Gamification: Good or Evil?
Jihadists use gamification to encourage violent jihad. Scientists use gamification to encourage players to advance science and possibly cure diseases.
So is gamification good or evil? Neither. Gamification is neutral. It is a technique that uses basic psychological learning principles to encourage people to perform actions. What matters is what is being gamified: science good, jihad bad.
What do video games gamify?
Video games rely heavily on gamification. In fact, they are the pioneers and namesake of the technique. But if gamification is a neutral encouragement to action, what actions do current video games encourage? In video games, what is gamification in service of?
Here are some examples of popular games where I’ve tried to express their content and actions stripped of gamification:
- Slot Machine. Pull a handle to get lucky.
- Bejeweled. Pattern match and move colored gems.
- Super Mario Brothers. As a plumber, perfect and master the timing of jumps and fireballs to make it to the right of the screen.
- Halo. Shoot a lot of aliens in the context of a decent sci-fi story. Actually, the book Halo: The Flood shows what Halo: Combat Evolved would be without gamification. It’s a pretty shallow novel with way too many gun fights and only marginally interesting story.
- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare/Modern Warfare 2. Again, shoot a lot of bad guys in the context of a nonsensical espionage thriller. Interestingly, there are two levels in the series that do not use gamification and they are the most talked about levels in the series: In the level Aftermath, there is no way to win, score points, or even shoot anyone. You simply play a character in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. As you crawl slowly through the debris, you have no chance to survive and finally succumb and die. And, in the airport massacre level, again, there is nothing that drives you to shoot – no points, no win or lose. You simply experience the horror of gunning down civilians. It’s your choice whether you join in or not. There’s no game mechanic encouraging you to or not to and you can complete the level either way.
- Shadows of the Colossus. Murder 16 Colossi in an attempt to resurrect your dead lover, by finding them, climbing them and stabbing them. The overarching theme of loss and appeasement through violence is fascinating but the action of killing the colossi is a little repetitive.
- Façade. As a dinner guest, chat with a couple suffering relationship problems. Goad them into breaking up, staying together, or just try to stay out of it. This game is almost completely de-gamified already with no win/loss scenarios, points, competition, or even encouragement to continue other than the experience itself.
These examples show the variety of depth of experience present in games – some games have little or no depth or interest beyond gamification while others possess powerful themes, experiences and ideas.
In games, what is gamification in service of? The answer ranges from A) Nothing to B) deep meditations on loss to C) some games don’t use gamification.
While gamification is inherently neutral, there are some risks and advantages to using its techniques.
The Benefits of Gamified Games
Gamification encourages a feeling of blissful productivity which positive psychologists consider good for players.
Gamification can be used to teach useful skills or encourage useful actions that might otherwise be boring. For example, Typing of the Dead encourages players to learn how to type. And games like Fold-It advance the state of protein folding science.
A gamification system, once perfected, can be cheap, reused, and hold the attention of the player for very long periods of time.
Gamification appeals to very wide audiences from rats to PhDs. Gamification works because of ingrained psychological learning principles evolved into most animals, which means heavily and correctly gamified games will generally do well in the marketplace, even if they are in service of nothing.
The Costs of Gamified Games
One danger of gamification is that it can override a game’s message. For example, in BioShock, players may choose not to harvest Little Sisters, not for moral or story reasons, but simply because they know they will receive a super weapon at the end of the game. Thus, their choice is driven not by any meaning, but rather out of desired to receive a larger reward.
Another danger is that the world at large disdains gamification techniques. Indeed, this is the heart of Roger Ebert’s argument against games as art and the reason that Judge Limbaugh ruled that games are not speech. They both feel the technique of rewarding a player for doing actions is not itself inherently meaningful. There must be more to a game than gamification to make it truly artful or meaningful speech.
Gamification can keep people playing games even if the play itself is uninteresting or boring. How often do players complain about “grinding” in RPGs? Or look at people who are addicted to slot machines – they know their actions are inherently meaningless, but they can’t stop playing. That is, gamification can fool us and our players into thinking they are doing something meaningful.
Gamification is a great video game innovation and it has long been its lifeblood. Yet, it is only after our game techniques have been applied to violent jihadists, airline mileage clubs, credit card companies, Nike shoes and science endeavors that we begin to realize that gamification is only a technique, an encouragement to act. Realizing this, we can, if we choose to, free ourselves from over-focusing on gamification and instead focus on deeper player interactions. That is, we can choose to gamify nothingness or we can choose to gamify something meaningful. Only once we get past hollow gamification will our artform reach its fullest potential.
- Can you use gamification to teach useful skills or encourage helpful actions?
- Can you ditch gamification techniques for an entire game or part of a game? Can you make a good game without points, scores, win/loss, rewards, blocked advancement, etc?
- Ask yourself, “Why am I playing this game?” If the answer starts with “To unlock an…” or “To beat …” or “To get a high score…” than you may be playing an overly gamified game. How would you change it to make it able to stand on its own?