02. Oxymoronic, the Gamification of Games

I wanted to talk about something that I think doesn’t get elaborated enough upon, and that is the problem of gamification of games. The working definition usually accepted by practitioners of gamification is “The use of game-elements in non game contexts”. It’s notable that that definition has no real functional component, it simply says that if it’s not a game, and has game-elements in it, voila. It doesn’t indicate what the purpose is of putting game-elements in, at any level of the design process.

But what you encounter, more often than not, when you see examples of gamification, is that it is the use of three main “game-elements” (those quotes will be important): achievements, points, and badges. By peppering in these tiny fake rewards (most of the time achievements and badges have no actual value or purpose within the constructs they’re found in, and points are frequently moreso a status indicator than anything else), you can trigger the reward centers of a user’s brain. This is classical operant conditioning at work. It’s “rewards” extrinsic to the central activity, designed to spur you on to continue. These sorts of extrinsic rewards are a problem, because what we’re doing is making Skinner boxes. These rewards often either have no real value, or are so utterly randomly assigned that they completely circumvent user input. They deprive users of autonomy.

And what you start to realize, is that while these elements are certainly found in games, and were certainly found in the earliest electronic games (including but not limited to pinball and other such arcadery), they were mostly NOT what define the games. In the first Mario games, you earned points, and those points were an indirect measure of how good you were at the game. Completing levels, killing baddies collecting coins, all got you points. But even the most digitally naive of us understand that the fun of the game was the challenge of completing levels, and attempting to make it all the way to the very end where to rescue the princess from Bowser (or, your girlfriend Pauline from Donkey Kong, in the original title featuring our favorite mustached plumber). For some, the idea of getting more points than others, the high score, was a prestige in and of itself. In the arcade culture of the 80s and early 90s, this certainly had some currency, but what you were seeing was games being explicitly designed to motivate further play by allowing indirect assessment on ones skill, ones competence, to continue using SDT terms, by comparing scores. It was a way to make a single player activity into a contest.


So now, when the grand diversity of games allows for complex stories, immersive plots, engaging gameplay, and all sorts of mechanisms that produce engaging, flow-state inducing play, the question becomes more and more prominent of, “why are there still points in my games”. The reason is that despite gamification emerging long after points and their like were already a quaternary concern for game design, alongside tertiary concerns such as achievements and their ephemeral kin, badges, it has managed to extract these extrinsic motivators, these things that make solo activities produce some vestige of relatedness with others (completing our SDT trifecta), and not only leverage them outside of game contexts, but reinsert them. Now, we can begin to get into a criticism of this argument, and I’ll gladly concede to it, by asserting that while this historical and modern gamification of games predates the modern construct of gamification, and as such cannot be used as a criticism. How can something that’s been part of games long before the idea of extracting game-elements for nongame uses, and is continued to be used in games forever, be suddenly considered an example of gamification. This is akin to when biomimicry practitioners describe velcro as an example of biomimicry. It’s a prescriptive definition.


What we’re really seeing here is that gamification is not trying to pretend that what it is doing isn’t being done in games, it’s EMBRACING IT. It’s recognizing this cunning source of extrinsic motivation and indirect relatedness that’s been used in games for quite some time, and it’s using THAT for other applications. We’d love to see gamification practitioners use other elements from games, maybe the parts of games that aren’t just virtual carrots, but rather the things that make us truly enjoy games, but for them, why bother? They’ve got what they wanted from the gaming world, and they’re using it over and over again because IT WORKS. They don’t care about making the best experience, making things engaging and enjoyable and fun. They want you to be addicted. They want to use all your cognitive biases and flawed heuristics to feel like you’re WINNING. You earn frequent flyer miles by spending money, either purchasing flights through a company at a markup that offsets the “cost” of giving you points, or by utilizing your purchasing history to sell to market researchers and all sorts of devious money-making schemes.

I read a passing observation once, that any company that features a customer loyalty incentive program is doing so to make you ignore the fact that the company is failing you at some level. Either the customer service is poor, or the quality of the products is, or the price isn’t good. They want you to feel like that by being loyal to them, You’re WINNING. The problem here is that it’s impossible to gauge who is WINNING MORE. But what I can tell you, is that every time, it’s THEM. Your amazon discounts are subsidized by the sheer market control they have, they sell things at a loss to maintain your loyalty and to undermine the competition. Every ticket you buy on Delta is a ticket sale that Spirit doesn’t get. If I were any more cynical I would describe it as sinister.

But what we see in modern games is that points, badges, achievements, they’re a carrot, a virtual carrot. And the fact that they’re virtually a carrot, but not quite a real one, should worry you.

The game ARMS is a recent novel take on the boxing genre by Nintendo, and on its face it’s a genuinely fun game. You fight each other with all sorts of wacky boxing gloves attached to your bizarrely stretch arms, completely with motion controls to allow you to curve your fists as they fly across an arena at your enemies. Each of the various fighters when you first buy the game has a unique set of arms they can choose from at the start of a fight, and the more fights you win, either playing at home or online, earns you credits you can use to buy in-game art, and to play a high-score arcade game that tests your ability to punch moving targets to get high scores. And playing the game, a genuine treat, even if you’re not a fan of the high score premise, also allows you to unlock more of these boxing gloves (the titular ARMS) for each of the characters. Eventually, if you play enough, you’ll have every different ARMS for all the characters. And you’ll buy all the art. And then you’ll keep earning credits. And you’ll play ranked matches on line, where the more you win, the higher your ranking becomes. And what do you get for having these higher rankings? Why nothing. Of course nothing. You’re being lured onward with high scores. Some games will mask this by making it so by increasing rank you gain access to new, different, or better equipment. Another nintendo game, Splatoon, features this, with more and more weapons becoming available as you level up. But what do these levels do? They CAN conceivably make you intrinsically better at the game, give you advantages, or they might just reward you with novel ways to play the game, in many, they simply let you have novel aesthetic elements, with no real function. But what happens when you complete this. What happens when you have equipment you like, and you’re having fun playing the game, but it still keeps giving you credits you have no use for, or ranks that mean nothing? What happens when you recognize that the carrots aren’t real? What happens when you try and chomp down and your teeth clang together? What happens when you feel like you’re tricked?

Not everyone sees this. Or they do, but don’t have a problem with it. They’ll be off to the next game soon enough. Or they’ll hit that point where the extrinsic rewards taper off, and they’ll grow bored of it. But what happens if you suddenly realize you’ve sunk hours into something, not because it was something you really enjoyed, and found truly engaging, but because your brain feels you need to complete something, whether it be climbing a ranking, or collecting all the ARMS, or having a high score? Where does the intrinsic rewards end and the extrinsic begin? In gamification applications, they don’t care, and they don’t want you to care, or to find out. They’re using operant conditioning on you to do things. And while in a free market we can see why you would do that, it feels even more abusive of trust when they’re using it to make you do something you don’t really care for over parts of that same thing you actually like.

03. Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, 1996, Beverly Serrell

04. Jargon