Why gamification is no game

The conversations around gamification have been going on in geek-filled coffee shops for some time (you know, the ones where you switch off after the third neologism in a row). Now these discussions are accompanied with iPad2 demos of brands as diverse as Coca Cola and VW, with applications ranging from frequent flyer points to UE design. But why are games and gamification so attractive to brands and advertisers, and what are the implications?

Let’s get in our DeLorean DMC-12 and go back a few hundred years. I spent a morning at Pollock’s Toy Museum recently and was instantly transported to a simpler, magical world. Games and toys from my childhood sprang back to life amidst new discoveries from days gone by. The oldest game in the world is said to be Senet, a board game that originated in Egypt circa 3500 BC. It was a few millennia before the Olympic Games kicked off in 776 BC. Games have since evolved in a myriad of different formats, from sophisticated role-play to augmented reality 3D extravaganzas.

Why are games so important to the human experience? You only need to observe the boys hard at play on Fifa 11 to spot the social utility: games bring people together. Minigetawaystockholm.com (where players competed to track down a virtual Mini Countryman using location-based software) is an inspiring example of how a game can link an entire city: one participant commented, ‘This game has united us. It’s so social.’ But games also have the power to destroy relationships. Remember those ferocious arguments over Monopoly when you were a kid? You would storm out, slamming anything or anyone that got in your way, bemoaning the unfairness of it all. Just me?  In a zero-sum game, one only wins at another’s expense.

To better understand why winning matters, we can look to game theory – a mathematical concept that works on the principle that life is a serious of game interactions; each decision we make is influenced by the actions and choices of others. Think of chess: by predicting these choices, we can select the most advantageous probability, and act accordingly. Life is therefore a game with rules, and your role is to play by the rules while attempting to maximise gains and minimise losses. This correlates with Clark C Abt’s rather dry description, “A game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context.

And winning isn’t the only reason we play games: solving problems is a fundamental aspect of our neurological learning mechanisms; we get real chemical rewards. Evolution has selected for this behaviour over thousands of generations – it is the biological reward system that encourages tool use and technological adoption. Without this built in addiction to problem solving, we would lack agriculture, medicine, architecture and other fundamental survival techniques.

The possibility and measurability of success (and therefore, conclusion) in games is immensely appealing in an unpredictable, complex world where there is no ‘limiting context’ to play within. We have developed constructs, such as school (which uses grades as a reward mechanism), and the meritocracy of work environments, but as game-like as these sociological mechanisms are, there are simply too many variables and interpretations of success. Games offer a simpler, more satisfying experience – even if the game story itself is complex.

The relationship between game-playing and storytelling cannot be overstated. Of course, I would say that, but I’m not the only one. With reference to his book Luka and the Fire of Life, Rushdie suggests that the way games inhabit the imagination may do something harmful to our relationship to story, to “the way in which human beings have always needed and responded to the art of the story, and that is something to be worried about, because I think that there is something about storytelling that is very intrinsic to who we are as human beings”. If we consider the structure of a story, we find many of the same components as games: character arc, tension, a closed environment with a beginning and an end, a reward for progressing through the story (learning, tension release). But games are fundamentally pointless (excluding educational games for the moment), whereas stories are rich vehicles for cohesion and meaning. Games trap players in a cycle of tension and release that (generally) serves no higher purpose.

One reason games have become so prevalent in marketing is their power: they override mental responses. By this I mean that games dominate psychological processes at the expense of rational or even emotional drivers. An example of this was the proposed inclusion of an AI ‘flower’ in all Ford cars. The idea was that an animated plant on the dashboard would grow healthier and greener the more economically the car was driven, leading to better fuel efficiency and reduced carbon emissions, and functioning like a game with notions of incremental achievement and reward. However, research demonstrated that drivers actually prioritised the game mechanic over established driving behaviours – they sailed through red lights in order to improve their green status.

Games will only become more prevalent as brands continue to utilise them to influence behaviour, and we should therefore be taking them very seriously.

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