A friend asked me this morning, “Does your post about playing nurse mean you think gamification is a bad idea?”
I told her that I think gamification will sometimes be done badly or thoughtlessly – which doesn’t make gamification bad in itself. In fact, it makes me want to be involved with good gamification projects*, because there needs to be projects that can push back against the inevitable deluge of exploitationware.
“But you don’t like points, right?”
I had to chew on that one. Points, I think, lend themselves to lazy design. Want someone to do the thing you’re trying to promote? Give them points for it! Why bother understanding the psychological factors behind their current behavior? Why create a meaningful aesthetic experience while playing your game? Why consider how your game activity fits into their lives? Everyone wants points because points are awesomesauce!!!!
But that’s not the same thing as not liking points. When I play Angry Birds, for example, I pay careful attention to the points**. I’m currently trying to get three stars in every level, and I can use the points to assess how I’m doing at achieving my goal. If I don’t get enough points on my first shot, I can restart the level instead of playing it through to the end, which saves me time. It also lets me compare the relative effectiveness of two shots. I don’t just use the points to make these decisions, of course – I have to analyze the larger structural situation, or I’d quickly get stuck at an ineffective local maximum. I do, though, use them as a way to quantify and evaluate my progress; they’re a very useful shortcut. (And getting three stars on a level is deeply satisfying!)
A more “gamified” example might be my experience with Health Month. I’m still in my first month of using the service, but so far it’s quite interesting. You define health-related rules for yourself, like drinking water or avoiding sweets or exercising regularly. (My rules are to walk at least 12 miles a week and to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables at least five days a week, though I’ll probably add another rule next month.) When you log in and record your progress, you get points, with bonuses for things like logging in every day. At the end of the month, you compare your points with other people in your bracket to see how you did.
I’m not terribly motivated by the competition, but I do try to log in every day to get my +10 points, and to use the integrated micro-journal for tracking mood and activity levels. However, the game has a second currency which I find highly motivating – because if you break your rules too often, you start to lose life points. There doesn’t seem to be a consequence for running out, but the implicit narrative makes me very concerned with keeping to my rules. I lost my first life point this week, thanks to a headache that left me unable to eat much of anything (let alone anything crunchy!) for a couple of days. It was surprisingly emotionally unpleasant, and I’ll be actively working to avoid losing any more.
Health Month, by the way, makes an interesting contrast to the MeYouHealth Challenge, which I am also experimenting with. MeYouHealth sends me a daily challenge email, which can range from eating a red fruit (yum, cherries!) to contacting an old friend to doing a quick set of lunges. I really enjoy taking on the challenges, because they bring delight and variety to my day, without turning into a commitment or a chore. Doing the challenge is itself the reward.
The metric I track, with MeYouHealth, is whether I’ve done every single challenge and recorded it. I know they have some kind of points system attached, but I don’t care much about it***. What I care about is being able to look back at all the challenges I’ve done and remember the experiences I had doing them – especially when I’ve added a brief note about how I did it. This motivation bleeds through into my reaction to their other design choices. For example, it’s frustrating that you only have 24 hours to record doing each challenge, because I can’t necessarily sign on within a given 24 hour period; I don’t care about getting the points, but I do want to log what I did so I can reflect on the fun I had while doing it.
Contrasting Health Month and MeYouHealth helps me talk to people about gamification, because it lets me show how two apparently similar systems can produce different kinds of fun – and use points more or less effectively to do so.
* Full disclosure: I actually am involved with both Dr. Lee’s Gamifying Education group and the Think Play project out of RIT. I think they are going to do this thing right. To me that means picking answerable questions backed by appropriate theory, designing a playable (and non-lame!) game layer, and doing meaningful assessment. So far, so good!
** Another reason I like my field: a discussion with my adviser about play styles turned into a detailed comparison of how we use points in Angry Birds.
*** This deserves a more careful analysis, but my current theory is that their points system is both visually and conceptually cluttered compared to Health Month.