What the Heck is Gamification? Part 1

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This is the first of a two-part blog series by Deputy Director of Innovation Matt Rhoades. Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion!

As games have moved increasingly into the consciousness of learning professionals, there has come the inevitable wave of new jargon, some of which is useful, but much of which is somewhat mystifying. Enter “gamification,” a term that has been bandied about in marketing and other circles for a couple of years and is increasingly making its way into the learning space as well. And, deceptively, “gamification” sounds like something that should be easily parsed. There’s the word “game” right there in the front. And that “ification” at the end, that’s like “transmogrification,” right? So gamification is just transmogrifying something into a game. Easy! Well, yes and no.

To start with, I don’t know when was the last time you tried to transmogrify something, but it’s easy to talk about and very, very hard to do. But on a deeper level, gamification is more about layering and less about transforming. And the end product is not a game. So basically, gamification is a horrible lie? Well, not so fast. It IS a misleading term, though, so let’s break down what gamification actually is and isn’t. We’ll use more traditional games as a touch point for comparison and contrast.

Gamification can best be thought of as a form of retrofitting. Given some process, course or other system, gamification grafts on certain game elements to make the existing structure feel more like a game. The examples commonly given are badges, points, leaderboards and other forms of achievement tracking that allow participants to feel a sense of reward for completing tasks and potentially to compare their results against other participants. It can also include interactive game elements designed to provide assessment for purposes of rewarding those points, et cetera (i.e. timers to determine relative scores for different participants, or answer tracking to decide whether participants get a bronze, silver or gold medal). Essentially, gamification creates what is known as a “metagame.”

The term “metagame” (oh good – more jargon) comes from the traditional game space. Metagames are constructs that sit on top of and separate from the designed game experience. They are engaged by players who essentially design the metagame for themselves in order to enhance their personal enjoyment of the game experience. For example, in many computer games, the player has an inventory screen that is represented as a grid and each item the player collects in the game takes a certain number of squares of space, configured into various shapes (i.e. a sword might be four squares end-to-end to form a long skinny rectangle, while a shield might also be four squares, but configured as shape two-by-two squares to form a larger square).

As you can imagine, putting objects into the inventory can be done more or less efficiently, with the end result being the ability to hold more or fewer items. The purpose of this inventory design is to create an approximation of the bulk of different items and it isn’t meant to be an important part of the game beyond forcing the player occasionally to make decisions about which of several items being carried is the most important to him or her and to get rid of things periodically. However, some players delight in playing “inventory Tetris” – finding the most efficient use of space so they can carry as much as possible, and spending hours (literally) over the course of the game managing their bags. They are playing a metagame. Maybe you’ve done something similar when packing for a trip. If so, congratulations. You’ve gamified packing.

As this example implies, gamifying something requires a lot of buy-in from the participant. The gamifying elements imply certain things about what the metagame might be, but ultimately the participant decides the exact parameters of the game and how enjoyable that game is (and, by extension, the degree to which he or she is inclined to participate in it). O the plus side, advantages of simple gamification include its relative ease of implementation and correspondingly low cost. If the content being presented is already relatively engaging and enjoyable to participate in, a metagame provided by gamifying the content can act as a positive enhancement. It also paves the way for additional forms of incentivization (i.e. the points earned can be redeemed for actual things) that may have value to participants. On the other side, gamification can end up being lipstick on the pig if the course is not engaging in and of itself.

So that’s a little about what gamification is. Next time, we’ll contrast it with games as well as when to use it.