Gamification Misses the Forest for the Trees.

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Editorial Life Role-playing Social


In the interest of full disclosure, the idea of gamification, the use of game formats and design concepts to make non-gaming activities more palatable, has always rubbed me the wrong way.  It always felt like its purpose was to gild things like exercising and learning over with the sheen of fun instead of fundamentally changing the processes by which we do these things.

Obviously the aim behind the idea is exciting.  Many times I’ve thought about a world in which going to the gym or learning a skill like a language was as naturally compelling to me as playing video games.  I assumed that this was a product of the same area of the mind that imagines science creating steak-flavored broccoli or teleportation – that is, the part that daydreams about things that are too good to be true.

But gamification, as it stands currently, seems to want to copy the addictiveness of gaming without understanding the whole of why people love doing it so much.  There are many different approaches to this concept, and it’s still developing as a practice, but so far gamification is largely being done through badges, points, levels and achievements; and, in my eyes, these things are barely half of what makes me pick up a controller whenever I have a chance.

Foursquare is a good example of early dabbling in gamification.  Essentially, it makes the idea of “checking in” at different locations and sharing details about these places with other users into a mini-RPG.  You accumulate what are basically XP points as you check in at different places, and if you check in more than anyone else at a specific location you become its boss (or, as Foursquare calls it, the Mayor).  In this way, Fourquare tries to create an addictive framework for doing something sort of nonsensical but that is becoming a big part of social media – telling people where you are at all times.

Now some companies are attempting to apply the same MMO-style format to behaviors like getting in shape.  Fitocracy, launched in early 2011, is a site that encourages fitness based on a level-mashing system.  Each day you accomplish certain fitness-related activities and enter them into the site’s interface.  It awards you points, and as you progress you gain levels.  There are even leaderboards and a social element – the Fitocracy site extolls the “bragging rights” associated with earning points.  Almost everything about it is molded into the general shape of online gaming, but with the admirable end goal of getting its users into better shape.

Now, for some people, level-grinding is enough (MMOs by nature are more grind-intensive than single-player RPGs).  And for some it may be that their real-world gains from these programs (in becoming a more street-smart person or in losing weight and gaining muscle) are enough that there doesn’t need to be any further impetus to engage in the format these sites have set up.  But I think if I was to love anything as much as I love a truly engaging RPG, it would have to do more than grant me virtual commendations; it would have to make me, in some small way, a hero.

For instance, the idea of leveling up is certainly a central one in almost every RPG out there, and level-grinding is one reason why people invest so much time in RPGs.  They’ve got to get their characters up to snuff before they can face the next boss. It’s a form of preparation, tedious as it may be, and it moves the story along.  And while users of gamified systems like Foursquare or Fitocracy have done a great job of allotting tiers and ranks to users, what they haven’t provided (and what I haven’t seen from the gamification movement to date) is a way to simulate the boss battle that necessarily comes after the level-grinding.

One idea would be to use the social part of the system to award people who earned above a certain threshold of XP points with an opportunity to participate in some kind of real-life meet-up or party.  That way, there would be some correlation with working hard and doing something special, something not available before.

But for gamification to effectively put me under its spell, I think I would need less format and more fiction.  The reason I play video games (like movies and books to a lesser extent) provide me a direct route to experiencing something approximating the Hero’s Journey.  My daily life repeats itself and achieves meaning in such small and subtle ways that I am constantly searching for something that allows for a journey, a narrative, a meaningful progression rather than a static cycle.

So for gamification to work for me, I would want a service that pays an in-house composer to make a personalized theme song for me to work out to.  I would want to have a concrete goal, and be given advice by a kindly old sage.  In other words, I would want the story and the atmosphere that gamified platforms seem eager to ditch, and without which I am left with the same puzzle of underwhelming reactions to my daily life that I always have, XP points or no.

Filed Under: Editorial Life Role-playing Social

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

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