Gaming the System

Applying the mechanics of play to the everyday

Thor Muller
Thor Muller

Tech trends live and die by a combination of buzz and substance. Too little of either component and what's considered a game changer at the beginning of the year gets the passé treatment in the December 2010 issue of Wired. Gamification spent 2010 climbing the trend charts and begins 2011 perilously on the verge of either becoming the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit or the panacea for what ails our rapidly evolving society now and in the future.

The first Gamification Summit came and went at the beginning of this year in San Francisco. The accompanying fanfare may have been muted, but the very fact that the concept garnered a conference speaks to its growing impact. However, the concept pre-dates its new trendy moniker. If you've ever been graded in school or rewarded yourself for doing some unpleasant chore, well, you've been gamified. That's likely the vast majority of people on this planet, so it's no wonder that the trend of gamification is being touted as nothing short of a societal shift. A shift that ideally makes the world – including academia, the workplace, the Internet – a more engaging place to exist.

The exhaustive and business-jargon-laden gamification encyclopedia ( defines the trend simply as "the concept that you can apply the basic elements that make games fun and engaging to things that typically aren't considered a game." These "basic elements" are referred to as game mechanics and include badges (e.g., a letter grade in school), rewards (frequent-flier miles), and progression (progress bars on websites) among a slew of others. All of these practices are used to obtain a wanted behavior from users or participants – be it product loyalty, increased time on a website, or self-improvement. Additionally, if you follow's logic, there's the somewhat unsettling idea of a game mechanic for every personality. Online social butterflies, competitive cutthroats, self-motivators, and curious minds all have numerous mechanics tailored to their personality group's penchants. Perhaps it's the negative connotations of simple trickery and psychological warfare that explains the omission of the word "gamification" in the descriptions of the many SXSW panels devoted partially or wholly to the subject (see below). Or perhaps it's just time for rebranding.

Enter panelist and Get Satisfaction Inc. Chief Technology Officer Thor Muller, who tweaks the parameters of gamification to move from a competitive mode to something cooperative. Muller's company specializes in adding social elements to websites that maximize users' combined talents. He contrasts his approach with Yahoo Answers' competitive approach, which involves voting for the most helpful answer to a question until one answer sits atop the heap as the "most helpful." Muller prefers a system that recognizes each user's strengths, saying: "You have experts who have knowledge, and you have connectors who may not have all the answers but ... they're really good at connecting a question to an answer. And you might have a copy editor who can improve the title of a question so that other people can discover it." Throw in programming that identifies participants' strengths and weaknesses and crunches the numbers, and the unwitting team's best answer comes out the other side. Putting it in gamification parlance, Muller adds, "That's the victory condition for everybody."

The team sensibility of gamification extends to fitness via The need is certainly there, because while there may be those who treat their bodies like temples, there are many more who treat them like trash compactors. The concept is as simple as making "players" part of a weight-loss and exercise team. If you don't spend enough time on the elliptical machine that week, you're not just letting yourself down – you're lowering your teammates' chances of victory. "They're really, really small things," says Brynn Evans, chief experience officer at GoLocal, addressing the big dividends of well-applied game mechanics. "Add just a little bit of structure, publicly declare a couple of rules, and get on a team." Voilá, a healthier America ... in theory.

In the pantheon of things we humans dread, just below hitting the gym is attending meetings at work. "This would be a prime place for a little bit of fun, a little bit of motivation, a little bit of everyone on the hook, and a little bit of awarding of prizes for jobs well done," says Evans of the workplace.

Dave Gray, co-founder of XPLANE, can help. He's literally written the book (see Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers) on the subject of gamestorming, which incorporates elements of play to ensure that meetings are less about not getting caught doodling and more about engaging the attendees for maximum results.

Standard meetings go around the room looking for ideas, which lets everyone but the first employee off the hook and able to say, "Oh, me? I like what she said." That's not going to fly for Gray. He adds sticky notes, a makeshift game board, some simple rules, and before you know it, iPhones are put down and snores are replaced with the sweet sounds of aggressive brainstorming.

Gray puts an emphasis on what he calls game artifacts. Like pieces on a game board, artifacts help people visualize a meeting's progress. "By putting the information out into the space just like you would on a game board, people have to spend less mental energy tracking what's going on," says Gray. "They can spend more energy on what you want them to focus on." In other words, a meeting without gamestorming is like Monopoly without the houses, hotels, chance cards, race cars, or deeds. Both artifacts help simplify a complex process.

Muller sees game mechanics advancing so far as to create new economic models. At first click, Kickstarter, the Internet's hotspot for grassroots project funding, doesn't play like a game, but closer inspection reveals the underlying impetus for the site's success. "It has all the aspects of a game in that for each project there is a victory condition which is raising the minimum amount of money," says Muller. "You can also level up to different rewards." In this way gamification can be the extrinsic amplifier for people's intrinsic desire to support friends and good causes. "We'll see more things like that," Muller continues, "not just for creative projects like Kickstarter, but for education, for fundraising, for new businesses, nonprofits, and so forth. That's where the exciting stuff is, not another social game on Facebook."

The curse of hot-trend status is the accompanying increase of jumpers onto the bandwagon. "If you have a crap product and you add game mechanics thinking that's going to increase your engagement," warns Muller, "that's the equivalent of polishing a turd." The predicted expansion of gamification into nearly all aspects of life breeds conjecture about the long-term effects of everything being fun. What about walking uphill both ways to school? Isn't there something character-building about a struggle, something hard-earned? Will the gamification generation be a bunch of namby-pamby twerps who quit the moment something – technology or a task – doesn't go out of its way to engage them? "We're going to get increasingly literate when it comes to game mechanics. So we'll know this is a manipulation of our motivations, but we'll want that outcome, so we'll suspend disbelief," Muller says. "[Game mechanics] allow us to think differently than we would without them. And when it aims for an objectively good goal, that's inspiring. If the goal is purely time-wasting, that's where the critiques have some merit. If it's just about breeding compulsion, then it's potentially dangerous."

At the Gamification Summit, tech firebrand and SXSW Interactive mainstay Jane McGonigal debuted her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Makes Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Gray mirrors the book's sentiments, saying, "People say those kids are just going to expect things to be engaging and they are going to face the real world and be disappointed, but perhaps they're going to face the real world and they're going to change it."

Related Panels

Gamechanging: Turn Your App Into a Cooperative Game

Friday, March 11, 2pm, ACC 12AB

Beyond Check-Ins: Location Based Game Design

Saturday, March 12, 9:30am, ACC 12AB

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better

Saturday, March 12, 12:30pm, ACC Ballroom D

Game On: 7 Design Patterns for User Engagement

Monday, March 14, ACC Ballroom C


Tuesday, March 15, 11am, Hilton, Salon C

1Up! Games for Change

Tuesday, March 15, 5pm, ACC 6AB

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gamification, Thor Muller, Get Satisfaction Inc., Brynn Evans, Go Local, Dave Gray, XPLANE, gamestorming, Gamification Summit, Kickstarter, Jane McGonigal

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