Know the Limits of Game Mechanics

So, you want to add game mechanics to your new online product? Where do you begin?

Short of hiring an experienced game designer, how does a business or creative person learn enough about game design to effectively integrate social badges, leaderboards, and points systems into non-game products?

This is a tough question because every single one of the best books I’ve read about game design are too long, too academic, or too esoteric (for someone who isn’t a hardcore gamer or old enough to have played decades of the games referenced in the texts). I’m starting to see some short, simplified books describing the new Funware trend, but they tend to convince people that Funware is the new hotness, rather than help people actually apply it.

People need an accessible marketing-oriented book that instructs a game design novice on the finer points (and pitfalls) of using game mechanics in their product or user experience designs. I have not found that book yet, but parts of it exist in many related books. It’s not that this information is not out there, it’s just not available in an effective format for some of the folks who need it now.

So, no dream book yet, but I saw a FANTASTIC slideshow today.

If you’re a website or app designer, there is a good introductory slideshow now for using game mechanics effectively in non-game product designs, thanks to Sebastian Deterding.

I saw this slideshow linked last night from @avantgame and it was a wonderful summary of how games are effective motivators and the pitfalls you might encounter if you try to leverage game mechanics in your user experience design for products that aren’t traditional games. It’s best watched in fullscreen because there is a lot of small text, but it’s well worth your time.

Like a Boombox, Game Design Is Not a Toy

My favorite part of Sebastian’s presentation was his smart assessment of how the same things that make games fun can directly conflict with the design goals of task-oriented applications and tools (where speed, efficiency, and flattened learning curves are ideal). Knowing the limits of game mechanics (or at least areas where they will prove most challenging in real world application) can help tremendously in keeping a new Funware project on the right track.

Fun is awesome, but giving users new (and unwanted) ways to have fun may not have the transformative results you expect. The demand for new fun ways to waste time is not as great as you might imagine (most of us have more than enough ways to enjoy our free time… the problem is finding more free time, not more ways to have fun).

More often than not, I think we want our utilitarian chores to go by as quickly and efficiently as possible so we can get to the truly fun things that are optional in every way: the real games, the candy.

Be Careful with Psychological Triggers

Another point that is only briefly touched upon in the slideshow is the mine field of using (or misusing) psychological triggers in game design. In a work situation, this can backfire because the game is not being played voluntarily and there may be notable real world consequences involved. Nobody loses credibility at work for having a lame Farmville Farm but how would a poor score on a prominent industry social network affect someone’s reputation among their coworkers who thrive on that site? Most likely, the poor performer will abandon the site before they’ll look bad in front of a coworker or superior from their workplace.

Many game mechanics play off social competition, progressive challenges, and psychological effects which can easily lead to negative user experiences like jealousy, counterproductive competitiveness, compulsive behaviors (something that I believe is rampantly abused in MMORPG design, but that’s another topic entirely), and feelings of incompetence or failure.

Not being able to complete a task successfully at work just means you need more training or experience. Not being able to accomplish a task in a game often means you are losing (or maybe falling behind others), which can lead to unfavorable outcomes associated with negative feedback. As Deterding points out, the feedback in most games is excessive (positive and negative). Many game systems attach an arbitrary value (points, titles, badges) to tasks that might otherwise not seem like a big deal. The last thing the designer of a tool or app wants is to make their user feel incompetent. Fun should be a value-add, not something that comes at a psychological price to any of your users.

Fun Is More Subjective Than Usability

I’m reminded of a “team building” exercise I was coerced to participate in when I was a lowly admin assistant in my late teens. I’m an artsy introvert, the creative-spectrum opposite of a “theater person”, and I actually failed gym class once in grade school… so a mandatory game of what amounts to physical Charades + dancing is NOT fun for me. I would have preferred just getting bombarded by my coworkers in a round of dodgeball to having to act out “disco” in front of anyone over the age of 5. Call me uptight, but asking me to play that game was like challenging a blind guy to pictionary… not cool at all.

I remember feeling beyond embarrassed, and, eventually, I quietly sat out after a few rounds of feeling silly and incompetent. The lady running it wasn’t a total ass, but she did remind me that my team needed my help (or said something encouraging that I now only remember as publicly rubbing in the embarrassment). In retrospect, that was a good experience for a game designer to have, but at the time it just contributed to me disliking that job.

When people are mandated to participate in any type of game, it definitely runs the risk of putting someone off. If your website or app has a real world utility, you might not realize that people feel “mandated” to use it. How much is one customer worth to you? Can you afford to lose any users over something as trivial as poorly executed game mechanics? It’s just something to keep in mind when we are blurring the line between work and play.

Consider making your game mechanics opt-in (or at least provide a graceful way to opt-out) if you are using any kind of social or psychological trigger in an app someone might depend on or feel obligated to use in a non-trivial professional or educational context. For example, let people hide their scores from shared leaderboards (perhaps structure the alternative as a personal best-score board that only compares current performance to past performance of the same user or a user-approved subset of all users).

Without sufficient care, a mandatory chore + game mechanics = a proverbial pig in lipstick.

As a general rule, the more stressful, important, or time-sensitive a task is for your users, the more you may want to minimize (or eliminate) active gaming and use passive game mechanics judiciously (with a special eye toward creating tangible, compelling value and rewards for your users). And, of course, be careful when you assume that everyone has the same ideas of fun if you are putting gameplay into a mandatory experience (like an app you expect people to use primarily at work or as a hardcore productivity tool).

I think that teacher-mandated games in schools also runs the risk of seriously putting kids off a subject if they can not perform well in the game (one of my daughters was forever traumatized by mandatory time playing Math Munchers… each kid had to pass certain levels for class but she was unable to process the problems fast enough to win… yet she could DO the math). I’m sure the teacher thought she was adding fun to the classroom, and for most kids it probably was fun. But if that class had been a product my kid could have stopped using or buying, they definitely would have lost her business after she fell behind the entire class on the multiplication and division modules.

Your Game Could Be the Exception

Still, there is a huge reward when someone creates the new game rules and user experience that DOES make some chore fun.

You might craft a magical synergy of gameplay and utility that creates fun, engagement, and motivation where once there was only drudgery and busy work. There are good reasons to experiment and try to create new types of games (even in our utilitarian tasks) but keep in mind how very difficult those design challenges will be to execute well.

Do you think poorly-used game mechanics can deter people from products and experiences that are otherwise valuable? Add a Comment

5 thoughts on “Know the Limits of Game Mechanics

  1. I don’t know if this is your holy grail of game mechanics, but I’m really enjoying Building Web Reputation Systems by Farmer & Glass. It’s more geared towards reputation systems but I think there are many parallels that can be made towards game mechanics.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Ryan. That book is in my Amazon list but I haven’t got to it yet. Maybe I’ll bump it up. 🙂

      I bet that reputation systems are often what social/community sites are trying to achieve when they implement stuff like leaderboards, badges, and points for their online communities. Reframing it as a reputation system also puts the focus on business relevant outcomes rather than “fun” which I feel is vague and besides-the-point for most applications of game mechanics in non-entertainment apps. Besides framing the discussion well, I hope to find some books that address different verticals and specific applications in-depth (for example, applying game mechanics for collecting market research, ratings, and reviews tied into an overview of recommendation engine design).

  2. Very thought provoking when game mechanics are considered the new “hot” design methodology. I’ve seen some amazing results at companies like Jigsaw and Lithium for making a dull reptitive task fun.

    1. Got links? I like seeing case studies or examples.

      In the presentation I linked to, what really stands out is how eager some people are to claim victories where there is not a lot of definitive evidence that the “funware” had the desired results. For example, in the presentation there is an arcade-machine-like bottle recycling bin on a public street for one night near a regular old bin. After that one night, they declare a victory because thirty-some people used the novel new bin with the blinky lights and only 2 used the standard bin. That kind of jumping to conclusions is dangerous because it undermines the useful study of funware effects in the real world.

      What happens when the newness wears off? What if we placed the game-like bin nowhere near a regular bin (because face it, most of those people were on their way to drop bottles at the standard bin before they came across the funware bin)?

      Another point with case studies presented by the people who originated the project is that there is an understandable desire not to showcase mistakes or unproven assumptions, so there is not always a fair postmortem or a full spectrum of user feedback. Seeing what worked is as useful as seeing what didn’t; where and when gameification has negative impact (even among a small percent of users) or what types of constructive criticism users offer. Like with foursquare, they will tout summary statistics but what does their engagement really look like? How many users are very active and how many have already moved on because the gameplay is so badly done (just my opinion)? What do their users suggest? I am really looking forward to see how they will grow their game and create a better “end game” for their power users.

      For example, with one company I worked with, they really wanted to target college aged women with their games. Problem was that this market consistently told us they did not have TIME for the casual gaming on the site. Apparently they liked the games and wanted the content but not the fluff, even if it had a rewards program. The company ended up expanding their target market to women who have more time to actually play the games rather than dropping the games. But I wouldn’t know that if I hadn’t been involved. I just suspect that much of what is going on in this space right now is more hype than not, but as people work through the kinks there will be more and more legitimate successes. I think social media is still also in that period of maturation where there is far more enthusiasm than earth-shattering results for many brands. I also think a lot of the lessons-learned are jealously guarded secrets and that’s another reason we aren’t seeing more balanced coverage of what didn’t work (why tell the competitors?). 😀

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