Or, The Gamification of Games???
My brothers-in-law were visiting recently – ages 14 and 11 – and we play and discuss videogames a lot together. A few years ago I even broke down the difference between first-party and third-party developers with them. So anyway, the 11-year-old recently acquired an iPod Touch which he uses primarily – maybe exclusively – as a gaming device. On this latest trip, I introduced him to the joys of Tiny Wings (pictured below), a beautiful little iOS game in which you pilot a little tiny-winged bird over an endless landscape of hills as you try to outfly the setting sun. It’s a little difficult to explain, but very simple to play, with just the right combination of luck and skill required to make it incredibly addictive.
So as your bird slides along the various hills, you collect coins to increase your score. In addition to increasing your overall score, the collection of certain amounts of coins are sometimes part of specific objectives you need to accomplish in order to increase your score multiplier. Most importantly for this discussion: the coins have absolutely no purchasing power. This is where my brother-in-law comes in. On one of our drives back home, he launched Tiny Wings on his iPod and began to play, expressing how difficult one particular objective of collecting a certain amount of coins was. The conversation that followed went something like this:
Him: How am I supposed to get 200 coins?!
Me: You’ll get it.
Him: What can you buy with these coins, anyway?
Me: Nothing. It just increases your score.
Me [to my wife]: Isn’t it interesting that his generation expects to be able to buy things with the coins? If they made Sonic today, you’d probably have to buy things and unlock upgrades with the rings you collect.
Him: What’s Sonic?
The conversation continued until I realized that by the time this boy was born, Sega was strictly in the software business. Madness. But I’m not interested in talking about the “good ol days” of gaming, or how video games were so much better/harder/smarter/etc in the 80s and 90s than they are now – though that sentiment will likely sneak in from time to time. What interests me is the changing culture surrounding video games, which the conversation above helps illustrate, and which might be related to the concept of gamification. Have we reached a point where gamification is expected in games?
I haven’t really followed the whole gamification thing too closely, and am in no way an expert on it. Can it even be called a “thing?” Are there any experts on it? Or is it a whole lot of things in lots of different places? All this is to say that I have no idea if what I’m suggesting here is commonplace or anything. But from the periphery, I feel like I kinda “get it.” Anyway, a quick look at the Wikipedia entry for gamification reveals some of the concept’s main ideas and techniques. Here’s the definition they provide:
“Gamification is the use of game design techniques, game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts.” (my emphasis with the bolding)
As the entry goes on to describe, some techniques of gamification involve the rewarding of points and things like unlocking achievements, leaderboards, social media connectivity, and virtual currency. Gamification has been applied to everything from education, health, business, and house chores. The concept has inspired numerous books, articles, conferences, and summits. You can read a lot more about all of these things on the Gamification Wiki. Like everything else, however, it also has its opponents. One of my favorite opposing views to gamification and its use by businesses in their marketing efforts comes from video game theorist/designer Ian Bogost. In his statement “Gamification is Bullshit” (you really should read the whole thing) he writes:
“Game developers and players have critiqued gamification on the grounds that it gets games wrong, mistaking incidental properties like points and levels for primary features like interactions with behavioral complexity.”
So my question is, are these “incidental properties” of games now becoming their primary features? Has gamification become so commonplace in other “non-game contexts” of our media-saturated lives that the secondary game-like properties that inspired the trend are now expected to become more prominent in games themselves? In other words, have games themselves been gamified?
I played Temple Run for the first time a few weeks ago – apparently years after everyone else – and the only thing that made me come back to that game again and again was the neverending goal of getting just a few more coins to get that one last upgrade. That game in particular feels like an instance of the “incidental properties” of collecting coins and purchasing things becoming the game’s “primary feature.” I know there are many more like it. Would a game like Sonic the Hedgehog ever succeed in its original form today? I haven’t played the more recent iterations of Sonic. Have they incorporated unlockables to be purchased with the rings you collect? They’ve already done that with Mario in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, including hint videos you can purchase with some of the coins you collect. Is it no longer enough to just collect rings for the sake of your survival? I mean come on, if you lose all your rings and get hurt, you’ll die! And if you collect 100 of them, you get an extra life! Isn’t that reason enough to collect as many rings as you can?
My gut tells me that this brief conversation carries a lot of implications regarding the changing culture of videogames that I’ll eventually want to come back to. Hopefully I’ll have more installments of “Conversations with an 11-Year-Old Gamer” in the future. I feel like there’s potential in making this a regular thing and learning more from it.