Even when I first started going about “gamification” back in 2002 or so, I had a clear vision of what I was talking about. As you can see from my (long defunct) Conundra web site, I was basically reaching out to “manufacturers (to help) evolve their electronic devices into entertainment platforms“; and, as part of this process, to “help them design, build and run industry partner programmes around new collaborational business models.“ I’d convinced myself that the combination of a semi-closed platform (in the style of the console games developer programmes set up by Nintendo, Sony, etc) and high-intensity “game-like” user interface design was a killer ‘meta-app’ (i.e. a way of making and selling all applications) that would soon sweep all before it.
Of course, fast forward to 2011 and we don’t even bother to call this “gamification”, because we’re far too busy obsessing about the platforms rapidly spawned by the process over the last few years: Apple’s App Store, Google’s Android Marketplace, Windows Phone Marketplace, Blackberry App World, Nokia Ovi Store, and so on. These semi-closed games-console-like platforms are just the kind of high-intensity, game-like-UI thing I was so obsessed with helping bring to life way back then (if a few years too early to be useful).
For me, then, “gamification” boiled down to the process of turning mere electronic devices into owner-controlled software platforms with a games aesthetic to their user interface: “console-game-ification”, if you like. But what, then, does that make apps?
For the most part, I see apps as jumped-up games: small pieces of entertain-ing/-ment software living on an owner-controlled ecosystem and sold through an owner-controlled channel, trying to perform their functions within the channel-owners’ propagandistic lie that that tiny single channel in your hand is broad enough to satisfy all your core human needs (and a few more besides). Yes, there are useful apps, insightful apps, devious apps, funny apps, curious apps, stupid apps and tragic apps, for sure: but how many of them actually manage to redeem themselves from the mere entertainment-ware-ness of their base platform’s meta-app template, thereby elevating themselves (and the user) to some genuinely higher plane or better place? And is there even a name for what I’m reaching towards?
If ‘gamification’ (as I understand it) is the process of turning electronics devices into aspirational games consoles tied to owner-controlled sales channels, then what I’m talking about here is turning an aspirational games-like console back into a useful (but quite different) electronic device. As this basically has all the same elements as gamification but arranged somewhat back-to-front, let’s call it reverse gamification (for want of a better name). This, then, is the real heart of what just about any given app is trying to do: somehow transcending the innate ‘gaminess’ of the platform by marshalling all its games-world tricks against it, to produce the illusion not of an arcade game or 3d movie, but of an entirely different device insouciantly trapped inside the platform – an Aladdinesque genie railing against its imprisoning lamp, yet summoning sufficient ancient Persian trickery to make its magical prison resemble something else completely.
All of which means that ‘forward gamification’ – much as I wish all the academics busy running their conferences and MBA modules around it well – is now essentially dead: though doubtless the future will see many more similarly gamified platforms, this is pretty much just a matter of social engineering and technical optimization. By way of contrast, I’d point out that the development world has moved en masse onwards to reverse gamification, which is a far harder Act III “Return With The Prize” stage in the Developer’s Journey.
Yet even so, I still think the kind of pure apps we see now are 10% or less of the whole story: for all their trickery, they nearly all remain virtual, floating, untethered, insubstantial, conceptual, temporary. To my eyes, they’re no more than shadowy forerunners of the real thing, which will (I think) come when the platforms themselves migrate sideways into customized devices, which I believe will be the point when software yields to rapid hardware and the Electronics Revolution 3.0 begins.
Hence right now, I think that the kind of apps you see now are merely virtual reverse gamification, a mere taster of what is to come when the real reverse gamification process begins. Which - if I’m just as early this time round - should start in about seven years’ time. So, set your alarm clock apps for 2018, here comes the future of everything!