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Gamification — Taken to the Mat

My last half dozen posts have all been related to games or gaming concepts in one fashion or another. While gaming certainly has an important place among playful technologies (structured play, anyhow), I don’t like to dwell on it too much. Nevertheless, since adding game elements to apps, services, and technologies is a big deal right now, we’re going one more round…

Our Main Event

(Play along. This only works if you imagine this next part announced like this.)

[ding, ding ding]

Ladies and gentlemen, a matchup of epic proportions. The rage on the homepage. A flogging in the blogging.

In this corner, wearing no vowels and weighing in at $5M in venture backing from Google, hailing from Cambridge Massachusetts — the Upstart of the Startups SCVNGR.

And, in this corner, weighing in with three little letters after his name1 and a knockout research punch — the Hamburg Hammer Sebastian Deterding.

Round 1

SCVNGR’s Hunt: Retailers Who See Dollars in Game Dynamics:

…SCVNGR, a startup that aims “to build a game layer on top of the world.” The hyperkinetic entrepreneur [Priebatsch] informs me that people can get points in a SCVNGR game by climbing onto the roof of the building and leaping over the bamboo canes. He’s done it.

…SCVNGR’s game takes matters a step further. If other players have been there, they may have left behind challenges, which the user can complete for points. After visiting a location enough times, users earn the right to create their own challenges.

…Priebatsch deals out game dynamics cards from a deck the company has created to showcase the underlying ideas. For example, there is the progression dynamic, which is the idea that if you present people with clear, achievable guideposts on the way to a goal, they will be strongly inclined to aim for the next guidepost.

It’s not yet clear whether this approach will work. SCVNGR is part of a new crop of companies that still must prove themselves. Marketers are uncertain how to measure the value of location-based marketing campaigns, and it remains to be seen whether users who check in at a location are more likely to return or feel loyal to the product.

The article seems to concentrate mostly on location-based marketing. However, to be clear, SCVNGR uses location as an ingredient to create the main dish that is its game models.

SCVNGR and many others are building new applications, services, and retail experiences that are based on a philosophy wherein daily life, game elements, mobile devices, and commerce intermix. It seems compelling. It’s certainly true that all kinds of money and effort are flowing into so-called gamification.

Round 2

Sebastian Deterding recently posted a fantastic slide presentation. This thing has to be seen to be appreciated. Text alone can’t quite capture everything he said, and Sebastian has said simply too many good things to be easily summarized here. Still, I pulled out a few gems.

Pawned. Gamification and Its Discontents:

Gamification: Integrating game dynamics into your site, service, community, content or campaign, in order to drive participation. (see Bunchball)

For all empirical studies on the motivational psychology of video games that I know of make this point articulated by Raph Koster: Playing video games is fun because it provides experiences of competence, self-efficacy, mastery. Conversely, not a single serious empirical study to my knowledge mentions extrinsic rewards as a critical motivating factor.

Study after study says: We play video games because we enjoy overcoming the challenges and puzzles they present us, raising the difficulty with our ability to keep it right at the point where it is neither boring nor frustrating. The joy and thrill of games lies between the tension of a challenge that has us bite out tongue and the release upon our successful resolution of that challenge. Put differently, playing video games is intrinsically motivating, not extrinsically rewarded.

Play offers the freedom to think and act differently.

Sebastian makes several important points. Gamification usually introduces only certain elements of full games to a given service or application. And only winning points, well, misses the point. He goes on to identify many of the assumptions and consequences of gamification which I’ll summarize broadly and thusly: misunderstanding the essential nature of gaming and play and clumsily shellacking “fun” interaction models over top of the real world.

Technical Knockout?

The big question is whether SCVNGR and other gamification-driven services are forcibly injecting play into daily activities (and thus killing the fun to be had) or are revealing new and profitable ways to play. You would be wrong to assume that Sebastian is saying adding game elements to real life won’t work. The key, as in all things, is to do so well — to master the art, science, and design of play in creating that which can be truly fun.

Ultimately, I suspect we’ll see a few stand out examples of gamification that bring together play, technology, and real life in fun, engaging, and compelling new ways. I also suspect we’ll see far more failures than successes in these attempts. Elements of games and play are not magic pixie dust to be sprinkled about guaranteeing fun and profit.


1 Technically, Sebastian Deterding is a PhD candidate, but that’s too much to explain in an impressive boxing announcer voice.

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