A Short ‘Sidetrack’ – Model of Action
The paper “Consciousness in Gameplay” (by Gifford Cheung) that I read recently, is a paper that might go a bit too deeply into understanding the interaction between the human mind and game elements. However, the theory was mainly applied to game elements in non-gaming contexts and was quite the interesting read. I’ll attempt to explain it in short and give my thoughts on why I believe this could yield some new ways to analyze how game elements you have chosen to use in a gamified application could, or could not, work well.
The paper attempts to supply an explicit understanding of what comprises a game, as this clarity becomes important when designers try to move game elements to non-gaming contexts (gamification, among others). The author attempts to do this by defining a set of design dimensions (and defines a dimension as a neutral property of an object, in this case a gamified application).Then, applying the definitions of these dimensions on the gamified application could yield valuable answers on how the game elements and the actual goal interact, hopefully being able to solve the ever-present gamification problem. That problem is when the game elements begin to become the focal point of the actions the user performs. When using Foursquare is no longer about finding friends nearby or tagging into new restaurants and diners, but rather about getting as many locations and badges under your belt as possible for the sole sake of having the most badges among all your friends. It’s a subtle problem and one that is hard to solve.
The author based his work on that of the sociologist Anthony Giddens. Giddens states that the human consciousness cannot access the whole of a person’s memory, explaining the presence of habitual actions that do not require the person to actively call back to memory. Giddens furthermore lists three mechanisms of recall that divide actions into three types:
- Discursive Consciousness: discursive consciousness encompasses the forms of recall that the person in question is able to express verbally. Actions derived from this consciousness are explainable, the person is able to express the motivating knowledge – why he performed the action – with words and from memory. Because of this, the person has a sense of conscious control over the actions he performs. An example would be to speak to a person on a certain subject, which would never be an unconscious action.
- Practical Consciousness: practical consciousness is where the person is not able to delineate what knowledge he possessed and how that knowledge informed the action performed. The action, however, was still performed in a familiar, habitual manner. These are the habitual actions I mentioned above; things that were once discursive but have since moved on to the practical consciousness that make up a habit or a routine.
- Unconsciousness: While the paper expresses this mechanism to be much less important for the purpose of gamification, it still defines them briefly as actions that are blocked from self-awareness entirely.
An interesting statement follows as the author states that habitual actions prove to be an apt description for much of the activity players undertake in games. Games consist of a collection of rules that, when followed, guide players to their goal, which is often some form of victory. Following these rules comes automatically, simply because they exist, implying an habitual action as following these rules eventually “degenerates” into these. A good example is how players usually have a turn order in board games (e.g.: clockwise, counter-clockwise, …) and how following this turn order becomes automatic after a few rounds of play. Its presence does not need to be restated every single time.
Knowing this, the author proceeds to explain the three dimensions that make up the proposed model of analysis. The first being Presence, the second Readiness and the third Adversity.
- Presence: Just like Readiness, these two terms are often used, in one form or another, by interaction designers to describe human consciousness with respect to the tools that are being used. The example given in the paper is an excellent one to explain presence. ‘A tool such as a hammer, when being studied closely, moves to the Presence dimension. This means that the examination of the design of a hammer can allow for scrutiny or fit into a desired rhythm of behavior.’ The paper continues to state that something with high presence lends well to conscious attention.
- Readiness: On the other hand, if the hammerer simply picks up the tool and begins to use it, the tool will find itself in the Readiness dimension where he will simply be able to use it habitually and unproblematically. An object or action with high readiness will be able to easily be used in habitual actions due to its properties.
- Adversity: As stated in the paper: “The adversity of a game environment is the degree to which its material aspects make the game more or less difficult to the players to win.”.
So what does all of this have to do with gamification? In short: the interplay between the Presence and Readiness dimension is equal to the switch between Discursive and Practical consciousness. The paper gives another example to describe the thought process behind these design dimensions and how they can be used to solve the aforementioned problem in gamification: Suppose there is an exercise program that awards points to users for entering a gym that partakes in it. Getting these points constitutes the goal for the game elements inserted into the gamified activity. As always, there are now two goals: one to get points and the other to get some exercise. The software that represents the points is present, ready and adverse for playing the game. Those three dimensions continually move the line between discursive and practical consciousness for the player. Gaining points can be made so easy that it becomes habitual for players to collect them, or so invisible that players can no longer predict how they will score. When returning to a gamification context, that thin line between the two can be compared against the conscious expectations of the main activity. If points are more important to the player than the exercise, a dimension analysis can help understand why and how to create a desired balance between conscious attention to the exercise and to the game.
My own thoughts
First off, I believe this paper goes a bit too deeply into the psychology of the dimensions presented and not enough into how it can properly be applied to gamification. However, it is interesting to see one of the many views on how our brain handles habitual actions and how to define whether an action has the potential to become a habit easily. It’s easy to see how this can be applied to gamification. If the game elements you are introducing are so transparent and ready that they become a habit, the players will have a harder time focusing solely on these elements. The goal of having a gamified application in which the original activity is the focal point will have been reached. Should the game elements be too pervasive, thereby crossing into the presence dimension, then players will also be able to constantly focus on them, thereby creating systems in which the game elements become more important than the overall goal of the application, which is never what is intended in gamification. I do think these dimensions are not suited for use when actually designing your system for the first time. They should be kept in the background until a first draft or iteration has been completed, and tested. Then, if problems have been discovered or if there are fields that can be improved, these dimensions can be used to try and analyze the source of the problem and deal with it appropriately. An instance in which these design dimensions can be used outside of application analysis is when used in combination with the table in my previous blog post. Studying each game element and trying to see if they have more presence than readiness can help prepare you for certain problems or can help decide which game elements you may want to include, and which are best avoided.