Buzz, badges and leader boards – just what is gamification anyway?

By Carlo Perrotta

Friday 3 May 2013

In my previous post I discussed the tension between innovation and formal schooling, and in our recent report we consciously kept to discussion of evidence relating to game-based learning in the context of formal schooling. However we did a lot of thinking about the broader topic of gamification and I thought it would be worthwhile to set out some of our thoughts here as a way of developing discussion on this area.

Here are some bullet points which are meant to present the main results of our internal mumblings in a condensed format; I hope somebody will find this useful. Please make what you will of the points below – we are not suggesting the implications, but hope that readers will draw their own conclusions. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment below if you have any questions.

  1. Gamification in education is generally described as a trend in the young and multi-disciplinary study of video games. Despite the lack of consensus and explicit references to this term, we noted a pattern that suggests that many people are becoming interested in using elements and conceits derived from video game design to, indeed, “gamify” aspects of social life.
  2. The emergence of gamification might be explained in the context of important shifts taking place in the economics of video games, which are affecting how games are experienced as a form of entertainment and as educational resources. It could be argued that two overlapping shifts –in revenue models and in development practices- are taking place in the video games industry. These shifts have been in the making since the early nineties, when the first commercial online multiplayer games were launched, and are now beginning to have a significant impact on how video games are made and used for entertainment purposes.
  3. A number of factors, including sky-rocketing production costs, high levels of piracy (illegal sharing, copying and reselling of games) and a lack of “replay value” (games played once then shelved or re-sold) are leading publishers to consider alternative ways to increase profits. The key problem is how to keep players engaged over longer periods of time, in order to encourage a consumer behaviour based on continuous payments necessary to keep playing, rather than a single one-off purchase. A number of strategies have been identified over the last 10-15 years. The first, and most notable, was the introduction of “social” dimensions into games. For instance, people playing with or against other players, or sharing their achievements and merit badges in online communities. More recently, many games are beginning to be sold as “incomplete” experiences – with additional functionalities and enhancements (such as the social features described above) made accessible via a range of payment options: subscriptions, downloadable content (DLC), and so forth.
  4. By withholding functionalities and releasing them later through a range of payment options, game publishers exercise control over the “gameplay experience” beyond the moment a game is purchased. As they seek to increase and refine such control, they require a much greater understanding of how players engage with their games: how they play them, for how long, what they find motivating, exciting, frustrating or even addictive. This is leading to change in the nature of video game development, which is becoming more complex, more reliant on the analysis of large datasets, and populated with increasingly specialised roles that draw on a variety of disciplines, including neuroscience, economics and statistical modelling. Such sophistication underpins the increasing formalisation of video game development, that is, the identification of techniques, principles and mechanisms that can be standardised and replicated across an organisation or the entire industry.
  5. As economic strategies are causing changes in the video games industry, an increasing number of people are becoming interested in the new formalised techniques and principles that are gaining popularity. Many now realise that video game development is grappling with challenges shared by many social enterprises and institutions, education being possibly the most prominent: how to motivate, how to sustain interest over long periods, how to create shared interests and productive communities, how to devise better and more efficient ways to evaluate performance, and so on. To achieve these goals, some people are turning to the mechanics, principles and strategies derived from video game design. Enter gamification.
  6. These ideas are not immune to controversy, as the dubious quality of some game development practices is overlooked during the transition to other domains like education. Such practices include, for instance, the use of reinforcement techniques derived from behaviourist psychology. Behaviorist and other psychological techniques are said to be employed in the development of video games to elicit mild forms of addiction; or to entangle users in webs of fictitious social obligations that will keep them from leaving the game. For instance, the popular “ville” games on Facebook require players to ask for support from other individuals in their own networks. This is meant to create a widespread sense of obligation whereby people use the game to do each other “favours” which they expect to be returned.
  7. Notwithstanding the ethical implications of certain practices, it is undeniable that a range of complex disciplines and forms of knowledge now gravitate around video games. It has been recently reported in the media that high-profile economists are being involved as consultants to analyse data generated by the emerging digital economies associated with video games. It is important to acknowledge this increased sophistication and eclecticism. In fact, I believe that a serious research effort to really understand what is going on would be entirely justified!
  8. Finally, the use of “games” to enhance productivity and performance may not be as innovative as it is sometimes marketed. This article provides an interesting account of the gamification practices that originated in US and Soviet organisational settings. Interestingly, some of these practices were pioneered as a form of top-down social engineering (i.e. social control) meant to increase work-rates and to defuse potential conflicts. Although there are similarities and overlaps, it would appear that the use of these techniques warrants its own specific (and, I’d argue, critical) line of inquiry.

More evidence is needed to establish what (if any) the implications of these points, and of the concept of gamification in general, might be.