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.