What do we really mean when we say “Gamification?”
We have to stop using the term “gamification” to describe tricking people into doing what we want.
Games can indeed revolutionize learning, but only when approached the right way.
Teachers all over the world try to apply “gamification” in their classrooms—the leaderboard at the front of the class, the stickers collected on the corners of desks… We trade good behavior for pizza parties and study time for games of Jeopardy.
And not just teachers—parents try these at home too. I remember my mom tried to use a sticker system to get me to clean my room and do homework. And it worked! For about a week. Even companies like Amazon try to “gamify” things to make work more “exciting” for employees.
But these tactics aren’t games. They’re “pointsification.”
Pointsification ties to external motivation—free time, tasty treats or bragging rights. It’s taking the things that are least essential to games like points, badges, and leaderboards and making them the core of the experience.
The problem isn’t that pointsification doesn’t work. The problem is that it’s not sustainable. While pointsification may help tweak some behaviors in the short term, it doesn’t work for long enough to build actual skills.
Pointsification “solutions” miss the heart of what makes a gameful experience effective for learning.
According to Jane McGonigal, PhD game designer, a true game has 4 defining traits:
A goal or specific outcome that provides players with a sense of purpose.
Rules that place limitations on how players can achieve the goal—these are unnecessary obstacles that players choose to tackle with their whole heart.
A feedback system that tells players how close they are to achieving the goal—this lets players know that the goal is definitely achievable and provides motivation to keep playing.
Voluntary participation. All players must know and willingly accept the goal, the rules, and the feedback—players should be able to enter or leave the game at will to ensure the experience is safe and pleasurable.
In a true game, the player isn’t only motivated by a future prize or reward. The player in a true game chooses to play out of genuine interest. If you stripped away the points and prizes, the game would still be attractive.
I love the example that McGonigal shared on Patrick O'Shaughnessy’s podcast: How Games Make Life Better. The New York Public Library asked Jane for help with a specific problem: young people did not come to physical libraries anymore. The Library’s idea was to solve this by offering points for checking out books and achievement badges for visiting different branches.
This is pointsification—a bad idea. Why? Because awarding points and badges didn’t tap into what these young people were passionate about. Sure, some of them would participate. But how many would form a meaningful relationship with the library just because they got points for checking out a book?
“We need to figure out what feels like a real challenge to young people, and then give them that opportunity." —Jane McGonigal
McGonigal came up with a solution based on her approach to true gamification. Through research, she found that 92% of Americans under the age of 30 would want to write a book someday. So, she proposed designing a game that turns young people into published authors.
The game consisted of an overnight challenge in one of the library’s underground floors with restricted access. Before being allowed to leave the underground room, each participant had to write a book. It was an intense, extreme challenge, but participants were so excited about writing their own books that they spent countless hours in the library. The game offered a meaningful reward that was worth the challenge. Participants were genuinely drawn to spending time at the Library and developed a newfound appreciation for the place.
That’s true gamification. Players came away feeling they had truly accomplished something they wanted. The reward of the game tied into something these people genuinely desired.
In Synthesis, our work with students revolves around games. Students don’t focus on who won or who lost. They mostly talk about how the game challenges them and the problems they are trying to solve. Or what it means to be in a team and have their strategy squashed, or how good it feels when something works that they didn't know was going to work. After all, two minutes after they win or lose one game, they’re thrown into another.
Here are 3 questions to keep in mind next time you want to create a true game:
Is the goal of the game centered around the player’s authentic interest and skill set? “You're looking for the challenge that's going to really bring the best out in people and really, when they achieve it, they feel like it was a meaningful and epic achievement.”—Jane McGonigal
Are there unnecessary obstacles that players voluntarily choose to tackle? In golf, for example, players have to insert a tiny ball into a tiny hole from a far distance using a club. It’s the most inefficient way to place a ball in a hole, and that’s precisely what makes the game interesting.
Is there a reliable feedback system with opportunities for failure and improvement? How do players track their progress? Are there real skills involved that players can get better at and improve with practice? Or is it an arbitrary leaderboard they are trying to move up?
What is that perfect state of challenge that brings out the best in us, so we're fully focusing our attention, feeling optimistic that we can succeed, but also curious because we're not sure and we feel like there's room for growth and personal development. — Jane McGonigal
The trick to creating a true game is figuring out what your audience is interested in and tapping into those genuine challenges or desires. It’s about coming up with a challenge that’s so immersive it puts players in a flow state. The results? More engagement, more excitement, and more fulfilling learning.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, here are two articles I wrote (+ a video!)
Until next week,
Ana Lorena Fabrega