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The game layer and what it will look like

“The game layer is coming,” he said, and everyone in the room believed him.

At SxSW 2011, the young CEO of SCVNGR, Seth Priebatsch, expressed what was arguably the most important prediction of the illustrious tech conference: that the experience of real-life would more and more be organised around game-like structures and technologies.

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It sounds as confusing as it does inevitable. After all, what does a world look like in which we use games to solve real problems, the kind you can’t zap with a virtual gun? And how could anyone make money from this?

But first of all… what’s so special about games anyway?

Through research and everyday observation, we know that games excel at intrinsic motivation. Without money, social pressure or force, they can persuade people to devote extraordinary amounts of time and emotion into temporary experiences with no direct bearing on the real world. Gamification — the process of injecting game mechanics and reward structures into non-gaming contexts like shopping, news and disease prevention –- is founded almost entirely on this recognition.

Although we have seen a spate of technological platforms like Foursquare and Badgeville mimicking the appeal of games to deepen online user experiences, the sentiment is growing that we have not quite cracked the code of successful gamification.

In a strident presentation called “PAWNED: gamification and its discontents”, UX designer Sebastien Deterding has argued that most gamified products overemphasise game-like feedback systems (especially points and achievement badges) without bothering to perfect the core mechanics of satisfying gameplay. How exciting is it, really, to rack up Foursquare checkins before you actually get to be Mayor? Do the gamified features of any regular product come close to the thrill of playing Tetris? Where is the challenge or the strategy that makes using these gamified products intrinsically rewarding?

Google’s Senior Interaction Designer, Nadya Direkova, said it best at SxSW: “Gamification 1.0 was all about sugar.” Primitive virtual rewards and progress tracking systems (think of LinkedIn’s profile completion meter) exploit our need for visible, juicy feedback from the world around us, but on their own they don’t constitute very immersive games. The goal of Gamification 2.0, the game layer that Priebatsch expects to imprint upon the entire economy, is to employ other flavours besides “sugar” that will add up to a holistically satisfying gaming experience.

The first step in that process is in recognising that people are seldom motivated when they aren’t offered a suitable challenge. The widely cited research of Prof. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi strongly suggests that “flow“, a psychological sweet spot in which we feel fully motivated and alive, is most likely when we are pushed close to (but not beyond) our limits of skill and endurance. So give people something to work for, something they can become good at, and you will have a more engaging gamified product. (Interestingly, Csíkszentmihályi found an abundance of flow in people who played games and sports.)

Another overlooked truth is that games are inherently voluntary experiences. When they are inelegantly tacked on to other, more unavoidable realities like shopping or education, they may cease to feel like games and lose their effectiveness in producing motivation. Therefore, when gamifying an existing product or service, make the game layer opt-in rather than opt-out. You don’t want a situation where you can’t tell whether people are using your product in spite of its game elements or because of them.

Grand experiments are underway. I’ve written before about the work of Jane McGonigal, who has applied game design to everything from brain injuries to clean energy solutions. In New York, a new school called Quest To Learn is embedding game mechanics into every step of the education process. The rest of us might have simpler motives: to make a buck or two, or perhaps get people to spend more time with our products. That’s fine.

Remember this then, courtesy of philosopher Bernard Suits: “games are voluntary attempts to overcome unecessary obstacles”. The part that isn’t set in stone is having them affect (or enhance!) our experiences in real life. Finally, we’ve hit upon a crude formula for good gamification: interesting, challenging obstacles + the choice to particitate = game-like glee where you’d least expect it.

With all that surplus motivation and emotional investment at stake, it seems almost silly not to give it a bash.

For more insights and opinion, follow Niel Bekker on Twitter.

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