When we hear of gamification, it is often in reference to the tip of the iceberg: achievements, levels, points, and other forms and representations of scoring systems. This leads to a common misconception that one could simply add a few levels and points to turn a boring task into something fun. However, even if these kinds of game mechanics are able to prompt behaviours to some extent, it is a double-edged sword.
To understand why rewards such as points and leveling-up have become so prominent in the past few years, it is enlightening to look at recent trends and debates in the video games industry. Since the advent of free-to-play games, and especially the development of mobile platforms, it has become a commercial necessity for game designers to build in mechanics to retain players. The goal is to keep players hooked in the game as long as possible, so as to maximize the chances that they start paying for items through micro-transactions. And with the help of analytics, companies are getting better at refining the reward schedules that drive behaviours.
Compulsion vs. engagement
As a player, if you have tried one of these so-called “addictive games” you probably got bored after a few hours and maybe wondered on hindsight why you ended up spending so much time on it “well past the point where it was fun”. This is because, as explained in the Extra Credits video on Skinner boxes, these games are tricking your brain with specific reward patterns so that you feel compelled to come back for more.
In reality, the urge to come back and click compulsively on a button comes from conditioning, not engagement; this sparks many debates among game designers about the psychological exploitation of game mechanics and reward schedules. In an opinion piece, What is Applied Game Design?, social game designer Amy Jo Kim sums up perfectly the issues with the careless exploitation of game mechanics in the context of gamification.
The science of motivation
On the bright side, we already know what creates actual engagement.
Research shows that 3 drivers truly motivate us in the long run: Mastery, autonomy and purpose (1). Good game design builds on these 3 elements, and in particular on mastery, to create deep experiences. In this aspect, game design is the art of building learning curves, that is to create a system that players will learn to master step by step, growing in skills and confidence, learning new things and enjoying themselves in the process.
“Skill-building is what ACTUALLY drives sustained engagement – not layered-on progress metrics. Those can work for awhile as a novelty – but ultimately progression mechanics like points, badges and levels will backfire and create clutter unless they’re tied into a system that moves the customer towards meaningful mastery.” -Amy Jo Kim
Keeping in mind the difference between exploiting game mechanics to create compulsive behaviours, and building game systems that encourage players to master increasingly complex skills, we can wield design tools knowingly and truly gamify for the greater good.