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Future Fragments: The Good, the Bad and the “Gamified”

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor


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In her latest column, Anastasia Salter examines the ways that games are invading our everyday lives.

ImageWith every cool digital idea, the hype comes first. Now that marketing gurus have run out of words to stick e (and i!) in front of, they’ve moved on to a new buzzword–“gamification.” What does it mean?

Depends who you ask.

To its advocates, it’s the process of taking things that aren’t fun and making them fun by making them games: the same philosophy that led students to spend years finding ways to kill their classmates and teachers with various diseases on The Oregon Trail. Like the mindset that first gave birth to edutainment, gamification is currently gimmicky, linked into the same principles of addiction that make people return to the same coffee shop over and over again to become mayors. But like edutainment, there’s a core of a good idea buried under the muck. There are tasks, and communities and ideas that can benefit from principles of game design. However, taking on achievements and leader boards is pretty far from that leap.

At the forefront of the back and forth is a video of Jesse Schell’s talk at DICE 2010 on the future of our lives as games, sponsored by corporations, where everything has a disposable computer chip and camera and our toothbrushing is monitored by our toothpaste company and rewarded with achievement points. (Think this is far-fetched? Check out the model Playful Toothbrush). The debate continues, often with game designers on one side and gamifiers on the other–here’s a great blog post by Mark Oehlert laying out a number of sides of the “Gamification” conversation thus far.

A number of gamified sites are growing in popularity, particularly in location based gaming, where achievements are added simply into activities that people are already engaging in, encouraging them to log on and check in repeatedly to profit. Other examples include everything from reward points systems on credit cards to exergaming models. Gamification even spawns game behaviors designers perhaps weren’t looking to encourage, like cheating on Foursquare.

However, even as many of these examples fit a cynical model of marketing and maximizing user commitment, financial and otherwise, there are times where “gamification” isn’t a bad word. Of course, in these cases, it’s also not the word people are using.

I was recently in Walt Disney World, a place I go to every year despite the shouts of the “Disney is evil” crowd. Disney’s always been a space for narrative–every ride has a story, embedded in the park, from the moment you approach to the décor and atmosphere of the line queue area to the shop waiting inevitably at the end. But in most of these narratives, the rider sits back and watches. Going through Haunted Mansion, I don’t have a sense of my motivation–the Ghost Host tells me my “sympathetic vibes” are bringing out the ghosts, but I’ve got a feeling he says that to everyone. There’s nothing for me to *do* on the ride.

A new wave of Toy Story rides is changing that.

At least for the moment, Toy Story Midway Mania seems to be the one of the most popular rides at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s a “4D” ride where players board their cars, put on their 3D glasses, and compete against others in their car in various arcade-style shooter games involving breaking plates or popping balloons as the Toy Story cast cheers them on. At the end of the ride, players are presented with their scores and a ranking level based on how they’ve done compared to the golden standard. Seeing other people’s scores or noticing how close the player was to the next level can all provide motivation to ride again and again.

On the other hand, DisneyQuest, Disney’s experience with an interactive indoor theme park, is rarely if ever crowded. Re-imagined versions of class rides wait–play Jungle Cruise, but you steer the boat by paddling against a virtual river. Play Pirates of the Caribbean and arm your entire family with cannons t shoot at 3D pirate ships while one member of the “crew” steers. Perhaps the biggest problem with these games is that they are too familiar, and too close to what is possible in the living room–especially with Kinect Adventures including a white water rafting game that seems to boast a more responsive interface than the DisneyQuest model.

Another model of Disney games waits in Epcot, with the Kim Possible ARG offering a solution for parents whose kids are tired of being dragged around for shopping and wine tasting in the world showcase. The Kim Possible missions are handled through a mobile phone, and offer simple payoffs for the simple task of moving from one spot to another. The payoffs take the form of visuals: a hidden robot in a store will burst up and make strange sounds, a group of nutcrackers will abruptly break out in a musical number, or a cuckoo clock in an outdoor façade will suddenly start moving and reveal strange figures.

There are many ways Disney could engage in “Gamification”–the marketing term now, not the actual creation of interactive play. Perhaps the most obvious would be to embed data in every purchase and start a virtual Disney with avatars decked out in digital copies of your purchases, leveling based on the time you’ve spent in the parks, gaining achievements like “Mad Teacup Skillz” for a successful day spent in Fantasyland. A system like this might even be popular–might even have moments of fun, especially if it synced with the Disney PhotoPass system to provide a full record of your vacation–but in its depth, it would be nothing more than a game of Foursquare meets Webkinz.

Perhaps worst of all, it could actually detract from the experience of being in the park, and thinking about great stories instead of achievement points. World of Warcraft’s achievement system has taken some heat for just that. A few years ago, as the achievement system was really grabbing hold of game design, Will Tuttle wrote of his addiction to achievements. When the achievement becomes the focus, the narrative and experience usually take a backseat.

Gamification that suits an experience, fits a narrative, and adds something novel to the ordinary isn’t a bad thing. But then, it’s not really “gamification”–it’s just creating games and working towards great experience design. The future will be a less interesting place, filled with continual meaningless affirmations from consumer household goods and Starbucks achievements, if all we take away from games are the trappings and none of the meaning.

If watching the DICE talk left you with the impression that competitive ranking systems and achievement points are most of what gaming has to offer the world, there’s a great deal of hope for the future in Jane McGonigal’s TED talk, “Gaming can make a better world.”

Jane McGonigal was the mastermind behind this week’s launch of game designer headquarters Gameful.org, a site that itself employs some elements of gamification with a built-in level system as a reward for posting, joining groups, and completing other, more challenging tasks that the community itself will be gradually designing. Here, the potentially gimmicky elements, like the tiny monsters that hatch and grow with every level up, are tools to inspire the site’s participants to rethink the way they build games and interact with one another. As the site grows up it might even be a birthplace for gaming reality that adds to, rather than distracts from, our world.

Author: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

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