1. Only The Sillies
And the little bears growl to each other, “He’s mine,
As soon as he’s silly and steps on a line.”
And some of the bigger bears try to pretend
That they came round the corner to look for a friend;
And they try to pretend that nobody cares
Whether you walk on the lines or squares.
But only the sillies believe their talk;
It’s ever so portant how you walk.
There are two notable things about the activity AA Milne describes in his poem “Lines And Squares”.
The first is that it’s a very good case study of gamification. It has almost everything! A boring activity – walking somewhere – is made more engaging by the addition of a game element – the challenge to walk only on the squares and not the lines. There is also a narrative – involving child-devouring bears - which adds a rationale for the challenge, changing it from an abstract activity into something more resonant. OK, there aren’t bear-avoidance badges and bear survivor leaderboards, but this was the 1920s so let’s not blame Milne for his lapse in futurism.
And the second notable thing about it is that of the many children who gamify their walks in this way, almost none of them keep on doing it as an adult.
But why should this be? If the game element increases engagement – and from personal experience I can tell you it does – why doesn’t that continue? Lots of reasons: it might be that the fun of the game simply wears off. It might be peer pressure – non-players mocking or being hindered by your play. But it might also be that the older you are the more likely you are to want to go to wherever you’re going, and so you’re motivated to just treat the walk as a walk.
Bears consider the possibilities of gammonification.
2. Nobody Cares
Somebody on Twitter* mentioned lines and squares when I asked for examples of “Degamification” – it sounded frivolous but I realised it was a rather neat example of what I was after. The idea I was chasing goes something like this:
Gamification has come to mean adding game mechanics to things to achieve a particular effect. This is usually engagement (however you define that) but might also be increased productivity or a change in someone’s decision-making context. So presumably the removal of game mechanics from things which possess them might also have an effect on those things.
And then I had to ask: would the effect of that removal – that degamification - always be undesirable? I think it wouldn’t.
Part of the reason I think this, I admit, is my own experiences playing Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop games in the 80s and 90s, when the more I immersed myself in the hobby the more I was drawn to rule-light or even rule-free systems. D&D has – as you’ll know if you ever played it – a vast and hydra-headed system of rules. At first we would modify them, as almost all players did – dropping the ones that weren’t fun. But eventually we abandoned the rules entirely, shifting to what used to be known as “freeform” gaming – something more like interactive storytelling.
The reason we did this is that we’d reframed the aim of the activity to be creative rather than simply competitive or even co-operative. Once we’d done that, the game mechanics became a hindrance to play, rather than a spur.
There was a general shift in the role-playing hobby along these lines – not always abandoning rules and game mechanics but often substituting them for simpler ones: there was a vogue for storytelling games, for instance, with cards used as spurs for plot movement. This shift wasn’t exactly mainstream, though: degamification appealed mostly to the more sophisticated players, people who’d mastered what the game systems had to offer or found their brand of engagement lacking.
The effect was invigorating. It was a bit like removing training wheels on a bicycle – moments of chaos but more of freewheeling, creative liberation.
“Degamification? Never, I tell you!”
3. Ever So Portant
The implication of this is that once you have people who are confident with what they’re doing and enjoy it, there may be something to be gained by degamifying their environments – handing over more responsibility and autonomy to the players, dialing down the rewards and rules structures you’ve put in place.
This is only a hypothesis, of course, based on my memories of games! But the questions it raises are worth asking whenever you’re building an environment and hoping to motivate people to do stuff in it. At what point will the mechanics you’re creating become stale? For who will they be counterproductive? Might the same structures which unlock the creativity or engagement of some users be frustrating or limiting to others?
For researchers this might not be a problem – for the most part we’re building the community equivalent of disposable nappies, meant for one use only and designed to absorb as much, er, ‘output’ as possible. The non-replayability of most ‘gamified’ research projects is their greatest advantage – it stops participants getting bored or noticing how repetitive or inane the things we’re building are.
But outside research – among people looking to build motivational elements into tools for the longer term – these are real issues. I would hypothesise – tongue only slightly in cheek – a kind of Keynesian approach to engagement, a countercyclical engagement policy. When engagement is low, it’s the job of the engager to step in and stimulate it (by gamification). But as engagement rises, the engager should degamify the systems to avoid, er, content inflation – which you might define as activity designed only to trigger game mechanics rather than whatever the supposed point of the tool is creativity, fun, etc.)
Is there any example of this in practise? You might point to the example of Tumblarity – the short-lived popularity measure on Tumblr introduced back in 2009, which had the effect of radically jacking up engagement and activity but in directions Tumblr management allegedly didn’t expect or like. So they degamified the site, removing Tumblarity, and found that the popularity of their service continued to grow but that the artificial metric no longer distorted the content on it quite so much. The behaviour Tumblarity artificially encouraged - chasing popularity, content inflation, and so on - didn’t go away, but its levels stayed manageable. Degamification rewarded its creative users at the expense of its game-playing ones.
This is the challenge for people using engagement-based “gamification” in research, I think - particularly for idea or insight generation. If the point of the exercise is creativity, are we getting the best results by framing it in the context of rewards or competitions instead?
*if this was you please say so I can credit you - the tweet is unfindable :(