Conversations With an 11-Year-Old Gamer…

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.

Use coins as not money!

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.
[pause]
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?
Me: …

“I’ll have 3 boot upgrades.”

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.

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8 thoughts on “Conversations With an 11-Year-Old Gamer…

  1. Very fun read, Munib.

    I hope I understood your point correctly and will try to provide my two cents (coins? 😉 :

    I believe your 11 year-old brother-in-law’s comment about coins and their non-redemptive qualities just says a lot about what popular games are like today. You said his primary gaming device is an iPod Touch so that means (I would assume) he is playing a multitude of mobile F2P (or very cheap) games and is consuming them at a very rapid rate. Many of these games rely on microtransactions/in-game purchases as a point of monetization as an option for players to use real money to purchase even more currency for more or premium items for that same game.Since people are so much more drawn to free/cheaper games this currency collecting for shop purchases are a very common and necessary feature for the developers to make money and subsidize the cost of the game.

    Looking at the comparison of classic Sonic and the new reiteration of New Super Mario Brothers, the coin collecting mechanic is still the same. In each game, collecting more coins brings you closer to the goal of getting a high score, as with Tiny Wings. NSMB2’s choice of allowing you to purchase hint video seems to just be a product of their choice to center the game around this idea of a gold-rush but those purchases are non-essential to playing the game, they essentially help you get better at completing levels better and therefore get more coins in the process. I do not think the decision to allow players to buy something was done for the sake of allowing players to make purchases – it was just a help solution for newer/beginner players to use that was appropriate for the gold motif design. In Temple Run however, this was totally done on purpose so that people could buy the appropriate upgrades and boosts to get the highest score possible.

    And when looking at how all these things relate to gamification – I believe gamification helps businesses and people to achieve “high-scores”, whether that relate to sales, social collaboration, or whatever goals one might have. To make gamification itself as a primary feature is already a poor and fundamental misunderstanding of how good gamification is supposed to work – it needs to play with and support a higher cause and could not function on its own.

    It sort of hurts my brain to consider “have games themselves been gamified?”

    Game mechanics are still game mechanics but how you use them sort of places you into the different realms of gamification vs game design.

    Hope this provided some insight. I’d love to talk about it some more

    – Ivan

    • Hi Ivan,

      Thank you for engaging with my thoughts and for your insightful comment!

      I’m glad you brought up the connection between my brother’s comments and the state of popular games today. Part of the reason I felt like I had to write this down is just sheer fascination with how much gaming has changed over the years. Having grown up in the 80s, and especially because I grew up in more “developing” countries, I feel like I got to experience certain technologies in older forms than many of my peers who were born and raised in America.

      The shift towards F2P and microtransactions is amazing to me. I think one of the most incredible manifestations of the model is with Valve’s Team Fortress 2 and the insane amount of virtual hats that players have purchased with “real” money. I just read this article today that the Penny Arcade Report linked to that you might find interesting (if you haven’t seen it already). It connects to a lot of the ideas we’re discussing here:

      “The Fall of Angry Birds and What is Says about Free to Play” http://www.treysmithblog.com/the-fall-of-angry-birds/

      And I agree that NSMB2’s choice of including hint videos available for ‘purchase’ is on a whole different level from what’s going on in Temple Run and the myriad of other iOS games that follow a similar logic. But its inclusion in that game seems to go along with a general shift in gaming that you should be able to purchase things not ‘essential’ to gameplay. I think that’s the general idea I was going for with the suggestion that games have been gamified. Many businesses have used gamification poorly; that much I think we can all agree on. But it also seems like many games (a la Temple Run) have been developed with the same conception of “gamification” that has been misused by so many businesses. Know what I mean?

      But you know what’s REALLY interesting? As I’m typing this, I’m suddenly reminded of one of my favorite childhood video games. Released on the Sega Master System in 1986, some levels of ALEX KIDD IN MIRACLE WORLD included a shop from which you could buy certain items and/or power-ups depending on how much money you collected up to that point. Except instead of coins, they were bags of money that came in different sizes. Not sure what to make of that in relation to our discussion, but maybe you’ll have some ideas?

  2. This is a fun conversation! Happy to discuss it! I’ve taken the liberty to comment from my personal twitter account:

    I think what’s especially fascinating is that the ultra rare hats that Valve makes is only obtainable through a lottery that costs users $2.50. People can buy regular hats at values from $1 to $20 but there are these “unusual hats” that have sold for thousands through a third party. Absolutely crazy! And I must admit, I have tried my hand at the lottery – I think I spent around $20 or so on trying to get something super rare.

    And I wouldn’t say “games are being gamified” makes sense in the realm of redeeming game currency for non-gameplay items. Any bigger games that aren’t on mobile that have this feature tend to do it simply to provide the player more reasons to play aka more replayability. For example, in the 2011 release of Mortal Kombat, there is a graveyard full of unlockables players can purchase. All the purchasable items are randomized so as to encourage players to complete and buy everything, even though they are mostly BGMs, costumes, and concept art. I would say that 95% of console/PC games with a currency system are in-place for a very specific reason – typically there to help the player advance in some way or fashion, just like in Alex Kidd. The idea of redeemable currency is never something a game is designed around. It’s usually a means of accomplishing the developer’s needs, i.e. “How do I give my players powerups that is balanced and fair?” I’m not a designer but as a gamer – I am fairly certain this is the case.

    Business who are misusing gamification are simply that – examples of bad gamification design. Bad gamification design is a layer of game mechanics that do not achieve anything. However, I do not think this can be applied for videogames that have the ability to redeem currency because those are still additive to the experience of playing that game, even if they aren’t gameplay related.

    TempleRun’s model is simply a result of using the most effective business model for mobile games and the trend is that other developers are seeing this too and copying it. Any “real” game won’t have an unnecessary currency system. It either helps the player out in the game or it gives the player more to do outside of the game.

    • Thanks for your reply and for keeping this conversation going!

      I think your reply speaks a lot to just how subjective everything we’re talking about is. Most of what I’ve been saying in regards to the gamification of games and the changing nature of games is based on my ideas and understanding of what games “should” be, which mostly – or entirely – based on gut feelings. I think you hint at that same kind of approach at the end of your comment when you put the word “real” in “a real game” in quotation marks. My first instinct is to totally agree with you: “real” games SHOULDN’T have an unnecessary currency system.

      But maybe that’s the bigger point in our conversation: people’s conception of “real” games is changing. Not to suggest in any way that there’s a universally-agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a “real” game. But from various conversations with friends on the subject, it just seems like something that people who grew up with videogames in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s kind of “feel.” It just somehow doesn’t feel right. But I think what’s important to recognize here is that for my 11-year-old brother-in-law, it’s the norm. Not only that, but what doesn’t seem to feel right for him is NOT having an unnecessary currency system.

      • Ah, I see where it is you’re coming from now. I definitely must agree with you on how the concept of a “real game” is definitely changing. I’m sure this conversation has been reiterated time and time again from decade to decade. First from Arcade vs Consoles, then from 2D games to 3D games, PC vs Console, and etc. Given that so much of what the younger generation is now experiencing with F2P games and the like – it does very much make sense that your brother-in-law has come to expect these “stores” to be in every game.

        I wonder how this will shape his growth as a gamer for the next coming years and how he will develop his taste for games. I grew up in the 90s with what I consider to be the golden age of console gaming. There was no such thing as a hardcore vs casual gamer back then. You were either into it or you weren’t. Now that tablets and mobile devices are equally as viable for gaming, there can be hardcore gamers on what some consider to be casual gaming devices.

        I think it’s really interesting that you phrased your last sentence as a double-negative.

        “What doesn’t seem to feel right for him is NOT having an unnecessary currency system”

        I suppose that means then – having any currency system is therefore necessary for these younger kids. I think that this expectation is clearly an indication of the trends of game-design but I also believe that it does not discount the value of having well designed games that use game mechanics to their full extent, rather than as a point of monetization. I know that for me personally, buying bombs at the shop in Zelda will mean so much more to me in life than getting that stupid running geisha in Temple Run. Of course, I speak for myself and the crazy thing to consider is whether or not the up and coming generation will eventually (and I hope that they do) feel as I do about good games.

        • that’s kinda the beauty of history, right? especially when it comes to media, but also applying to lots of other things, we’re always talking about how something is radically new and completely changing things. But like you said, this conversation has taken place at almost every moment of change and transition.

          Thanks a lot for engaging with me on this topic! it’s endlessly fascinating and I’m just as curious as you to see how coming generations will define and distinguish between “good” and “bad” games as well as what games from today will be considered “classics” in the future…

  3. I’m in the gamerfication is bullshit category. We try to inject too much non reality into the business of reality these days

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