Gamification Myths Part 2: Game Mechanics are Being Misused

Gamification Myths Part 2: Game Mechanics are Being Misused

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This is part two of a four-part series covering some of the main myths surrounding gamification as seen from game developers’ perspective. You can read the other parts here.

One of the more vexing questions within game design is “what is a game mechanic” and its corollary — what isn’t. Along with some of the other major disagreements in game design, the mechanics question is both existential and crucial for understanding the interplay between games and gamification. Very long and interesting articles, papers, speeches and presentations (n.b. there are obviously thousands more) have been given on the topic of what is a game mechanic, how it works, what conflicts are, etc – most of them interesting, if academic.

Because game designers cannot agree on what a game mechanic actually is, let alone what a list of possible game mechanics might be, the definition of these concepts continues to be open to interpretation. Ignoring snarky efforts by individual designers to limit the discussion, the Gamification industry has sought to bring some order to this chaos, largely by keying off the description of a game mechanic from the popular MDA framework:

Mechanics describe the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.

Put another way, mechanics are things that designers create which produce a series of interactions for users (Dynamics) that eventually result in user emotions (Aesthetics). These are, in the simplest of terms, constructs like Points, Badges, Levels, Challenges, Leaderboards and Rewards. There are other lists of possible mechanics that have been proposed over the years, including this mechanics deck from SCVNGR, a company with a ton of buzz that has since pivoted into payments. While I think of their list of mechanics as hewing more closely to dynamics in the MDA framework, the distinction is semantic. The most important takeaway is that in order to build gamification you need to think in terms of small units of design that can be layered and interwoven to produce an experience that is challenging, complex and meaningful — but ultimately the decision about what constitutes a mechanic is up for debate.

No matter where you land on the definition of game mechanics, one thing is certain: they were not invented by digital game designers. Actions like voting, collecting and lotteries — or constructs like points, badges and levels — existed well before digital games or even the concept of game design. What that means in practice is that they are not the province of game designers exclusively, nor is their understanding even rooted in core concepts of “games” per se.

Rather, it seems, these mechanics have become incorporated into games over time as they bled from the “real world” into game design. There, they were subjected to something that wasn’t possible in the world outside of games: high-speed, iterative, socially-validated scrutiny. The best analogy I can think of is breeding fruit flies in the lab to understand their behavior. We could learn what drives their behavior in the wild, but it would take longer and be subject to much greater variability. Similarly, we can only hold national elections every few years, so learning what works and what doesn’t in voting — particularly for issues like cheating — can happen much faster in a simulated world versus the real one.

So it’s no surprise that game designers have made immense contributions to our understanding of these mechanics, but to suggest that they belong to games — or are even unique to games — simply misunderstands their history. Humans have voted (off and on, admittedly) for millennia prior to World of Warcraft, just as lotteries — or purely random reinforcement — had existed before the first contemporary game designer was even born. To whit, modern game designers aren’t even the top experts at many of these mechanics despite their skill and experience: collection and lotteries — just to name two — are specific areas where non-game folks are the undisputed masters.

What game designers and the discipline of game design can do is inform these other areas of inquiry with more regularity. That’s what Gamification seeks to do — build those bridges so that governments, corporations, educational institutions and other organizations can use the best ideas from games, loyalty programs and behavioral economics to make the real world work better.  To achieve this we also use the mechanics in different ways, and see them serving different masters.

For example, levels in games help users track progress and serve as a means of segmenting audiences when divergent levels of skill or knowledge would create conflict (e.g. between newbies and experienced players). In gamification, levels often describe a state that a user arrives at that unlocks a new series of capabilities, challenges and privileges. The segmentation often only serves to heighten the sense of specialness of some players, as in a loyalty program. This difference is essential when you want to engage users in the real world, and our lessons can be brought back into games for interactions with a longer-term arc.

So we must look at the different mechanics available to us through a more open, generous lens. We want to understand them from multiple angles — including those from games — so that we can really grow their function for our purposes. That often extends beyond the “how” they work, to the “why” they work. This is key because entertainment is often a secondary or tertiary goal in our world, so we can’t uniformly count on fun to drive usage of a given mechanic. They need to be intrinsically rewarding and aligned with the value system of the player outside of just the experience that we are gamifying.

Only then will our understanding of game(ification) mechanics be broad enough to truly change the world.

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