🏆 It’s in the game
How we can improve gamified experiences.
I’ve been thinking a lot about games lately. Well, I guess I’m sort of thinking about games all the time. In the business of sports, games are the focal point of what we build around. And in the adjacent product and creative extensions of sport, many incorporate some form of gamification — a word that became buzzy a little more than a decade ago and made Jane McGonigal a(n agency) household name.
Recently I listened to an episode of a podcast titled, A Philosophy of Games That Is Really a Philosophy of Life and it gave me a whole new perspective on how to think about games and the role of the gamer themselves. There’s lots more I have to learn from the work of C. Thi Nguyen, but I’m hoping what I’ve outlined here is the start of a new way to think about good product design practices when it comes to gamified experiences.
In the spirit of making the ordinary the extraordinary, design teams often pursue gamification mechanics. The spirit of this is right, but we need to be more thoughtful about the nuance of the game being played and the wellbeing of the gamer themselves.
In the episode of the aforementioned podcast, Ezra Klein interviews Nguyen, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah. I cannot recommend enough that you stop reading this and listen to the conversation.
I wasn’t familiar with Nguyen’s work heading into the pod, but have started to devour it since. His philosophy centers around the agency of the player in a game:
“Games are a distinctive form of art — and very different from many traditional arts. Games work in the medium of agency. Game designers don’t just tell stories or create environments. They tell us what our abilities will be in the game. They set our motivations, by setting the scoring system and specifying the win-conditions. Game designers sculpt temporary agencies for us to occupy. And when we play games, we adopt these designed agencies, submerging ourselves in them, and taking on their specified ends for a while.”
I see so much crossover between this line of thinking and the ethics (or lack thereof) of human centered design (HCD). With HCD, we rely on the user to guide us in making design decisions that fit their needs. However this is often done without thinking about the context that need lives within (ex: what are the financial motivations of the creator?). The end result can be as simple as the integration of a dark UX pattern, or worse, addiction to unhealthy interactions.
Coming off a binge of Nguyen’s work, here are three thoughts on how we can improve gamified product experiences.
1. Think about the game being played, and if it’s appropriate to treat it as such
In How Twitter Gamifies Communication, Nguyen writes:
“It is relatively easy for the game designer to create value clarity, because the values in games are entirely artificial…But when we seek to gamify ordinary life, we are trying to impose value clarity on a pre-existing thicket of values.”
He goes on to explain how this is problematic in the instance of Twitter, as the platform invites us to change the traditional goals of discourse — storytelling, pursuit of knowledge, search for truth — for their game targets (Likes, Retweets, etc.).
We need to be more reflective of the game being played in our pursuit of the right design decisions. Albert Shum, CVP of design at Microsoft, distilled the questions we should ask ourselves quite well in a piece for Fast Company a couple of years ago:
How might the intended purpose be distorted?
Who holds the power in this engagement model?
Does this design cause harm in any way?
Does this design build or destroy trust?
2. Think about the well being of the player in the game being played
Games are great as long as the player knows they’re playing one. From Nguyen:
“Both games and gamification involve instrumentalizing our goals. This is unproblematic in games, but deeply problematic in gamification. Why? Because games are a very peculiar and distinctive sort of activity, and gamification doesn’t share in some of the most important features.”
In a true game, a player enters knowing that the obstacles presented are the point, and that there will be a beginning and end to it. In a gamified experience, we design loops to distract from the mundane in order to make it more palatable, and hopefully, fun. The bounds however are often not set, and so that can leave the player on a never ending quest for an end that doesn’t exist.
It is important we establish the bounds.
3. Bring it back to real life with contextualization
Nguyen and I differ somewhat on the benefits here, but this ties back to the above and goes a step beyond acknowledging a game is being played. I see taking the state of play and recontextualizing how it translates to real life as a great formula — and a means of establishing bounds. Sport has the potential to excel at this. From his paper, Précis of Games: Agency as Art:
“It might seem paradoxical that such rigidly specified forms of agency could help us to become more free — especially when those agencies have been designed by another. Game-playing might start to look suspiciously like subservience. But those rigid specifications are actually the means of transmitting a sculpted agency. This is how we communicate agencies. We temporarily inhabit those rigid forms in order to learn what there is to be learned.”
Let’s take Topgolf as an example. In one instance I go to Topgolf, have food and drinks with friends, and enjoy the game for the game itself and its accessory social components.
But in another I go to a Toptracer driving facility, take the same scoring logic but in a gamified practice experience, and tie my performance back to becoming a more accurate and consistent golfer.
I think both of these are good thanks to the clarity around each instance. The tech and game logic are effectively the same, but the rules of play are always contextualized for me to know how to enjoy — and in the Toptracer instance, apply — each.
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