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Games Do Not Equal Gamification

BretSW profile picIndigitous got the opportunity to interview Intervarsity/USA’s new Virtual Campus Ministry Director, Bret Staudt Willet. Bret is about games, technology, and people. He is fascinated by motivations and what it takes to build digitally-augmented communities. While figuring out his new job, he is also getting his Master of Arts degree from Michigan State in Educational Technology and serving on the board of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association. You can follow him @bretsw

This interview is so great, and so extensive we’ve included the whole interview below. Here are some edited responses to get you started. And BONUS POINTS if you read the whole thing… oh, wait, maybe we shouldn’t offer that, but you decide.

IND_Symbol: How did you get into gaming? Did you grow up a game nerd?

Bret: As a kid, while I loved reading, exploring the woods behind our house, and playing sports with neighborhood friends, there was a particular joy for me in videogames from an early age. Some of my earliest and happiest memories of my dad were watching him play games on the Atari.  My love of observing games continued through watching a neighbor play the original Legend of Zelda and Tiger Heli on the NES. All this to say, I’ve loved video games my whole life.

IND_Symbol: In one place you write, “At its worst, [gamification] takes the game concept of a scoreboard and applies it everywhere through points, rewards, and badges.”  You don’t seem very excited about the way gamification is being used. What concerns you most with widespread adoption of gamification?

Bret: You’re right; I cringe every time I hear someone say “gamification”, which these days is quite a lot.  On one hand my discomfort is due to the deception of the term itself—very rarely do things that are “gamified” actually resemble games.  Margaret Robertson wrote, “What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience.”  Different writers have proposed more honest terms for this process, with “pointsification” being a fair and accurate depiction and Ian Bogost’s term “exploitationware” being a more pointed view. In fact, they rarely even resemble each other.

The larger but more subtle issue with things that get labeled “gamification” is the lack of thoughtfulness as to whether building in an extrinsically motivating mechanic like a scoreboard is the right move or not.

However Jesper Juul reminded us, external rewards have actually been shown to decrease motivation to perform more complex tasks.  So the problem is that as more and more parts of our lives become gamified, we will be less and less motivated to do things that actually matter.  I do understand the appeal; enticing behavior with external rewards offers the illusion (if not the reality) of control; it’s a trick every parent figures out.  But it’s a problematic strategy that only lasts so long before meltdown.

Scott Nicholson is one person who is thankfully thinking carefully here, and he has developed a framework he calls “meaningful gamification”, which he defines as “the use of game design elements to help users find meaning in non-game contexts”.  His emphasis on meaningful is crucial to move away from simple points to more intrinsic motivations, or aspects of a task that are worth doing for their own sake.

IND_Symbol: What are some good examples of games that use this intrinsic reward model?

Bret: Something that is intrinsically motivating does not necessarily mean that it is fun.  Fun is a hard thing to define, and varies from player to player.  Jason VandenBerghe has done some great work in this area, starting with the Big Five Model of Personality Traits and adapting those into 5 Domains of Play and 30 Facets of Play.  The domains of play are Novelty, Challenge, Stimulation, Harmony, and Threat.

Each game offers players the possibility to play somewhere in the range of each of these five domains.  A particular player will find the game fun or enjoyable if that game allows them to play in range that matches their own personality.  The popular games have succeeded because of intrinsic factors, not extrinsic ones.  Right now games that successfully use an intrinsic reward model would include FarmVilleCandy Crush SagaFlappyBirdMaddenAngry BirdsLeague of LegendsKim Kardashian: Hollywood, Call of DutyWorld of Warcraft, and Skyrim.  That’s quite a mix of games attracting quite a mix of gamers.

IND_Symbol: How are you envisioning games supporting evangelism and discipleship?

Bret: The need I see is for more on-ramps.  My impression is that there are numerous digital tools already available for people already on the journey of following Jesus, such as YouVersion’s Bible study tools, Examen.me for prayer, or even virtual churches such as the First Presbyterian Church of Second Life.  I long for games to be inviting spaces where college students will able to explore facets of life following Jesus, and for this exploration to be an initial on-ramp toward following Jesus with the rest of their lives.

Often our evangelism and discipleship efforts over-focus on the content of the message: DO this and DON’T do that, etc.  But the form of the message matters a great deal, an idea captured in the 1960’s by Marshal McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”.  An apt question for us would be: Is Jesus the medium or the message?

There are already a handful of games that explore spiritual themes: The Graveyard explores presence, The Pilgrim explores agnosticism, Mountain explores deism, and That Dragon, Cancer explores grace.  [More listed below]  Not all of these games are “church-appropriate”, but as the great Flannery O’Connor once said, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures”. Coupled with appropriate follow up and invitation into relationship and community, these games could serve as helpful on-ramps to following Jesus.

IND_Symbol If you had three uninterrupted hours, what game would you play?

Bret: Skyrim.  I am motivated by playing in domains that are very high Novelty (I love the open world of Skyrim to explore, from the night sky’s aurora borealis to the atmospheric music that changes depending on your geography), and very high Stimulation (surroundings and circumstances are constantly changing, and combat offers a variety of options for engagement, with a variety of defensive options or offensive strategies).  For several years now this has been the game I keep returning to.

IND_Symbol: If you had 10 minutes between subway stops, what game would you play?

Bret: Since mobile games are played in short spurts, the duration of my interest tends to not last as long. That’s true at least for my gamer personality.  While Skyrim has kept my interest for years, a good mobile game might only capture my attention for a month or so.  Right now, I’m enjoying Monument Valley.  The graphics are simple but appealing, the puzzles are interesting but not too challenging, and there’s just enough of an overarching storyline to be interesting.  In 10-minute chunks, I can get through a level or two and enjoy the experience.

Full Interview

Q: How did you get into gaming? Did you grow up a game nerd?

As a kid, while I loved reading, exploring the woods behind our house, and playing sports with neighborhood friends, there was a particular joy for me in videogames from an early age.  Some of my earliest and happiest memories of my dad were watching him play games on the Atari.  My love of observing games continued through watching a neighbor play the original Legend of Zelda and Tiger Heli on the NES.  At home, while we never replaced the Atari when it died, I eagerly worked through numerous DOS games on the old 5.25-inch floppy disks until fancier games came with the advent of the CD-ROM.  All this to say, I’ve loved videogames my whole life.

Q: In one place you write, “At its worst, this process takes the game concept of a scoreboard and applies it everywhere through points, rewards, and badges.”  You don’t seem very excited about the way gamification is being used across different platforms. What concerns you most with widespread adoption of gamification?

You’re right; I cringe every time I hear someone same “gamification”, which these days is quite a lot.  On one hand my discomfort is due to the deception of the term itself—very rarely do things that are “gamified” actually resemble games.  Margaret Robertson wrote, “What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience.”  Different writers have proposed more honest terms for this process, with “pointsification” being a fair and accurate depiction and Ian Bogost’s term “exploitationware” being a more pointed view.   In some cases, like teachers in schools, the desire is to make the tasks at hand more enjoyable for everyone involved.  But in other cases, such as with the earliest “gamifiers”, credit card companies, I’m cynical enough to distrust that I’m being invited into something that is for my good.  A pet peeve of mine is that anytime I tell someone that I’m interested in thinking about designing games to teach and persuade, the response I get is “Oh yeah, gamification is really hot right now.”  Please hear very clearly that games do not equal gamification.  In fact, they rarely even resemble each other.

The larger but more subtle issue with things that get labeled “gamification” is the lack of thoughtfulness as to whether building in an extrinsically motivating mechanic like a scoreboard is the right move or not.  These days, overwhelmingly the answer is “YES!” and “How quickly can we?”.

However Jesper Juul reminded us that offering outside rewards can be motivating for mundane tasks, but external rewards have actually been shown to decrease motivation to perform more complex tasks.  So the problem is that as more and more parts of our lives become gamified, we will be less and less motivated to do things that actually matter.  I do understand the appeal; enticing behavior with external rewards offers the illusion (if not the reality) of control; it’s a trick every parent figures out.  But it’s a problematic strategy that only lasts so long before meltdown.  From what I’ve seen, very few people are thinking about this as we happily gamify away.  I tend to side with Juul, Bogost, and John Ferrara on the anti-gamification leaning, and even gamification proponent Andrzej Marczewski has started thinking about the extrinsic/intrinsic motivation issue.

Scott Nicholson is one person who is thankfully thinking carefully here, and he has developed a framework he calls “meaningful gamification”, which he defines as “the use of game design elements to help users find meaning in non-game contexts”.  His emphasis on meaningful is crucial to move away from simple points to more intrinsic motivations, or aspects of a task that are worth doing for their own sake.

Q: What are some good examples of games that use this intrinsic reward model?

A few caveats to begin: first, something that is intrinsically motivating does not necessarily mean that it is fun.  Fun is a hard thing to define, and varies from player to player.  Jason VandenBerghe has done some great work in this area, starting with the Big Five Model of Personality Traits and adapting those into 5 Domains of Play and 30 Facets of Play.  The domains of play are Novelty (from creative openness down to conventional), Challenge (from requiring disciplined, controlled actions down to unrestrained, haphazard behavior), Stimulation (from constant game input and the company of others down to an experience that is calm and solitary), Harmony (from cooperative play down to renegade melee competition), and Threat (from experiencing a range of strong negative emotions down to constant pleasantness).

Each game offers players the possibility to play somewhere in the range of each of these five domains.  A particular player will find the game fun or enjoyable if that game allows them to play in range that matches their own personality.  Which means that an incredibly diverse array of games will be intrinsicly motivating to some group of players.  Take your pick of popular games right now, suspend judgment on the content of the game, the platform it’s played on, or what “hardcore” gamers (which really are just gamers who prefer playing in high Novelty, high Challenge, high Stimulation, low Harmony, and high Threat domains of play) think of it.  These popular games, and most any game with dedicated followers, have succeeded because of intrinsic factors, not extrinsic ones.  Right now games that successfully use an intrinsic reward model would include FarmVille, Candy Crush Saga, FlappyBird, Madden, Angry Birds, League of Legends, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Skyrim.  That’s quite a mix of games attracting quite a mix of gamers.

Q: How are you envisioning games supporting evangelism and discipleship?

The need I see is for more on-ramps.  My impression is that there are numerous digital tools already available for people already on the journey of following Jesus, such as YouVersion’s Bible study tools, Examen.me (http://examen.me/) for prayer, or even virtual churches such as the First Presbyterian Church of Second Life.  I long for games to be inviting spaces where college students will able to explore facets of life following Jesus, and for this exploration to be an initial on-ramp toward following Jesus with the rest of their lives.

Often our evangelism and discipleship efforts over-focus on the content of the message: DO this and DON’T do that, etc.  But the form of the message matters a great deal, an idea captured in the 1960’s by Marshal McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”.  An apt question for us would be: Is Jesus the medium or the message?  Consider one of my favorite poems in Paul’s writing, coming in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

The content of Paul’s message is what has been summed up as “servant leadership”, but the profound form of that message is the Incarnation, Jesus in human form for all the good and bad, and eventually so far as the crucifixion.  Additional content is the tidy term “resurrection”, which hardly does justice to the language of Paul’s verse “Therefore God also highly exalted him and give him the name that is above every name,” which in turn hardly does justice to the reality of being the women who discovered the empty tomb, or the men hiding behind locked doors who suddenly found an alive Jesus in their midst.  Is Jesus the medium or the message?  Undoubtedly both, but we must not lose sight of the profound nature of Jesus as medium, as form.

Meanwhile, videogames offer an immersive, interactive medium that allow players to explore for themselves.  Ian Bogost calls the mechanics of in-game exploration “procedures”, and in his seminal work Persuasive Games, he explained the concept of procedural rhetoric, rhetoric being a persuasive argument.  His point was that games persuade players through the very things that players do in the game.  So the most persuasive way a game can teach about forgiveness is not by adding the topic of forgiveness in the content, but instead by having the player make a decision about whether or not to forgive or receive forgiveness.

There are already a handful of games that explore spiritual themes: The Graveyard explores presence, The Pilgrim explores agnosticism, Mountain explores deism, Papo & Yo explores survival and empathy, Monument Valley explores forgiveness, and That Dragon, Cancer explores grace.  Not all of these will be engaging games, but they do raise interesting questions and give players space to explore.  Not all of these games are “church-appropriate”, but as the great Flannery O’Connor once said, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures” (quoted by film producer Ralph Winter in a fantastic 2-minute interview clip.  Coupled with appropriate follow up and invitation into relationship and community, these games could serve as helpful on-ramps to following Jesus.

Q: If you had three uninterrupted hours, what game would you play?

Skyrim.  I am motivated by playing in domains that are very high Novelty (I love the open world of Skyrim to explore, from the night sky’s aurora borealis to the atmospheric music that changes depending on your geography), and very high Stimulation (surroundings and circumstances are constantly changing, and combat offers a variety of options for engagement, with a variety of defensive options or offensive strategies).  For several years now this has been the game I keep returning to.

Q: If you had 10 minutes between subway stops, what game would you play?

Since mobile games are played in short spurts, the duration of my interest tends to not last as long. That’s true at least for my gamer personality.  While Skyrim has kept my interest for years, a good mobile game might only capture my attention for a month or so.  Right now, I’m enjoying Monument Valley.  The graphics are simple but appealing, the puzzles are interesting but not too challenging, and there’s just enough of an overarching storyline to be interesting.  In 10-minute chunks, I can get through a level or two and enjoy the experience.



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