Can't Play, Won't PlayS

If only more parts of our lives were game-ified, say proponents of "Gamification" who champion things like and Nike+ or FourSquare that offer scores for running or just being somewhere. Wrong, writes game designer Margaret Robertson. Gamification misses the point.

I like neologisms. We need new words because we have new ideas, and ideas are the only things that break the law of the conservation of energy.

Where once there was nothing there now is something, and the history of the neologism is a history of those moments of pure creation.

‘Gamification', that said, can go take a long walk off a short pier. I'm heartened beyond measure to see that it's been deleted from Wikipedia.

‘Gamification', the internet will tell you, is the future. It's coming soon to your bank, your gym, your job, your government and your gynaecologist. All human activity will be gamified, we are promised, because gamifying guarantees a whole bunch of other buzz-words like Immersion! and Emotional Engagement! and Socialised Monetisation! You'll be able to tell when something's been gamified because it will have points and badges. And this is the nub of the problem.

What we're currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience.

That problem being that gamification isn't gamification at all. What we're currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience. Points and badges have no closer a relationship to games than they do to websites and fitness apps and loyalty cards. They're great tools for communicating progress and acknowledging effort, but neither points nor badges in any way constitute a game. Games just use them – as primary school teachers, military hierarchies and coffee shops have for centuries – to help people visualise things they might otherwise lose track of. They are the least important bit of a game, the bit that has the least to do with all of the rich cognitive, emotional and social drivers which gamifiers are intending to connect with.

Games manage to produce all these drivers by being complex, responsive mechanisms. Games set their players goals and then make attaining those goals interestingly hard – that's interestingly hard, as opposed to just arduous. Hitting my 50 miles in one month in Nike+ was hard, but it was just hard hard. Lots of things about running make running interestingly hard, but Nike+ added nothing to that. It just asked me to do it a lot, in a row. Collecting enough My Coke Rewards for a Coca-Cola Telenovela Club Beauty Rest Eye Relaxation Mask is hard, but it isn't interestingly hard. It's just a wallet-emptying, artery-thickening endurance test. Nike+ and My Coke Rewards, despite being the posterboys of gamificaiton (and despite both being in their own ways interesting projects and great successes), are in no ways games. That's not a turn of phrase, incidentally. I mean there is no way, not one single way, in which either of them is a game.

Deciding to run two miles today rather than one, or drink two liters of Coke instead of four are just choices of quantity. Deciding to dump my sniper rifle for an energy sword is a meaningful choice.

Games give their players meaningful choices that meaningfully impact on the world of the game. Deciding to run two miles today rather than one, or drink two liters of Coke instead of four are just choices of quantity. Deciding to dump my sniper rifle for an energy sword is a meaningful choice. It's going to change how I move, who I fight, when I run. It's literally going to change whether I live or die, and that - for which I thank the stars – is currently something Nike and Coke can't match.

And living or dying is important. Games offer fail conditions as well as win conditions. They are able to deliver the high levels of emotional engagement they're famed for because they're also adept at delivering the lows of loss, humiliation and frustration. The world of user experience design from which the concept of gamification has arisen has spent the last twenty years erasing loss, humiliation and frustration from its flows. A world of badges and points only offers upwards escalation, and without the pain of loss and failure, these mean far less. And when this upward escalation is based only on accumulation of points, rather than on expressions of my choices and my skills, then this further strips out the sense of agency and competence, so crucial to the emotional and neurological buzz we get from gaming.

It's crucial that we stop conflating points and games.

Firstly, because it devalues points. Points are great. So are badges. Everything you're reading on the pro-gamification posts about how powerful they are as motivators and rewards is spot on. Game designers resort to them – I resort to them – so often because they're fantastic tools, and as with all tools there is real art and science behind deploying them well. They deserve to be studied, refined and adapted on their own terms, with their own vocabulary.

But secondly, because it misrepresents games. Gamification is an inadvertent con. It tricks people into believing that there's a simple way to imbue their thing (bank, gym, job, government, genital health outreach program, etc) with the psychological, emotional and social power of a great game. And when their gamified thing doesn't deliver on that promise, the only rational thing for them to do is to turn round and say ‘Games don't work! We gamified the dickens out of this thing, and it still didn't make as much money/reach as many users/generate as much social heat as World of WarCraft/Farmville/Minecraft'. Any game designer looking at their gamified thing would say, ‘Of course it didn't do what those things did! Those things are all games and your thing isn't!' But they won't be heard, because they won't be in the room, since – and this is very telling – the gamification process rarely involves any actual game designers.

Gamification is the wrong word for the right idea. The word for what's happening at the moment is pointsification. There are things that should be pointsified. There are things that should be gamified. There are things that should be both. There are many, many things that should be neither.

It's important that we make the distinction between the two undertakings because, amidst all this confusion, we're losing sight of the question of what would happen if we really did apply the deeper powers of game design to more everyday things – if we really did gamify them – and that question is a fascinating, exciting and troubling one. I really hope we get a chance to explore it properly.

So, in summary:

Gamification, as it stands, should actually be called pointsification, and is a bad thing because it's a misleading title for a misunderstood process, although pointsification, in and of itself, is a perfectly valid and valuable concept which nonetheless needs to be implemented carefully with due concern for appropriateness and for unintended consequences, just as actual gamification, namely the conversion of existing systems into functioning games, is also a valid and valuable process which carries its own concerns, but which now cannot with any clarity be referred to as gamification since that term is already widely associated with the process of what should more properly be called pointsification, and which we therefore propose be instead termed ‘luding', mostly because it sounds a bit like ‘lewding'.

Or, in other words:

Games are good, points are good, but games ≠ points.

Picture by R J Malfalfa.

Margaret Robertson is development director of Hide&Seek, a game design studio that makes things for consoles, phones, browsers, streets, tables and pockets. Previously editor of Edge magazine, she worked for many years as a design consultant to AAA and indie developers.

Republished with permission.