Explicating gamification: Reflections on CHI 2011 Gamification workshop and what needs to happen next.

Last week I had a great time participating in the Gamification workshop at the 2011 annual CHI Conference. After having some time to digest, I wanted to post a quick summary of the experience and some thoughts on where it appears the conversation needs to go next.

The first half of the day-long workshop was devoted to the usual procession of paper presentations. Presenters came from both academia and industry, and as such there was a nice range in content, spanning the purely theoretical to tangible prototypes of gamified systems. Two pieces I found especially. interesting were actually sourced by workshop organizers: Sebastian Deterding’s piece on the influence of situational context on the motivational pull of game-based design affordances and Dan Dixon’s piece on the organization and relative value of player typologies. Both, in my opinion, may soon become increasingly imperative considerations for calibrating gamification to particular services, venues, and audiences. That is, should the gamification wave prove itself to be more than a flash in the pan, these sorts of considerations will help theorists and designers alike to consider it not as a standardized set of protocols, but rather, as a case-specific system design process.

The second half of the workshop was spent in small group discussion of key topics related to gamification, as voted upon by attendees. Topics included:

Groups differences – How might gamification of interaction systems be tailored in light of age, workplace roles, SES, etc.? How might cultural dressing and practice relate to the design of a gamified system?

Cheating in gamified systems – Transgression is both technically and socially enforced in games. How might this play out in “real world” settings that include meta-community rules?

Meaning – Is gamification, as is, merely data-ification and feedback loops, with designs driven by analytics? Does gamification inherently strip experiences of non-game-relevant richness in order to streamline achievement? Does gamification add new meaning in adding new structure to discourse?

Ethical design – Gamification may be the “spoonful of sugar” for getting individuals to take their medicine, but what about the long-term detriments of too much sugar? Can gamified systems, more so than alternate media and/or interaction systems, push individuals to engage in X beyond acceptable moderation? Even when implemented for prosocial purposes rather than commercial gain, who’s to say that the “right” behavior is right?

Additionally, certain themes emerged across discussions of these topics. For example, the idea that gamification designs are often exceedingly individualistic (in user goals, interface, and synchronicity of players interaction) was a common concern, with relevance to issues of culture and hegemony, shared meaning, and fair play.

Overall, what was perhaps most surprising to me was the relative lack of discussion about what actually constitutes gamification – a concept that in recent months has grown incredibly bloated and increasingly oversimplified with every new mainstream news story. Over the course of the day-long workshop, definition of the concept came up three times by my count, but at no point was it fervently discussed, dissected, and debated. The three definitions I noted included:

1) Gamification is the application of game elements to non-game contexts. In kick starting the day, the organizers presented their own definition of gamification: the use of game design elements in non-game contexts. This definition serves to distinguish gamified systems from serious games, with which they are often lumped – the former consist of collections of game elements, whereas the latter are complete and actual games. It seemed that no one in attendance took issue with a definition based on this distinction, which is to be expected, as it is both non-controversial and very generally applicable.

2) Gamification is the application of game elements to non-game contexts in order to yield target results. Right before lunch Rajat Paharia, founder of Bunchball, gave a keynote in which he cited a key distinction between what many of us had been discussing and the type of services provided by his company. Specifically, Bunchball defines gamification as the process of integrating game dynamics into a client’s site, service, community, content or campaign in order to drive participation. As such, the company seeks to increase user engagement in client services and goods via adding points, levels, challenges, and virtual goods to pre-existing content. Further, as one fellow attendee excellently summarized, by this definition gamification is simply a patina of game-ness layered over non-game-ness and is not the same as pure game design.

3) Gamification as “exploitationware.” It has been suggested that that gamification replaces “ real, functional, two-way relationships with dysfunctional perversions of relationships. Organizations ask for loyalty, but they reciprocate that loyalty with shams, counterfeit incentives that neither provide value nor require investment.” With this conceptualization Bogost suggests the process is better termed “exploitationware”, and he reiterated this point when communicating with workshop participants and organizers both during and after the event.

It seems clear that Bogost’s and Bunchball’s definitions are two sides of the same coin; indeed, both place focus on the targeted consequences of gamification, though each colors the results with their own perspective on marketing. Both definitions are pragmatically based, with much of the current hoopla over practical application of gamification being commercial in nature. However, neither of these definitions are expansive enough to include what some see as gamification’s potential for powerful prosocial interventions in the domains of education, energy conservation, or civic engagement.

To this end, I prefer the first definition above, offered by the workshop organizers, as it does not discount such potential application. At the same time, despite being an excellent and much needed first step, defining gamification as the use of game elements in non-game contexts is almost so general that it sacrifices utility (beyond, that is, distinguishing the process from serious games). What gamification needs, moving forward, is an explication of its definition that goes even further beyond the abstract and into pragmatically useful detail, but does so in a way that captures not only current trends (from multiple perspectives), but future potentials as well. Equipped with a definition that is robust enough to be meaningful yet unbiased we can then begin to more properly consider issues like social context of motivational design, individual differences in users, and the capacity for reflective user deliberation in pursuing gamified goals.

Explicating gamification: Reflections on CHI 2011 Gamification workshop and what needs to happen next. by Jim Cummings, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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