When it started, I have to admit that I was really excited.
As I was in the process of writing this book, out of pure coincidence interest in the positive effects that video games can have in the real world spontaneously erupted within the general culture. Although this was an idea that a lot of people had been promoting for some time, it had mostly flown under the public’s radar. Back in 2008, I had been a little worried that a UX book about solving real-world problems through games would be seen as a bit fringe. So when interest started to gather entirely of its own accord, I thought it was a great thing.
Then it started getting scary.
Things labeled “games” are springing up everywhere, and many them can be seen as games in only the most superficial ways. The pervasive problem with these implementations has been that they are designed with insufficient regard for the quality of the player experience. They contain none of the joy, fascination, and complexity that makes games the beautiful interactions they are. In the worst cases, they demonstrate an impoverished, cynical, and exploitative view of games and the innate human drive to engage in play.
Take, for example, the McNuggets Saucy Challenge, a Flash game on McDonald’s public website. The challenge in question is to dip your McNugget into six different sauces mirroring a pattern that increments by one sauce for every successful cycle (like Simon). When your memory inevitably falters, you’re invited to post your score–with McAdvertising–to Facebook as a prerequisite to being ranked on a leaderboard. This design is impoverished because it doesn’t offer meaningful play. It is cynical because it shows no regard for the legitimacy of play as a human endeavor. It is exploitative because it pursues self-serving ends that are disproportionate to the value of the gameplay experience it offers in return. I wish I could say that this example is an exception, but today it’s much closer to being the norm.
Then, a graceless and overly memorable buzzword crashed into the culture: gamification. The name itself betrays the conceptual flaw of this fad, implying an experience that is by its nature something other than a game but dressed up to resemble one. And indeed, many implementations that fall under the “gamification” banner amount to little more points and leaderboards tacked onto an underlying system that remains otherwise unchanged. These kinds of approaches will not survive, because they do not value gameplay, so players will not value them.
Making matters worse, “gamification” also has a troublingly imprecise definition that seems to vary by the person using it. It has been applied to any game that attempts to achieve something beyond its virtual margins. It is terribly misleading to use the same word to describe the successful work being done by designers like Ian Bogost, Scot Osterweil, and Jane McGonigal to also describe the McNuggets game and similar follies. As the reach of the inevitable backlash grows, a mounting cultural skepticism of gamification threatens to stifle other, innovative applications of game design.
It’s all turned into a big mess.
This ballooning enthusiasm around games closely mirrors Gartner’s “hype cycle,” which describes the typical pattern of adoption for a new technology (Figure 0.1 ). After initially arriving on the scene, a new technology’s visibility increases quickly until it reaches the peak of inflated expectations–where people rush to the technology without a realistic strategy for putting it to its most effective use. Then a preponderance of early adopters discover that, surprise surprise, the technology doesn’t deliver what they thought it would, and the hype collapses into the trough of disillusionment. As of early 2012, I believe that the hype cycle for games has crested and is plunging headlong toward this low point.
***Insert Gartner_hype_cycle_Ch_00.gif (Gartner hype cycle)***
Following the typical path of the Gartner hype cycle, in early 2012 gamification was somewhere just past the peak of inflated expectations.
The good news is that after bottoming out, the cycle turns upward again. People start to discover and embrace best practices for using the technology, more success stories start to emerge, and the technology eventually finds productive mainstream adoption. With this book, I hope to start moving toward a post-hype discussion of how games can most effectively achieve great things in the real world.
If there’s one message I would like to convey through this book, it is that designers who are creating games must be centrally concerned with the quality of the player experience. That is, after all, the reason why people invest their time in games in the first place. It’s important to realize that there’s an innate selfishness to gameplay. People don’t play games out of loyalty to your brand or because they want to solve world hunger. They play because they value the experience. Trading off enjoyable gameplay in service of external objectives is always self-defeating.
To create high-quality player experiences, UX designers must develop a fundamental competency with game design. The largest part of this book, then, is dedicated to the theory, skills, and practices that will lead practitioners to more successful outcomes. Part I provides a framework for thinking about games. Part II takes a deeper dive into design methods. Part III reviews how games have been designed to effect meaningful change in people and concludes by looking toward the future of games.