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.

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