Fear: The Dark Side of Gamification

Head on over to www.gamification.co to read my post on the dark side of gamification! Thanks to Gabe Zicherman and Ivan Kuo for inviting me to submit!

New Book Out!!

Super excited to report that @krisrockwell & I co-penned a chapter in the much anticipated a new book!

New Traditional Games for Learning: A Case Book

Book Cover

This book is a collection of games for learning, not all of them digital! Edited by Alex Moseley & Nicola Whitton.

This book is finally out and available via Amazon!


Games For Change 2013 Conference Review

2013 was my second visit to the Games 4 Change (G4C) conference in New York City.  Last year I was so inspired by my trip that I decided to submit a proposal to present at this conference and was very very excited when it was accepted.  The G4C festival represents the Games for Change movement (see prior blog post on Games Movements) and is THE place for truly meaningful games.  This year’s conference was again inspiring.  I met amazing people working on amazing projects and was honored to be included in the speaker population.  The new venue provided some much needed room for a quickly growing conference, and was hands down the coolest place I’ve ever presented.
The highlight of this year for me was AMPLIFY project.  This project is dedicated towards Literacy and STEM learning outside of the classroom.  That’s right, casual games for learning.  I love it.  Not only were the games shown here clever and well put together, they were visually gorgeous.  The project brings together national and international game studios to build a variety of games.  My favorite games within this project include:
Lexica – a fantastical game designed to get students interested in literature by Schell Games (I don’t agree with their hiring process, but they did a great job on this game).
Storycards – a card game of authors and characters by Preloaded.
And SimCell – a game by Strange Loop that explores the cells of muscles
I met some really great people including people from the Latin America Games for Change initiative and many game developers who really care about the world!  You can check out some of the presentations (including mine I think…eeek….on You Tube!)  The Games 4 Change awards also showcased some really great efforts!  Check them out here http://www.gamesforchange.org/festival2013/games/

World Domination Summit 2013 Conference Review

This conference had me at hello.  I mean, who doesn’t want to become the supreme leader of the universe?  It seemed a little loose in terms of schedules and speakers, but I figured it was time to try something new.  Let me start by saying, I was lucky to score a ticket.  A friend had an extra and I bought it from them.  Tickets for the past two years have sold out in record times, so when I heard I might get in I jumped at it!  Let me also say, that while I wasn’t sure what to expect, I registered for next year’s conference at the event.  In a matter of two days I had already decided that I would be back.   This conference had nothing to do with games, but was one of the best conferences I’ve been to in a very long time.  (well, since PAX East in May).  The schedule was all best selling author’s talking primarily about entrepreneurship, and the afternoons were dominated by workshops and meetups.   I am usually that person that sits there and scoffs at the speaker, I’m a terrible attendee.  I never talk to the people next to me or participate in any of the dumb exercises.  At least I never had.  This conference was about trying new things.  And I did.  This conference was about finding the intersection between things you want to do and things people will pay you to do.  The stories were inspiring.  The following is almost cult like.  The giveaways were EPIC.  The registration cost was low.  If you can make this one, you must.  I would tell you more, but if I do, they will find me and ban me from attending again, and that risk is just not worth it.   www.worlddominationsummit.com




I love deconstructing and reviewing games.  This is definitely a game that I really loved!
I first downloaded this game to my iPad as part of an evaluation to be performed for the IITSEC Serious Games Showcase & Challenge.  I hadn’t heard of the game prior to then, but based on the title suspected Algebra was its targeted learning objective.  At first glance, I was impressed with the high quality look and feel of the game, something that is too often neglected in serious games.  I always appreciate gender neutrality in learning, and I thought this game did a great job of appealing to both boys and girls.  I was particularly interested by the ageless nature of the game.  Often games are designed for kids or adults, but this met all of my game expectations for either audience.

Within the first couple of levels, after following simple on screen instruction, I was playing successfully and making sure I got all of the possible stars for each level.  The levels were tiny, each representing a single event, and I was surprised at how quickly I reached the second chapter (excellent scaffolding).  At that point I had forgotten the intent of the game and realized that I didn’t quite understand where the algebra was. While it became more salient later in the game, my first impression wasn’t all that positive for this aspect.  The Algebra in the game is so abstracted initially that it doesn’t feel like you’re enduring math.  I played the game from beginning to end twice that first night (A first in my serious game evaluations).

By the end I was able to reference my understanding of Algebra and concluded this game as one of the best I’d seen in its class, but I did have a few lingering hesitations.  First, I was able to tie this into my mental framework of algebra and understand how the information being provided was valuable and relevant.  I wondered if a player without basic Algebra knowledge would finished the game thinking it was neat, but not understanding how it applied to real life?  Many of the reviews published of the game mentioned “Stealth learning”, a term that I find unappealing, but this game actually did do something that not many serious games do, it did actually teach.  Not just reinforce or supplement, but teach.

My second concern was related to the rigidity of the game in its solving of the problems.  There were certainly some things that one might do to tackle the problems that the game did not allow, but I later supposed this might be a feature that would not detriment early algebra learning where the steps are very prescriptive.  Finally, again I wasn’t sure that the transferability of the concepts being presented would be obvious to its targeted audience.  Whether or not the game was leveraged in a classroom, it would be interesting to find out if the learners were able to transfer the knowledge gained to real world problems.

That all being said, this is the most interesting functional decomposition of a subject area I have seen.  This is absolutely what I love about game design and why I think it has the ability to make substantial impacts in education.  The abstractions of Algebraic concepts in this game are not gratuitous, but instead embraced to create a motivating and engaging experience for its players.  I was fascinated by the use of cards, instead of tiles or buttons that could be used for the objects in the games, and would love to ask the developers if this was an artifact of early gameplay testing or if there was a way to integrate a physical set of cards into the learning strategy performed here.  I don’t high five, but I might … for this game.

Education VS Training

I wanted to write something short and sweet today, so I thought this would be a fun topic to tackle.  While this post is not related to games specifically, it is a question that has to be answered before really digging into to any education or training initiative.

One of the most common questions I am asked when presenting is the difference between education and training.  And the answer in my mind is very simple.  Sex.  Sex isn’t the answer to everything, so I relish the opportunity to use it as an example of something so unexpected.  Ask yourself this question:  Would you rather watch your 12 year old daughter/son (or 80 year old mother /father) take sex education or sex training?  See the difference now?  My work here is done.


Fine.  This is it.  I’m doing it.  I’m going to dedicate it to digital paper.  This blog post is going to focus on Games and Gamification.  This is particularly difficult for me, because there is so much misunderstanding about the difference between the two.

So lets get a few things straight first.  I come from a background in Modeling and Simulation (no, I’m not too short for that, thanks though mom).   That means, from my perspective every game is at its core, a simulation.  Every single game.  Tetris?  A simulation of box stacking.  Call of Duty?  A war simulation.  Sonic the Hedgehog?  A simulation of a land far far away where hedgehogs behave that way.  Real or imagined, they are all simulations.  They become games when game characteristics are added to them.  For example, take a simulation of the box stacking, as in Tetris.  Add in score, the ability to control the boxes by rotating and dropping them, color coding, previews of the next box coming, leaderboards, the ability to get rid of rows of boxes, and increasing speed and you get a game.  For Call of Duty, add in a rich story line, the ability to control a character, goals and “quests”, the ability to compete with others, great metrics and increasing complexity and you get a game.  These are the fundamentals that create a game.  They aren’t always the same.  They aren’t all fun.  But they have these two things in common, a simulation + game characteristics = game.

Then we have gamification.  Gamification is not a game.  It does not take something and make a game of it.  It is a motivational construct.  It motivates a behavior.  Judy Unrein reminded me that learning is not a behavior.  She couldn’t remember who to attribute that little gem to, but I think its an excellent point.  Therefore, gamification is adding a few very specific game characteristics such as points, badges, achievements, even story to a REAL WORLD task.  This is the key element.  Real World Task + selected characteristics (points, badges, achievements, leaderboards) = gamification.  Games are not “gamified” content.  If it’s a game, its not gamification.  Games do have the characteristics that gamification has.  But, they are not the same thing.

Examples of gamification include getting gold stars for doing your chores, getting badges like boy scouts for learning new skills, and hitting the high score on your sales charts at work.  These are not games.  They are gamification.  They are things that you are doing in the real world, but you are being rewarded for doing them.  Maybe you wouldn’t do these things if you didn’t get a reward.  Maybe you have to do them anyway.  Doesn’t matter.

So why the big hang up for me?  Because people are calling gamification implementations games.  And, quite honestly, they don’t work the same way, and they don’t have the same outcomes.  Basically, I don’t want games to get a bad rap because gamification fails.  The Gartner group reported in 2010 (I think) that in the next 5 years, organizations would spend 50 BILLION dollars on gamification implementations.  They reported in 2012-2013 (I think) that something like 80% of those implementations would fail.  I don’t want the good name of games, and the good work that games are doing to be lumped in with gamification constructs can’t do.

Ok, maybe that’s not it.  Buts its apples and oranges.  And the two should not be lumped together.  Additionally, the industry dictates its own categorizations.  The eLearning industry should not create its own terminology that doesn’t cross over.  We wouldn’t like it if another industry started calling eLearning something like webweblooloo would we?  Well, that’s how they feel about us calling anything games by the name gamification.  Let’s not make them call us webweblooloo professionals ok?

So, what are games good for?  Games are good for so many things!  But, of course, not everything.  When I work with an organization who is considering games, one of the first questions I ask is do you think your employees could benefit from practicing this skill?  If the answer is yes, then most likely you could benefit from a game.  A well-crafted carefully considered game that is.  Games are great for providing experiential learning, practice opportunities, reinforcement, problem solving, leadership training, and even teaching!

Gamification on the other hand is good for different kinds of things.  Gamification is great for brand loyalty, marketing, stickiness, and motivating a behavior.  Gamification is not good for training or learning.  I will say that again in case you glossed over it.  Gamification is NOT good for Training OR Learning.  Why?  Because learning and training are not behaviors.  Simple right?  Think about it this way.  You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink right?  Same with gamification and learning.  You can motivate someone to interact with your content, but you can’t make them learn it.  The content itself is what results in the learning.  Not the reason you’re taking it.  Additionally, when you motivate using a rewards based system you are eliciting a motivational construct called extrinsic motivation.

So, what does this mean?  There are two kinds of motivation within cognitive psychology, Extrinsic and Intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation has a focus on winning because you want the prize (even if its just a badge or recognition).  Intrinsic motivation has a focus on winning because you are the best at the task.  This means that when you are motivated by anything other than the desire to learn, you may not learn it.  Now this is tough when we are providing any kind of learning organizationally.  How much algebra did you really want to learn in school?  You were motivated to learn it because you wanted to get to the next grade, or you were avoiding the punishment of failing.  Basically all of our education came from an extrinsic motivation.  But, ask yourself, how much algebra did you learn?  I mean, really learn?  Just enough to pass the test?  Or did you learn enough to consider yourself good at it?  For me, it was the latter?  I was motivated to get a passing grade in the course, not to really understand algebra.  Mandatory training like information assurance and sexual harassment are much the same.  Sure, we want people to understand them, but, that’s not up to us entirely.  It’s up to how we create the climate to reward deeper understanding.

Crystal clear right?  Don’t worry, I still struggle with it.  Karl Kapp said it best when he said that we shouldn’t get into the business of counting the number of game characteristics that you have to add before something becomes a game vs. gamification.  I agree with his approach completely because to me there is practically no overlap.  I would love to hear your  thoughts on this, but in the meantime, let’s put together a few challenges to see if you can figure out if something is a game or if its gamification!!

Monopoly at McDonald’s

Games Czar says this is gamification.  This one is a particularly interesting one because monopoly is a game right?  Yes.  Yes it is.  Monopoly at McDonald’s however is not fully a game.  It’s a marketing strategy that rewards your purchase of items in large sizes in order to get pieces.  Now, what do you need those pieces for?  To win prizes.


Games Czar says this is a game.  Now, what is this game simulating?  What game characteristics have been added to this simulation?  Think very hard.  In the meantime, I will too.  I’ll have to get back to you on this one.

Horse.  Yes, as in basketball.

Games Czar says this is also gamification.  It is again the gamification of a game.  You are trying to make baskets in order to win, you are not playing basketball, which is a game.

Ticket to Ride

Games Czar says game.  You’re simulating building railroads, you’ve added in competition, challenge, randomness, characters, time, and score.


Games Czar says game.  You’re simulating being a band, you’ve added in competition, challenge, score, customization, quests, characters.

As you can see, nothing is cut and dry.  And sometimes gamification is added to an actual game.  And the real world situation in that case is playing the game.  Wild stuff right?

Top 10 Findings Reference List

#10 Wang, L. & Chen, M. (2012).  The effects of learning style and gender consciousness on novice’s learning from playing educational games.  Knowledge Management & E-Learning: An International Journal, 4(1), 63-77.

#9 Ventura, M., Shute, V., & Zhao, W. (2012).  The Relationship Between Video Game use and a Performance Based Measure of Persistence.  Computers in Education, (60)52-58.

#8 Gonzalez, C.; Saner, L. D.; & Eisenberg, L. Z. (2012).  Learning to Stand in the Other’s Shoes:  A computer video game experience of the Israeli-Palenstinian conflict.  Social Science Computer View, Sage Publications.

#7 Panoutsoploulos, H. & Sampson, D. G. (2012).  A Study on Exploiting Commercial Digital Games into School Context.  Educational Technology & Society, 15(1), 15-27.

#6 Green, C. S.; Sugarman, M. A.; Medford, K.; Klobusicky, E.; & Bavelier, D. (2012).  The Effect of Action Video Game Experience on Task-Switching.   Computers in Human Behavior, (28) 984-994.

#5 Chen, Z.; Liao, C. C. Y.; Cheng, H. N. H.; Yeh, C. Y. C.; & Chan, T. (2012).  Influences of Game Quests on Pupils’ Enjoyment and Goal-Pursuing in Math Learning.  Educational Technology & Society, 15(2), 317-327.

#4 Smith, P. A. (2012).  Cooperative Vs Competitive Goal Structures in Learning Games.  A Dissertation submitted to the University of Central Florida.

#3 Sharek, D. J. (2012).  Investigating Real-Time Predictors of Engagement:  Implications for Adaptive Video Games and Online Training.  A Dissertation submitted to North Carolina State University.

#2 Thom, J.; Miller, D. R.; DiMicco, J. (2012).  Removing gamification from an enterprise SNS.  Proceedings ACM Conference on Computers Supporting Collaborative Work.

#1 Andersen, E.; O’Rourke, E.; Liu, Y.; Snider, R.; Lowdermilk, J.: truong, D.; Cooper, S.; & Popovic, Z. (2012).  The Impact of Tutorials on Games of Varying Complexity.  Paper presented at CHI’12, Austin, TX.

Top 10 Research Findings 2012 #1

This is the last post of this series!

#1 The impact of tutorials on games of varying complexity

This study takes a look at another important component of games, the tutorial.  When designing a game, we always must decide how we will teach our users how to play the game itself.  And most good, high quality games do an excellent job at scaffolding the game play learning into the beginning levels of the game in order to allow a player to demonstrate proficiency with the game itself prior to increasing difficulty of the concepts or tasks within the game.  This study can help inform us on games that are not super high quality Call of Duty type games, since we are unlikely to have that kind of budget available to us.


This study leveraged three games: Refraction, Hello Worlds & Foldit.  While refraction and hello worlds are very simple puzzle games, Foldit is quite complex and is an excellent example of games used for real work science tasks  (www.fold.it).  The researchers in this study hypothesized that the inclusion of a tutorial would exhibit better player engagement and retention, that tutorial that present instructions in context would be more effective, and that tutorials that force a player to complete them would improve engagement and retention.

This study leveraged 8 types of tutorials.  The most relevant types of tutorials will be discussed here.  The first type was on demand tutorial information that the player could access if necessary.  The second type provided tutorial content within the context of the game.  The final type restricted the player from moving forward prior to its full completion.


The findings of the study indicated that only the most complex game (foldit) justified the inclusion of a tutorial.  It was suggested that this might be due to the two simpler games possessing mechanics that might be easily discovered through experimentation.  The contextually sensitive tutorial did improve player engagement in Foldit (the only game that justified a tutorial’s presence), indicating that players with the contextually sensitive tutorial played 40% more levels and played 16% longer.  The third type of tutorial, forced, did not affect player behavior in any way.  The first type of a tutorial, the on demand tutorial actually seemed to have a negative impact on engagement in Refraction (although only 31% used it) but increased engagement a small amount in Hello Worlds.

In common words, the use of a tutorial and what type of tutorial is used can impact user engagement!  Specifically, using any type of tutorial in a simple game in which the game mechanic might be uncovered easily through gameplay might have a negative impact.  The use of tutorials in complex games was beneficial, with the tutorial with contextual cues being the most beneficial and leading to more play and increased time of play.

Andersen, E.; O’Rourke, E.; Liu, Y.; Snider, R.; Lowdermilk, J.: truong, D.; Cooper, S.; & Popovic, Z. (2012).  The Impact of Tutorials on Games of Varying Complexity.  Paper presented at CHI’12, Austin, TX.

Top 10 Research Findings 2012 # 2

This is a series now…practically an institution!

#2 Removing Gamification from an Enterprise SNS

I still haven’t found the real strength to write a post on Gamification.  It is coming, soon.  Until then, you’re just going to have to take this information for what it’s worth.  This study reviews the implementation and focuses on the subsequent removal of a gamification construct from an organizations Social Networking Site (SNS).  The study was conducted at a large technology based organization (something like Oracle).  Within that organization, a SNS already existed (something like sharepoint).

The researchers and the organization implemented a gamification construct that awarded points and badges within the SNS to approximately ½ of the employees.  The other half of the employees interacted with the SNS without the gamification construct.  The gamification construct was designed in increase interaction with the site.  As such, the gamification awarded behaviors such as creating new posts, uploading pictures, commenting on posts, and commenting on pictures by awarding points. 

Badges were awarded based on accumulated points and were displayed on the user’s profile page.  A leaderboard of points accumulated was also implemented.  The study was phased, with the first phase of the study lasting 6 months.  During the first phase, in which ½ of the organization interacted with the gamified SNS, the ½ that did not have the gamification construct was unaware of its existence. 

During the second phase, everyone in the organization received the gamified version of the SNS.  The third phase started 4 months later and involved the complete removal of the gamification from all emplyees.

The results of this study were really interesting.  First, the gamification construct did significantly increase content contribution to the SNS site when introduced to each group, but that increase decayed over time.  Second, new users who could earn points did add more content over the short and long term, but the proportion of new users who contributed was the same for the gamification vs non gamification site users.  Third, there were two main types of comments observed:  terse and target of interest comments.  After the gamification construct was removed, the prevalence of terse comments subsided.  Finally, the removal of the gamification construct significantly impacted the contribution of data.

Now let’s break those results down.  Once it was introduced, the number of interactions with the site went up.  Essentially, the gamification construct was successful.  The organization designed it to increase interactions and it did that!  The increases in interaction decayed over time.  This is not surprising, the novelty of the points eventually wore off.   The design clearly did not focus on sustainability, and if it did, it failed in that aspect.

So the gamification was a success.  But…and there is a large but here, the increase in interactions was primarily in the terse comments section.  Terse comments were things like Hi, Cool, or Awesome.  Meaning the gamification did not increase significant or meaningful comments.  Since the gamification was not designed to do this, that is also not surprising.  The real surprise comes in the information about new users.  Between the two groups in phase one (gamified and non gamified) the users who interacted with the gamified site did interact more than those without the gamified site in the long and short term.  The proportion of new users, however, who contributed at all was not different between the sites.  Essentially, for those who were motivated by the gamification, they used it more often.  Those who were not motivated by the gamification did not. 

This draws an interesting implication for gamification and any game used organizationally.  Not everyone is going to be into it.  The real trick is finding something that most people will be into, and figuring out how to design it in a way that really targets the behaviors you want to see.  The goalposts have to be in sight the whole time.  If you want meaningful interactions, design it to motivate meaningful interactions.  If you want volume, design for volume.  Do Not jump the logic train and assume that all interaction is good interaction.  You have to be specific.  Very very specific.

Thom, J.; Miller, D. R.; DiMicco, J. (2012).  Removing gamification from an enterprise SNS.  Proceedings ACM Conference on Computers Supporting Collaborative Work.