Friday, October 14, 2011

Gamification: The digital experience "X Factor"?

Psychology of fun: Gamification and story presence in digital experiences turns work into play.
Play with me. Pleeeeaaaasssseeeee... 

I can clearly hear the Beatle's song Dear Prudence in my head as I think about this plea. Although it might sound like a statement only a child would make, if we're really honest with ourselves we adults tend to feel that way too. Whether your motivation is an emotional connection or an achievement oriented challenge, at the end of the day we all love to play.

What is play?
Play comes in a lot of forms which has resulted in academics struggling to align on a definition. While we don't always agree on what it is, we certainly know what it feels like when we're not playing.

In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, M.D., notes when play is not experienced for a while, one's mood "darkens." He continues:
"We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure."
Dr. Brown notes there's enough research and anecdotal evidence to suggest that when we play enough our brains function better, we're more optimistic and creative, and we simply feel better.

Got Game
What's this got to do with digital products? One of the emerging trends in recent years is something called gamification. Gamification basically takes game principles and concepts and applies them to things we probably aren't that interested in doing. It turns the mundane into fun or so the theory goes.

In his article  Gamification: 75% Psychology, 25% Technology, David F. Carr says the following about gamification: 
"...gamification is about understanding that 'if you can make something more fun, and include notions of play, you can get people to do things they otherwise might not want to do...Gamifying an application doesn't necessarily mean adding fancy graphics and sound effects, but often it does mean keeping score and letting "players" see how they rank on a leader board--the equivalent of the high scores screen on a video game."
How can we gamify a digital experience? The easy answer is just to add an element of competition, leveling, and badges, and you've got yourself a game. But actually, I don't think it's just that simple. 

I've been using Foursquare for a while now. I'm the mayor of a few places likely because the other people who frequent those places wouldn't know what Foursquare is let alone use it. I've got a load of badges, and I regularly make the leader board along with the few people I know who use it.

It was fun at first, but honestly, now I'm getting bored. Why? In his book A Theory of Fun, Raph Koster notes that once we've mastered something and realize we can't get any better we tend to move on. My interest in novelty and social gaming pulled me in, but just like playing tic-tac-toe, it gets old after the novelty wears off and mastery is reached even if there are incentives like vendor specials. So what's missing: The story experience.

Game/story partnership
The game process in the rawest form is very basic. You have the goal, patterns, reward, challenge, and result. Frankly, the process is pretty dry. What can make the experience more engaging? Stories.

Games and stories work hand in hand to create the experiences that GRIP us and keep us coming back because they both bring very different elements to the table. Games are primarily mathematical patterns. Stories are emotional events. Koster does a great job summarizing the differences between the games and stories.

  • Games tend to be experiential teaching. Stories teach vicariously.
  • Games are good at objectification. Stories are good at empathy.
  • Games tend to quantize, reduce, and classify. Stories tend to blur, deepen, and make subtle distinctions.
  • Games are external-they are about people's actions. Stories are internal-they are about people's emotions and thoughts.

Together they create immersive experiences because we become part of the process.

Play to Win or Play to Play
Gamification alone is not enough for customers to use your product beyond the novelty of it. Other elements include your company brand, the product interactivity, and the story users EXPERIENCE and can also CREATE as a result of using it. 

Designing digital products with game principles and a compelling story make products fun and meaningful to use and the combination, not gamification alone, is, I think, the "X Factor." 

How do you design for the "X Factor" in your products? 

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