are really relaxing, and the way the game is staged means they will be different on every go of the beatline. It's not a coincidence that the game states "Play music in Chime" as a description of selecting 'play' in the main menu. The game even has a scoreless mode for those who want to just enjoy the music and place some blocks at a leisurely pace to alter their experience.

In a way, Chime is a new way to experience music. Unlike band games that allow the player to imitate the music, Chime allows the player produce the music. It does so in a limited way to ensure that the result actually sounds good but nevertheless, the music becomes an interactive experience in a different manner. It also somewhat different from Lumines where player actions directly produce sounds (however, Lumines also has sounds when the beatline erases blocks, but they are not as varied as they are in Chime).

Point of this post? Well not much really, I just wanted to highlight this game as it is yet another really intense experience. Play it and you will hopefully learn, something. It's not an impossible idea to add similar ways of altering background music to tasks such as writing. A beatline goes over your text and plays the letters or something like that. It could be an interesting curiosity to try it, even with just one song. Make a song, decompose it to effects and layers, then tie playing of different layers and effects to events done during a task.

Just some food for thought. And I really needed to gain some exp today.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Level Up!

I gained my first character level in my job game yesterday. My programming and research skills are now at level 2 and my reading skill at level 3. I haven't gained any achievements yet.

Today I started a bigger task and I realized my quest list for that task is way too short. This is one thing that is important with these kinds of games: it's necessary to have quests that cover everything there is to do, and can be done in a short time. If it takes too long to complete a quest, the progress following aspect of the game is lost. So I will need to rewrite the quest list for a bit. I still haven't come up with any really cool achievements.

So is it helping any? I think it is. The small tasks, which I usually hate doing, get done when they are framed as easy experience. The fact that I actually keep a list of them is probably more helpful though. Even though exp gaining doesn't really contribute towards anything, there is a certain amount of satisfaction gained simply from updating the character sheet. It's that small moment of closure, for a task done. I like that. Maybe a normal task list would have the same effect, but it does have slightly less to do when a task is complete - primarily, there is no reward.

I have thought of another thing that could help me guide my efforts: boss monsters. These would be simple challenges that can be defeated when I have the right combination of skill levels. Again, no real purpose, but like achievements, they would provide more goals. More goals often equals better as there are more reasons to do a task. One way to do boss monsters would be to use a random generator with total skill level requirement as an input and per skill level requirements as output. For example, a level ten boss could require programming at 6, game design at 3 and writing at 4. After defeating that boss, there would be another boss, one level higher and so on. At the end of my thesis work I could see how many bosses I have managed to beat.

That was actually such a cool idea that I'll go and implement the boss generator after finishing this post. Maybe I'll have a couple parallel dungeons so that if there is a boss I get stuck on for a really long time, I can explore the other dungeon in the meanwhile. Or maybe there could be three bosses for each level, and I need to beat one in order to proceed. That sounds even better. Let's do it, bye for now.

Monday, April 4, 2011

What Gamification is not

This is (kind of) a reply to this article. The author accuses gamification of misleading people and being childish. The point being that it's wrong to hide real problems underneath a gamified reality. I myself am now two thirds into McGonigal's book Reality is Broken, and unless I ignore most of what I've read, there is just no way I can agree with Chaplin. In less friendly terms, I think the article is a load of bull.

Like I said before, gamification is powerful, and we need to be responsible about it. However, I seriously do not think it is compelling enough to make people do just about anything. The rule of thumb here is: if there is zero incentive to do something, gamification does not magically create it. This is openly admitted by gamification advocates. Another thing to keep in mind is Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. The theory goes: unless the lower level needs are met, people do not feel any strong desire for higher level needs. It's that simple. Can you figure out where games fit in that hierarchy? Yeah, you guessed it: we don't give a shit about playing a game when our safety is compromised. So sorry, I can't see how "Instead, they are trafficking in fantasies that ignore the realities of day-to-day life. This isn't fun and games—it's a tactic most commonly employed by repressive, authoritarian regimes." You see, unlike authoritarian regimes, games we partake voluntarily do not command any actual authority over us.

Let's move on to: "Chore Wars is a benign example—if pretending you're being rewarded helps you do your chores, fine. But it reveals that McGonigal is not advocating any kind of real change, as she purports, but rather a change in perception: She wants to add a gamelike layer to the world to simulate these feelings of satisfaction, which indeed people want." If there actually was the option to magically make chores disappear, most people would take it, no? However, there isn't. Not now, not in the near future. So how exactly is it fair to blame gamification for not solving problems that are not solvable with our current technology at all? Yeah, I thought so too. The point of Chore Wars is to enable players to get better feedback on doing their chores, set short term goals and add unnecessary obstacles. I typed enable in bold because I think it's the definite keyword here.

Chores are not optional. We do not gamify them to get people to do them, we gamify them to make them more fun and motivating. See, the incentive is already there: someone has to do it, and that someone is most likely yourself. Gamification is not some black magic that compels people to do their chores. So really, what exactly is bad about providing virtual feeling of satisfaction for an activity that in itself has little to no satisfaction? Once basic needs have been met, enjoying life is about perception. If we can create the tools that allow people to improve their experience of life, I don't see a reason why we should not create them. I can see why Chaplin can think we shouldn't when she writes "Do adults really need to pretend they're superheroes on secret missions to have meaning in their lives?". This is representative of the world view that has been impended upon gamers many times. My answer: if it improves their experience of life, why the hell not?

So how gamification does help? Not everyone has the mental strength to just start doing all the things that are supposed to be good for us, like exercise, healthier eating and being more motivated about our jobs. It needs practice. Being happy is not easy. Gamification has the power to make it easier for people to overcome themselves, as it provides clearer goals and better feedback. Even though it is artificial, it allows us to measure progress in many activities where results are not immediately visible. It allows us to set goals that can be met and obstacles that make activities more interesting, even if they are harder. It changes the way we think about things we either have to do or should do or are doing. Finally, it allows us to play together and connect.

I do think frequent flyer points are evil. Skinnerboxed games, likewise. We already talked about this. More importantly, the concerns and limitations of gamification have been notified by advocates already. I think Chaplin simply does not like that we are having fun doing stuff that should not be fun. This is sadly a world view that is even this day shared by many many people, including those in places of power. But we gamers are growing in numbers and we will gamify our future if it pleases us. It's 'opt in' baby, so feel free to be left out if you don't want to share the fun.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Color Me Gameful

Like any real scientist, I will need to do a lot of experiments. Yesterday I decided to start with myself. I have had lack of motivation recently. This is mostly because currently my job is a bit fragmented: there are individual tasks here and there, and there are no clear milestones in sight. I started reading McGonigal's book and while reading I realized that if I am to promote this gamification or gameful design, I might as well try it on myself first. Sure, I could have done a task list for milestones like normal people but where's the fun in that?

So I turned my job into a game, of sorts. It's not a hugely impressive design I'm afraid, but it will help me do some things such as keeping a sight on my goals and get a sense of progress, every day. I decided to stick to very basic gameful techniques: experience points, levels and achievements. I wrote a character sheet on the whiteboard in my office, with my name on it, my character class (scientist / game designer), my level and experience. In addition I also wanted to see a bit what I'm doing most, so I added six skills and levels for them as well: programming, writing, design, reading, networking and researching. This is my feedback. At any time during the day I can gaze up from my computer and see how I'm doing.

With feedback system in place, it was time to set some goals. I wanted to call them quests. I decided to divide my tasks into storylines, quests and side-quests. Storylines are larger tasks which consist of several quests. Side-quests are quests that I'm supposed to complete on my own time, and they include mostly designing games for pure entertainment. I assigned an experience point reward for each quest, based on my expectation of how long it will take me to do it. Some tasks I know I don't particularly like I gave some bonus on top to make them more lucrative. In addition, completing a storyline yields bonus experience on top of the quests it's made of.

Finally I added achievements. I will need to think more of these, but the basic purpose is to keep me more challenged and engaged. One important set of achievements are awarded for getting results every day. To earn these achievements, I need to gain experience points every day. Even on weekends (side-quest exp). Vacation is excluded though, because when I'm traveling around somewhere I don't have many chances to do anything productive and, frankly, I don't think I should. I would like to especially come up with achievements that require me to do tasks in a certain way, but it's hard to come up with these just now.

Like I said, these are very basic techniques and I should do a lot better in the future. However, this experiment is meant just for myself, so I'll let it slide. It's also interesting to see if this succeeds in making me more motivated, even if it's really basic. Now, this should be achievable with to do lists and such, but I feel more motivated to keep this going if in itself it supports my goals. While I might not be able to write a paper on this, I am looking forward to learning something. Oh, and getting my job done better. I have also suggested a similar system for our game development team.

Let's see how it goes, I'll be reporting! After all, one set of achievements requires me to blog once per week.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Not Alone in the Universe

My last entry was about gamification and the good, the bad and the ugly of motivational schemes. Like I wrote, I am concerned about how the power of gamification will be used - not least because even the term's Wikipedia definition makes it sound evil. Turns out I'm definitely not the only one. It's a big world so this hardly surprising, but it's nice to know at least a bit about who these people are.

I've spent good part of the last couple of days watching videos from the GDC vault, especially this year's serious games track. Especially two sessions, We don't Need no Stinkin' Badges: How to Re-Invent Reality without Gamification (Jane McGonigal) and The Great Gamification Debate! (many many people), sparked my interest. Incidentally, I ordered McGonigal's book just a day before watching these sessions and now I'm really looking forward to reading it. To recollect for a bit, (at least some) people involved in gamification are not very happy with the term. The term has an ugly ring to it as it makes game mechanics sound like something you just slap on a product to magically make it better. McGonigal promoted the term gameful design instead, and in her lecture explained rather thoroughly what she meant by that.

To summarize very briefly, the goal should not be simple gamification but to really make games of activities. We should really consider what is it about gaming that makes people do it, and then set out to truly transform the world. Curiously, I arrived mostly at the same conclusions in my recently submitted doctoral colloquium article (not accepted yet, so fingers crossed!). I wrote "Instead of considering how to improve applications or systems by likening them to games, it is the activity that should be the target of design" and "I propose to reach these design goals by treating applications like tools inside a game or as an additional layer of mechanics built on top of ones existing inherently in the activity itself." (pardon me my science). Basically what I mean is, the word processor should be considered like the hero's weapon in a game. Hopefully you can follow the logic of that.

One really good observation McGonigal pointed out in her speech was this: games empower us. This is an angle I have not considered so directly but it's definitely worth a thought. Games are not isolated from our lives, they transform us. Scientifically I would need proof of this, but since we are in a cozy blogging environment, just take my word for it (or McGonigal's or someone else's, and I'm pretty sure I can dig up an article to refer). Like my two hobbies, swordsmanship and Tekken, they exist in symbiosis: I can reflect between them to understand my weaknesses better. Hell, most of my friends are from my various gaming-related hobbies! All in all, empowerment is a really important thing to consider.

But let's get back to the topic for a bit. Gamification or whatever we will call it in the future is not new per se, but its hype cycle has started just a year ago. I did a quick a Google Scholar search for the word and did not turn up that many results. However most definitely the number is bound to rise, quickly. Industry is taking up the challenge. The growing community at (my new home) is yet another sign. The HCI community has been discussing similar stuff for a while now, but they use different names (ambiguity, aesthetics etc). Overall it's a good time to be writing a thesis on the subject, as the possibility to make a strong contribution is definitely there. What's left to be seen is can I rise to the occasion...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Gamification - Motivation and Motivation Schemes

It's been a while since the last entry - I have been busy with stuff and thinking about what direction my research should take. Now I'm back at writing again and it's time to resume the tradition of book summaries. About a month ago I finished reading three books from the list of gamification books on wiki. By the time I selected which books to read the list was actually much shorter and I picked every book I had not read yet. These were: Fun Inc. : Why Gaming Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century (Tom Chatfield), Game-Based Marketing: Inspire Customer Loyalty Through Rewards, Challenges and Contests (Gabe Zichermann & Joselin Linder) and Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete (Byron Reeves & J. Leighton Read).

One common point that was made in all the books was this: like it or not, the future belongs to gamers. The youth of today almost live and breathe video games. Scratch that, it's not just the youth that play games these days. Game-Based Marketing has some relatively recent statistics but the web can most likely do better. Nevertheless, gaming has made some serious conquests: first mobile and more recently social networks. Chatfield focuses his entire book on just exploring the growing phenomenon and does a good job of telling people what is gaming all about. His book might not hold any revolutionary ideas of how to gamify things but is suggested reading for people who are skeptical of gaming in general.

Of course the logical step that should follow is that if everyone's a gamer sooner or later, does it not make sense to transform our daily activities to take advantage of this playful attitude? Indeed, it seems that many people think it does. On top of presenting many good suggestions on how to use virtual worlds and certain principles from them in work, Reeves & Read also present a rather thorough comparison of work and World of Warcraft guild activities. The two are strikingly (but not surprisingly) similar. There is just one major difference: people are paid to work but they pay to play WoW. Clearly, work needs to improve. The answer is gamification of work. I don't think we will see complete virtual worlds to support work anywhere in the future, but that doesn't mean we can't take a lot of good influences from games in general.

The idea is nowhere near new, and has been employed in various forms. The authors of Game-Based Marketing seem to have especially fallen in love with airlines' frequent flyer point systems, and they analyse it heavily. After reading the analysis I actually found it a bit disturbing. In gaming, I think there are good, bad and ugly motivational schemes. Normal, especially single player core games, are mostly on the good side - they are based on learning and problem solving (i.e. the stuff that is emphasized in good game design literature). The bad is grinding (i.e. doing the same thing all over again in hope of (random) prizes), present in massively multiplayer online games in particular. The ugly? Taking advantage of social pressure. The whole "you will look bad at the eyes of your peers if you don't X".

The last one I've labeled ugly because it's kind of in the grey area. Competition also falls there in a way, when you think about the people who are last on various lists. It also has to do with keeping up appearances, which can be an important motivation to some people. However the problem is that it can make some people feel incredibly bad about themselves. This is actually something worth a lot of consideration about gamification: if playing is no longer voluntary (being part of one's job for example), will it have negative consequences on some people? I think it's a problem when games are creating more social pressure. There's enough of that around as is.

Overall, the bad and the ugly are a huge ethic dilemma. The gaming industry is in it for the money, and these motivational schemes are excellent at keeping players playing, and therefore keeping the revenue streams stable. The same goes for other commercial types of gamification such as marketing. Gamification is powerful, I think at this point there's no denying it. In academic research it should be our goal to put some serious consideration to these ethical questions, and strive to create beneficial gamification. I mean, really improve lives. This is what my research will be about.

As a finisher, I seriously recommend reading Fun Inc. and Total Engagement. These are really solid books that summarize why you should consider gamification - of everything.