Gamification or how I've learned to stop worrying and love Gartner

I've come across this lovely diagram from Gartner:



I don't rank Gartner content highly, but this diagram actually makes sense. Posted by Gartner in July, gamification was very much high on hype. We're probably knee deep in the trough of disillusionment by now.  I've just seen one of Gartner's presentations about the topic. Managing to stay awake, I think i've figured out why we're in the trough. I also found out why I willfully ignored the hype ramp-up and seen a few paths up the slope of enlightenment.

"Web developer by day, wannabe game designer by night."

The above Twitter bio is posted on my profile since september 2008. And yet, merging the two never occurred to me. Going down the list of obliviousness, I didn't pay attention to the likes of Foursquare or Gowalla until now. It didn't help much that gamification sounds like a marketing-drone-inspired word.

Why is that? Foursquare's "game" involves checking-in to a location. Its basic game mechanic, so to speak, is "push a button to get one point". The additional rule is "you can't push the button for a location more than once per day". Now, other than the difficulty of physically getting to the actual location, this doesn't seem like much of a mechanic, does it? Once you get enough points, you get a badge. If you best the other "players" in clicking, you may become "Mayor" of the location. In order to preserve your "Mayor" status, you need to do exactly what you did the other day. In gaming terms, this is called "grinding": " ... describe[s] the process of engaging in repetitive and/or boring tasks not pertaining to the story line of the game."

Of course, Foursquare has a business plan attached to their game, which is enticing businesses to offer deals and discounts to users of their platform. While in theory it sounds like a neat idea with a convergence of social, location, mobile and business and Techcrunch is reporting $600 Million valuation for them, I believe they are not sustainable by this model alone.  Why? Deals and discounts online internet star Groupon had a disastrous IPO just recently. Customers looking only for deals are not repeat customers. Deals may have promotional value but are not long-term revenue providers.

Games and more recently video games are defined by game play, types of goals, art style and so much more. People play games to have fun, to be immersed, to escape, learn and win. Some reward skills, some strategy, some just appeal to our emotions or have a compelling story. There is so much breadth to games and we are a ludic race. Games are everywhere around us helping us learn and socialize from an early stage in our lives.

Video games have now been sold for 40 years. They have spawned a multitude of genres, we are referring to the seventh generation of game consoles and are now a $35 billion industry.

Entrepreneurs, developers and designers have now grown with video games and have created businesses based on game concepts or adapted game concepts to existing businesses. Some of these have attracted a lot of attention and here we are where even Gartner is putting forth reports and analysis on gamification.

Fun and accounting

Games are designed to achieve what businesses yearn for: engagement, loyalty, positive emotions, word of mouth marketing. Good games stay in the collective memory of gamers for years, even decades. Some are still played decades later. (If we include chess and the like, we can extend this to millennia). How many of you still use (and have fun using) Win 95? Taking a look through at the Wayback machine [archive link] sites in '95, the only adjective you can label them with is primitive.There's an argument to be made about Google's minimalism all these years, but then again, a screwdriver is still a screwdriver. Yet people still play Starcraft 1 and Diablo 2, games which are 10 years old. Why is that?

There are (were?) many ways in which games differ from business software or websites. The ones I believe most important are: games focused on the emotional experience, are artfully realized, polished and fun.

Emotional experience: this is one businesses run away from the most. Corporate software is generally valued if it is configurable, adaptable, one-size-fits-all, politically correct and so on. In other words, boring, unremarkable, trying too hard. Eliciting emotion brings loyalty. It also polarizes (which is why businesses run away from it). People talk about loving/hating Apple products. Customers that love your product won't stop talking about it. They will build a fan-base for your product. They will be your evangelists. People that hate your product will blast you in online forums and show much vitriol. Nevertheless, I feel it is a tradeoff worth taking. 

Artfully realized: in another word, beautiful. Game studios are increasingly populated with artists instead of programmers; game engine development is nowadays a small part of game development. Each game menu is designed to match the entire experience of a game [screenshots here], even if you are adjusting the video card settings. Concept artists, game designers put a lot of soul into a game. 

Polished: even though games also suffer from deadlines and their share of bugs, the polish level is through the roof compared with other types of software. Game designers worry about pacing, rhythm, discoverability, guiding the player. Besides obvious bugs, testers are also noting how much fun they had while playing a level. Because it's a game, people working on games make sure there is nothing that can frustrate the player, break immersion or feel out of place in the game world.

Fun: surely accounting software cannot be fun? How can we turn "it's not frustrating" into "it is a joy to use"? Surely these are phrases every accountant would like to say. All the above combined turn games into fun experiences that people want to share with friends, talk about, and spend on it. 

Achievements versus gameplay

Achievements in the video game universe are a relative newcomer to the party. Microsoft, Sony and Valve have introduced their own systems for their own networks.

So what are achievements? "In video gaming parlance, an achievement, also sometimes known as a trophy or challenge, is a meta-goal defined outside of a game's parameters. Unlike the systems of quests or levels that usually define the goals of a video game and have a direct effect on further gameplay, the management of achievements usually takes place outside the confines of the game environment and architecture." (Wikipedia)

As it starts to click together, you can see that the badges and points that Foursquare and other "gamified" sites are peddling around are actually tacked on parts of a game, meta-goals. Sure, you can brag about it but think about it: when visiting the Eiffel tower, you're not going to tell your friends about how amazing it was to check-in with Foursquare there (if you do, there's something seriously wrong with you) you will tell them how beautiful the view from the top was. So we come to the problem and conclusion. All these gamified systems are lacking the actual game part. There's nothing emotional about them or artfully realized. 

Since I jumped on the hate train about one year too late, here is a list of links of other people thoroughly dismantling gamification:

Gamification = b*llsh$t

Gamification is Bullshit

John Radoff's Gamification article

Can’t play, won’t play

Issues of Gamification Design

And an excellent presentation by Sebastian Deterding "Pawned. Gamification and its discontents"

The slope of enlightenment

Now that I've made my case against gamification, getting closer to games is actually quite desirable. I will go through the list again: emotional experience, artfully realized, polished and fun. I think all software builders should strive for these, regardless of what kind of software they are building. Software should provide a free and safe place to play, encouraging people to try new things and not punishing them for their mistakes. Giving users feedback appropriately and timely puts them at ease. Establishing clear, achievable goals and rules, providing a challenge makes people engage with your software.

There is so much more that business software can do to get closer to games. Gamification in its current incarnation is not it. I'll leave it to future articles for concrete ways on bridging the gap. 

In the meantime, let's all try to bring a bit of fun into our users lives.