Defining Gamification – Summary of an Important Paper
The most widely agreed upon aspect of gamification is that it is hard to define. It’s a fluid concept that depends heavily upon context to reveal its boundaries. The fact that it is subject to so much debate and contested claims as to its validity as a separate, stand-alone field of study is evident in the fact that even its entry in Wikipedia is constantly referred to as ‘unnecessary’. Many researchers in the digital media industry have already taken to the habit of referring to it by different names such as “gameful design”, simply to avoid some of the negative connotations gamification has garnered. Regardless, gamification seems to be the term that the industry continues to call it by and is likely going to be the term that sticks. Whether you believe in the beneficial effect of simple concepts such as achievements and badges, or not, gamification is being applied progressively more and the continued spread of ubiquitous computing will only aid that increase.
According to the paper “Gamification: Toward a Definition” (Sebastian Deterding, Rilla Khaled, Lennart E. Nacke and Dan Dixon), the current use of the word alternates between two different ideas. The first of which involves how games and game elements continue to influence our everyday lives more and more. This is not simply limited to the gamer in his couch, but successful applications such as Foursquare as well. The second idea is that, since games have been designed mainly with enjoyment in mind, the entertaining elements of video games can be transferred into other situations to create desirable experiences, thereby allowing users to remain focused on the task at hand, which could be a very tedious one. If we take gamification to the extreme and apply it to just about every application we can think of, the most horrible of jobs can be made more enjoyable, thereby promoting a positive work environment which allows people to perform their duties more efficiently and successfully. In short, this idea is an applied approach, while the first is more tailored to a theoretical study of how games influence us in regular activities.
In the same paper, a definition is proposed to finally set the meaning of the word in stone and attempt to regulate how gamification is used in literature and in practice. Their definition is as follows: “Gamification is the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”. They proceed to dismantle that single sentence piece by piece to explore the implications of each word chosen. The term game was chosen naturally because of its relation to the video game industry. Mostly because it is characterized by preset rules and guidelines as well as some form of contest or opposition as the players advance towards a goal defined similarly to the game’s rules. Immediately, this would imply that these rules can in fact be dislodged from the game and, when studied, used to create game design “patterns”. It is these patterns that are referred to as “elements” in a slightly more formal way. There is a very fine line between gamification and serious games. Both utilize game elements but the latter is in fact a full, entire game that is simply used for purposes other than entertainment. Gamification needs to draw the line somewhere and take only enough elements to impart enjoyment onto what can otherwise be a dull activity. If it takes too much, it too because an entire game and will likely prohibit the activity it was originally intending to gamify. As can be logically deduced at the hand of a few examples, the paper also stipulates that this blurry line between the two can be overstepped by the addition of informal rules. This results in the fact that a game can no longer rely solely on the properties of its pre-constructed elements, but must also take into account that players will sometimes set their own rules and game elements (e.g.: Entire playthroughs of games on a hard difficulty with the sole purpose of never being hit, or never using certain types of weapons, etc.). In other words, gamifying an activity will include anything that afford “gameful interpretations and enactments”. Therefore, it is more than being gameful, but also having the potential.
The paper continues with its explanation of their given definition by trying to categorize the elements that make up a game. However, it argues that these sets cannot be too liberal or too restrictive, as it would be a boundless (and therefore meaningless) set or a far too limited set respectively. To prevent either of these situations, but to still encompass many gaming elements, the set of elements could be limited to the description of any elements that are characteristic to games, such as the already widely used badges and achievements. The final two sections of their definition that they explain in greater detail involve “non-game context” and “design”, both of which draw inspiration from serious games. Just like serious games, gamification should be placed into subcategories such as news gamification, health gamification, etc., depending on the usage it has in the application being discussed. This single decision would show that gamification can theoretically be applied to just about any field or context. Lastly, they claim that the term gamification should be reserved for references to design elements, not game-based technologies. However, this is a bit of a strange choice to make simply because their earlier discussion of game elements would imply that motion technology, such as the Kinect or Playstation Move, would belong to the set of game elements for use in gamification. Why? Because the inclusion of this technology is integral to the type of game, characteristic even, making it fit their definition and thus being a viable tool in gamification, which it is. Certain activities could be made more entertaining through the use of motion technology. However, it is a game-based technology, not a design element.
My own thoughts:
The wall of text above is more or less a summary of the paper on a definition of Gamification with a few parts from others added to it, as well as the occasional interpretation or opinion of my own. However, I do have my own thoughts on what their eventual conclusion is. In my opinion, their definition is still a blurry one, though not to the extent of what is being done by many researchers. The set of game elements they speak of cannot be defined clearly, thereby allowing just about anything involving games to be theoretically included in the definition. This will hurt any credence for the study that they were attempting to harness as it is just that blurriness that makes many people ponder whether gamification is truly a field on its own or can simply be tossed in with video game design or serious games. This is, in my opinion, a problem that cannot be solved. Creating a game is a creative process, immediately implying infinitely many approaches to how to make them enjoyable. Granted, many patterns have been found and defined, many of which pertain to certain genres, but there plenty of other elements that occur in various games that haven’t been placed in neat categories. Gamification is intrinsically tied to the development of game design theory. If the latter is no limited, neither is the first.
What is my point in droning on about what looks like just a definition? My point is simply that gamification is difficult to define, but that might actually be one of its advantages. The murkiness of its potential allows it to be applied to all the various ,different fields it already has been. Take two examples, Foursquare and MoviPill. Foursquare is an application that allows people to find restaurants and the like nearby, as well as the locations of friends. It was gamified through the inclusion of rewards and badges that can be put on display. MoviPill, on the other hand, is something very different. It is an application that uses a mobile, persuasive, social game to aid elders in taking their medication. Both are not only very different applications but also use different game design elements in their use.
In short, gamification allows a great deal of freedom, but also makes it tremendously hard for researchers to get a grip on what to view as a gamified application and just a full-blown video game. This gets the field stuck in a limbo of theoretical analysis and not enough application.