Isn’t it intriguing how the same good idea pops up at roughly the same time from a number of dissociated people in far-flung locations? I guess that’s how we collectively come to know that something is a good idea whose time has come.

Take gamification, for instance. Suddenly, it seems, “gamification” is on everybody’s lips. Can we put a game on our Website? Should we start offering badges to frequent and/or loyal customers … or maybe to bring in new customers? How about adding a Jeopardy-style game to our course? What if we sponsored some kind of scavenger hunt?

Gamification proponents tout the benefits of this approach to marketing (and, for many, marketing is what gamification is all about):

  • Promote awareness that leads to adoption of a brand, product, or service.

  • Induce participation and attachment, again, with and to a brand.

  • Make tedious activities (like completing marketing surveys) seem less odious.

Some of this is great news, particularly when those outside of marketing find their interest piqued. At DevLearn|10, for example, gamification was front and center during the program and at the expo. Byron Reeves gave a keynote presentation on the topic, there were case studies, focus groups, concurrent sessions … one vendor even put up an alternate reality game that ran alongside the conference (for which yours truly was one of the puppet masters). For those of us who, for several years, have been promoting the value of games beyond entertainment, this is a welcome trend.

But there are troubling aspects to this recent craze. Using the word “gamification” does seem to neutralize objections to using games for business or education purposes, but it also dilutes the complexities and rigor of solid game design and implementation. Promoters of gamification frequently focus on the benefits, however transitory they may be, of the “fun factor” (indeed, “funware” is an alternate term for this phenomenon) for gaining attention for a brand or product while neglecting the longer-term values of sustained community-building, collaboration, collective knowledge development, and a host of other desirable outcomes. Games can make us smarter, but gamification, I fear, dumbs down the transformative potential of this medium to no more than a marketing gimmick.

What should the gamification conversation really be about?

Certainly, games and game environments bring an element of fun, even lightheartedness, to situations and tasks that might otherwise be dreary or uninteresting. Players immerse themselves in the game “world” where they are presented with situations that require decision-making or conflict resolution. The consequences of their decisions are real even when the environment in which they make them is not, so bold actions can be tested. The context for those decisions can shift within the game, allowing for each decision and action to create additional, even new, meaning. Consequences, feedback, and reward structures are relevant to the game world and the game play, and serve to maintain players’ interest when presented with new content and situations.

All of this happens because of two critical components embedded within every game:

  • Mechanics is the umbrella term that covers the way a game works and the interactions that occur between players and the game. Game mechanics address everything from how the game world represents the physical world to what kinds of actions a player can take in a game scenario to what interactions are available between players. While certain conventions have developed in the use of game mechanics in online games (e.g., A-S-D-W key combinations used to move an avatar around the screen, space bar to make the avatar jump), each game has its own mechanics that are particular to that game’s concept and intent.

  • Metrics are the measurements that result from game play. Games trap metrics for every interaction between players, and between players and the game world.

In analyzing game mechanics and their ensuing metrics, decision-makers can gain important insights into the kinds of interactions that yield desired results with the target audience. Does one kind of interaction result in the player pursuing deeper levels of content? Which reward structure correlates to higher referral rates or to greater sales? What kinds of mechanics produce the greatest content retention over time for the content domain embodied by the game?

As Eric Schmidt and so many others remind us, the influence of games in our online experiences and our culture is growing quickly. We can exploit this influence in beneficial ways. Doing so requires an adherence to the principles of data-driven design and evaluation at which e-Learning professionals have become so proficient in the past 15 years.