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Archive for the ‘Gamification’ Category

Gamification, websites, psychological distance, and paying tax…

Way back in 2002 or so, I devised the idea of “gamification”, a clunky (but useful) way of proposing that electronics devices of all sorts would be vastly improved by taking on board the lessons games companies had had to learn. My position was simply that the games industry was the ‘cradle’ for the major technology waves that were just about to break, and that tech people needed to get their heads around that.

The people at Apple certainly did: in terms of how I personally describe gamification, I’d say that the iPhone, the iPad, the iTunes Store and the App Store are prime examples – near-frictionless interfaces coupled with a games-industry-informed platform-centric way of doing business. And that certainly has done the company nothing but good.

Websites, too, were something that concerned me greatly back then: when I looked (and still look) at websites, the thing I look for more than anything else is a kind of ‘authorial voice’, an online corporate presence in a rather more literal sense than the phrase usually connotes. You also find this in packaging copy and TV voice scripting (e.g. Innocent Smoothies have a great ‘voice’, Shakeaway usually pitches it right, More Than has become pretty good, Orange used to nail it but has lost its way, Apple comes and goes, Coca Cola sucks terrifically, Macdonalds is even worse these days, etc).

In retrospect, what subtly linked my twin obsessions from back then was what I now call the notion of psychological distance – for if authorial voice is the process of ‘humanizing’ a company to the point that it can actually talk to you in a language that you can almost accept as human, then gamification is very much the process of using technology to reduce the psychological distance between you and it – bringing you emotionally closer to it.

The example I like to give to show the limits of gamification is the whole idea of a government tax website: though it would make sense to tune users’ flow through the tax website, the idea of using gamification techniques to bring the user psychologically closer (and somehow more emotionally aligned) with The Taxman would seem somehow alien to a lot of people.

But even though this seems like a kind of counterexample to the whole gamification-is-universally-good gospel, maybe – just maybe – you could make a positive difference here. All the same, you’d have to start your design process from a radically different corner to normal… that of psychology and empathy.

The most basic ’empathy hack’ would be to add a changing sidebar showing simple top-line statistics about what your tax money does for people – education, healthcare, etc. Tax shouldn’t be presented in a stark, oppositional way, when it is actually the backbone of how a civilized society functions. Tax is how we get money fairly from the people who make it to the people who need it – and illness or changing personal circumstances can rapidly alter which side of that whole equation you happen to be sitting on.

My point here is that by reducing the empathic distance between the website user and the website owner as a first step, we are already oiling the conceptual wheels in a very direct way. By adding this kind of touch, we’re giving The Taxman a believable human voice (rather than a cartoon bowler hat, *sigh*). Only then can we start to think about anything so fancy as gamifying the interface – in sales terms, you need to answer the “who cares?” question long before you try to close the deal.

Beyond that, it’s an open question about what the tax website people would need to do: but my larger point is that gamification is hugely dependent on a collaborational mindset having first been invoked or engineered. Without a proper appreciation of psychology (and how things like authorial voice can to a large degree help), gamification isn’t really a lot of use.

I think it was Gartners who claim that 85% of current gamification projects are likely to fail: my point here is that without actively trying to reduce the empathic distance first, many such projects would never have a chance of working at all.

More generally, in these days of customer-centred design, I’d contend that interface design is fast becoming an exercise more in psychology than in programming. But I’m not sure if even a single current CompSci course has this as a design precept, not even the computer games courses. The world is changing fast, that’s for sure…

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Reverse gamification and the future of everything…

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! 😉

The (short) prehistory of “gamification”…

Here’s a little story that hasn’t yet been told, hope you find it interesting!

* * * * * * * *

Though I wrote my first computer game waaay back in 1981, by 1999-2000 I’d grown disenchanted with the near-abusively one-sided way things worked in the industry. Given that one major games publisher tried (unsuccessfully, thank goodness) to sue me for £2.56m while another cancelled a big project days after approving a full-on milestone, you can see why that would be. Hence I decided to do an MBA: this was partly to try to salvage anything worthwhile from the bruising experiences I’d had, but mainly as a form of lightweight business therapy. 🙂

At the same time, I also started to move away from games into an unfashionable mix of embedded development and business analysis. So at some point during late 2002, I put all these pieces together [in a buggy-whip ‘core competency’ kind of way] and began to wonder whether the kind of games user-interface I had been developing for so long could be used to turbo-charge all manner of transactions and activities on commercial electronic devices – in-flight video, ATM machines, vending machines, mobile phones, etc.  Unsurprisingly, this was the point when I coined the deliberately ugly word “gamification“, by which I meant applying game-like accelerated user interface design to make electronic transactions both enjoyable and fast. Note that I was much more interested in applying gamification ideas to electronic devices than to the Web back then: just as now, I wanted to build physical things and to make them fun and effective to use.

All of which is why in 2003 (9th April) I founded a one-man consultancy called Conundra Ltd specifically with the idea of pursuing gamification, though I eventually dissolved it in 2006 (17th October) after eliciting no significant customer interest. Here’s a copy of the original 2003/2004 Conundra webpage, which should give a fuller idea of what I was aiming for (though note that the email link there doesn’t actually work, I gave up the conundra.co.uk domain loooong ago.)

Ultimately, the little genuine gamification work I did was essentially restricted to developing a couple of 3d casual games (3D Pool, 3D Chess) for a mobile phone platform that was never directly released (the Alphamosaic VC01). Sure, these games coupled particularly easy interfaces with high-gloss rendering technologies (direct-maths raytracing on a 16-bit array processor!), but the particular vision of gamification I had briefly glimpsed back in 2002 was simply a decade too early. Besides, the whole MBA mindset that tends to drive such high-concept business ideas was already on the downward slide by then… but that’s a story for another day.

So as far as “gamification” goes, I devised [I believe] the term, tried to make money from it, failed miserably, pulled out long before anyone else used it, and that was pretty much the end of my involvement. Oh well! 🙂

…but there’s a follow-on. Having then joined the CCTV industry and then started to develop my own innovative kind of small ‘speed dome’ security camera (hence ‘nano-dome’, doh!), it only struck me a little while ago that what I was doing was at heart a curious kind of culmination of the gamification path I had started out on way back in 2002. For PTZs – keyboard-steered cameras – are essentially a kind of industrial videogame, and one of the key things I was aiming for with the control software in my own camera was to make it what I would call ‘properly interactive’. And what would that make it but a truly gamified device?

Of course, I may have missed the biggest gamification boat of all (mobile phones), because in many ways Apple picked up the whole gamification UX ball and ran further with it than anyone else. So however much I like Dieter Rams’ designs, I’d argue that maybe the real secret behind Apple’s iWhatever devices isn’t Jonathan Ive’s aesthetic but the underlying idea of gamification – making hard things easy, expressive, near-effortless to use. Automating sprezzatura, one might say. Put in those terms, perhaps the full societal rollout of gamification has only now just begun, hmmm?