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).