uxHH: Sebastian Deterding on Gamification

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December 3rd, 2012

Today the User Experience Roundtable Hamburg (in cooperation with the local IxDA) hosted a talk by Sebastian Deterding titled “9.5 Theses on Gamification” (Sebastian has information on earlier iterations of the same talk available online). For me it's been the first uxHH Roundtable for a good couple of months, but this topic with this speaker I couldn't pass up.

So I just got back from there and I'm pretty tired, but I have some unfinished thoughts rummaging around my head that I'd risk losing by going to sleep. They might not be excessively polished (or even necessarily cohesive), but I'm going to take the red pill and embrace the now-famous Edmund Snow Carpenter quote: “[C]lear speaking is generally obsolete thinking. Clear statement is like an art object: it is the afterlife of the process which called it into being. The process itself is the significant step and, especially at the beginning, is often incomplete and uncertain.” So please bear with me, this blog entry is not an attempt at a scientific paper.

First of all, I have to say Sebastian's overview of the history of gamification was excellent. In my presentations I've always been pretty vague and limited myself to providing a rough timescale. Sebastian apparently did some serious detective work and laid bare all the gory details. That part alone would've been worth the travel through the snow. Major props! It bears mentioning that, while important on a meta level (talking about gamification), that information is essentially trivia and, by itself, doesn't have that much intrinsic value (for pursuing gamification, whatever that may mean).

The implied question that comes with every gamification talk ever, is how to actually do that thing. I felt like Sebastian did a good job at steering people away from the checklist approach decried by Ian Bogost. He outlined some fairly established properties of games and how/why people play, and why it is very difficult to bring those in line with whatever snake oil / gamification salespeople tell you about the bottom line. (Side note: Last week, in an interview about gamification, I've wondered aloud whether the word itself is even salvageable for the long term, or whether it will inevitably go down in history as a marketing fad.)

So what do we tell someone who wants to “get started,” after all the stuff about the value of the player experience has been established? The easy approach, the one I've used so far, is to more or less point people to game design resources. “You want to make good games,” I say, “so here's what experienced designers say about how to make good games.” This also has the neat side effect of alienating checklist aficionados who don't actually want to learn anything new. I'm not even disappointed in them, their failing projects will be disappointing enough. I could link you to that Gartner press release now, but I don't really want to outwardly promote their current position just because it happens to align with my own narrative.

Something else that has jumped out at me is how many talking points (not necessarily from Sebastian's talk, but in general from the discussion surrounding gamification) would be fairly obvious if people, you know, actually played some games. I've seen and heard people talk about gamification who seemed like they hadn't touched a game since Tetris. I mean, how believably can someone talk about player engagement and emotional impact if they've never even saved a princess? (By the way I'm not saying classic games couldn't be emotionally intensive – fact is, they can be.) Sebastian, in contrast to those unnamed people, seemed to be at the very least in touch with gaming culture: we chatted for a bit about Desert Bus for Hope and I did recognize his Sword & Sworcery wallpaper. Small cues like these stabilize the assumption that he does indeed “know games” from more than a purely academic perspective.

I should probably wrap this up this right about here, so in summary I listened to a fantastic talk on gamification that ended up teaching me a good amount of new facts, evoked some new questions, challenged some beliefs and strengthened others. All in all, a valuable experience!

On a related note, I've been drafting a blog entry about an example for games achieving emotional impact through their mechanics, by toying with player expectations / mental models and seemingly “changing the rules.” It's currenty sitting at slightly under 2000 words and should be finished either this week or next.


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