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.