24 Feb

Games versus Gamification in the Design of Systems for Social or Civic Action

In designing a game to address social or civic problems, there are always two parallel or conflicting goals: the goal of the game and the civic goal. The goal of the game is the prelusory goal, it exists within the game itself. The civic goal is what might be called extralusory, it exists outside of the game, although it often provides motivation or context for playing. For example, in a game like Spent, the goal to learn about poverty and personal budgeting is extralusory – it might be a reason to play the game, and it might motivate the player throughout the game, but it is not the goal a player has within the game. And there is typically further nuance where there is a distinction between the goal of the sponsoring organization or group (i.e. to fight poverty) and the goal of an individual player (i.e. to learn about poverty).  The challenge for the game designer, then, is to connect the multiple facets of the extralusor goals(s) with the prelusory goal.

This is what makes game design different from other sorts of design. In designing a non-game web platform, the designer would want to create parity between the goals of the system and the goals of the user. A website about poverty reduction would be designed around the user’s motivation to learn more about poverty reduction.  But in a game, where the act of playing necessitates a set of rules set apart from the rules of everyday life, the player behaves very different than the user. The player wants to play a game, regardless if she comes to it on her own or a teacher tells her to do it, she is motivated by the act of playing within a system. Consider Spent again. It has an extralusory goal of fighting poverty, but the player enters into the game with the prelusory goal of balancing her budget for as long as possible. She may not consider the extralusory goals when setting out to play the game; in fact, it’s probably best for the experience of gameplay that she doesn’t. And herein lies the challenge of designing games for social impact—finding the points of convergence between the lusory and extralusory. The game has social impact only when the player makes a conscious or unconscious connection between the two, without sacrificing the integrity of the game.

Too often, organizations seeking to “use” games resort to “gamification” as a means of motivating very specific, and predefined behaviors, where game mechanics (points, badges, etc.) are integrated into a system to encourage and reward certain behaviors. To gamify a system is to invite users into a system because of their extralusory goals, while using lusory goals as a means of encouraging the extralusory. The goal of a system for the user might be to “fight poverty,” but it is not to play the game—the user is given game-like rewards to motivate out-of-game behavior. While gamified systems have demonstrated effectiveness in generating more predefined actions—they can make people check in to places on Foursquare or accomplish basic tasks at work through Badgeville—absent play, they do little to motivate the unexpected or to inspire a rethinking of values or social context. A game, on the other hand, is meant to reshape expectations of values or social context. Games that encourage players to play the game while contextualizing play within a larger system, are not simply seeking to amplify predetermined behaviors, they are augmenting those behaviors through play.

In short, a game is not a series of mechanics within a fortified system; it is a system that is fundamentally and necessarily playable.

31 May

Goals of Play

Over the last year, we have discovered quite a lot about play. In our Community PlanIt research, in particular, we have seen that the simple framing of an “official process” as a game provides players with the permission to play. This permission alleviates the pressures of participation by diversifying the paths one takes to express themselves. Instead of just answering a question in an online poll that would serve as an official record of opinion, Community PlanIt, even though it also serves as an official record, gives players room to experiment with ideas and room to fail safely.

I have assumed for some time that the permission to play works pretty much the same way for players, regardless of who they are. But now I am fairly certain this assumption is wrong. When children play games, there is often something very different at stake. The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim urges us to remember  “that for a child, a game is not “just a game” that he plays for the fun of it, or a distraction from more serious matters. For him, playing a game can be, and more often than not is, a serious undertaking: on its outcome rest his feelings of self-esteem and competence. To put it in adult terms, playing a game is a child’s true reality; this takes it far beyond the boundaries of its meaning for adults. Losing is not just a part of playing the game, as it is for adults (at least most of the time), but something that puts the child’s sense of his own competence in question and often undermines it.”

Now think of a game like Community PlanIt. It is a game that mediates a local planning process. There is something very real at stake for adults – the city plan or official record. What is intriguing about Bettleheim’s proposition, is that maybe those real world outcomes that motivate adult players are not the same real world outcomes that motivate youth players. We have seen in interviews with youth players that they are for more motivated by the mechanics of the game, not because they choose to focus on things that don’t matter, but because they choose to focus on things that can matter. Winning the game provides a sense of purpose that it might not for adults.

At the Engagement Game Lab, we talk a lot about intergenerational collaboration – but I think we’ve misunderstood the stakes. Adults play the game to see change in their community; youth play the game to master a system, to play at expertise where they are in other areas of their life, denied entry. Performance in the game is attached to this, not (at least at first) the external goal of civic participation. So, the goals of the game are the same for everyone, but the goals of play are different for youth and adults.

This is an area that I am quite excited to explore in more depth. How can we design a game where we anticipate divergent goals of play within the same game? Can we use these contrasting motivations to motivate the other group? Can we raise the stakes of play for adult players and can we raise the stakes of civic outcomes for youth players?

09 Aug

Experience is Trying

In thinking about the game design work we are doing, I have previously made the distinction between participation and engagement.  Loosely, I have defined engagement as sustained attention to a driver of participation.  And I have made the argument that engagement is a more desirous design goal as it is potentially more sustainable, whereas participation is, by definition, fleeting.

In reading John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, I have found some support for the idea that what I am calling engagement is intimately tied to experience.  Dewey says experience includes an active and passive element.

On the active hand, experience is trying – a meaning which is made explicit in the connected term experiment. On the passive, it is undergoing.  When we experience something, we act upon it, we do something with it; then we suffer or undergo the consequences.  We do something to the thing and then it does something to us in return…mere activity does not constitute experience (139).

This distinction between activity and experience is similar to the distinction between participation and engagement.  Experience requires the person experiencing to be able to reflect upon the connection between the activity and the the results.

It is not experience when a child merely sticks his fingers into a flame; it is experience when the movement is connected with the pain which he undergoes in consequence (140).

Dewey is saying that experience is connected to meaning, and short of that it is not experience.  This is precisely the same problem in the civic media space.  Getting people to do something is too often seen as good enough.  When in fact, the goal needs to be forging connections between doing stuff and the consequences of doing stuff.  An app that gets people to click on a link is not in itself constructive of learning.  Learning happens when the user is given the opportunity to reflect upon that clicking.

Ultimately, Dewey argues that an educational system focused on mere activity is one that simply reinforces its existing biases and is incapable of true democracy.  He argues that learning is experiencing.  The same is true in the civic space: technologies should be built around experience, not activity.  This is the best way to engage the public.


30 Aug

More Thoughts on Net-Locality

Allen Smith, who works for WHERE, contacted me about my last post with an interesting corrective:

“I always thought about recent phone technology as allowing the
internet to come out into the world and overlay it with information, I
never thought of it the other way around, “extending the idea and
functionality of location into the network.”

I agree that “net-locality” is about the internet coming out into the world; however, it is equally true that social norms and meanings of physical location are constructing the norms and meanings of networked interaction. In other words, people are compelled to use the tools to assist with the sorts of social interactions they would like to experience in physical space – sharing ideas, sharing places, making plans, and benefitting from the wisdom (or madness) of the crowd. Perhaps it’s like the difference between a manual and electric screwdriver – each can get the job done, but one can do it more efficiently. Net-locality, in some respects, is more efficient location.

My question for Allen, and my question in general is: what’s the relationship between face-to-screen and face-to-face?

If, in fact, net-locality is about more efficient location, how can we keep the technology from displacing us from location? Manuel Castells predicted that the space of flows was to overtake the space of places. But I’m convinced that the space of places continues to influence the meaning of social life – as an idea in the network as much as a physical location. But how is this engineered? It gets back to the above question: if we’re really interested in enhancing human connections and place identification through computer augmentation, how do we negotiate the user’s focus? How do we use the technology to build meaningful places and relationships, and not just meaningful networks?

29 Aug

Location widgets

Location is the next frontier in computing. The company uLocate has announced a competition for developers to make location-based widgets. uLocate’s new location-widget feature, called simply Where, is essentially a collection of little programs that mash-up data from the Internet with a user’s location. And this competition is intended to facilitate the rapid expansion of these widgets within the Where platform. But, what’s the point of these applications besides being clever or cute? What is the social function of location? In other words, what’s the life of these applications in the larger context of mobile computing. Is location truly the holy grail?


Location aware software is net-locality. It is extending the idea and functionality of location into the network. Net-locality can either serve to colonize places into systems (in Habermasian terms), or invigorate places through communication. It depends on context. What is intriguing about the commercial fervor over mobile computing is that the result of net-locality is not considered. The goal is to locate. But the reason for locating is neither here nor there.

Constant access to information is convenient and potentially useful, but when we consider mobile computing, we have to consider how that computation enters into the existing practices of space. For instance, how are people using phones to gather information when in public spaces? Are they looking down and disengaging from their surroundings or are they integrating the tool into the environment? In short, does net-locality hinder engagement with location? If the answer to this question is yes, how can we design spaces or tools that might minimize that result?

There is another interesting tension that I’ve yet to fully explore – and that’s the distinction between business rhetoric and user rhetoric. On one hand, computing has gone mobile. On the other, mobility has extended the functionality of computing. There is a distinction here that I will tease out in future posts. But for now, suffice it to say that location is a product – and it is being heavily marketed to unsuspecting consumers.

25 Jul


Second Life Emerson islandDespite the fact that the Boston Globe has declared that the city has plans for a full virtual conversion in Second Life, the truth of the matter is its goals are much more modest. Together with my colleage Gene Koo, we are offering two courses at Emerson College with the goal of guiding students and members of the community in the creative re-imagination of the city’s neighborhoods and spaces (using Second Life). From the very beginning of this project, our intention has been to use Second Life as a means of fostering real life civic engagement. We wanted to come up with a methodology that would allow individuals and groups to learn about their everyday spaces from the process of building and inhabiting the virtual environment.

We are calling this the IDEA method. The acronym stands for Imagine, Design, Engage and Activate. The strategy is simple: groups assemble to collectively imagine a particular space, they then design the “virtual equivalent” of that space in Second Life, they then test the space by inviting people to engage it, and finally, they activate that space by figuring out how it translates into real space. This process will unfold over the course of the semester.

We have every expectation that the IDEA method is scalable. During summer 2008, we plan to extend this program to Boston youth. But we understand it as having applications well beyond a single class. We hope that the method can be used by social, planning, neighborhood, or civic organizations who want to engage citizens in decision making beyond the standard yes/no template.

Thus far, we have received very positive feedback on the program. We are still waiting to obtain our first committed funder, and until then, we are riding on the fumes of moral support.

11 Jul

Beyond Play

I just finished reading Thomas Malaby’s essay, “Beyond Play: a New Approach to Games” from Games and Culture  (vol. 2, no. 2, April 2007).  It’s a very insightful essay about the relationship between game, play and everyday life. He makes the following claim:

“A game is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes.”

This proposition is intentionally broad, rescuing games from the widely held position that they are a separate social activity. Indeed, games are any part of life that fits the above definition. Semibounded – meaning there is some structuration, but not in such a way that they everyday life becomes irrelevant. Socially legitimate – they are not outside of “serious” culture. And the notion of contrived contingency is of the utmost importance. Contingency means that games offer an experience of what might not have been. This, he argues, is fundamental to the game experience. As games are structured by rules, that contingency, that unique experience, is always contrived. Finally, he makes the point that games have interpretable outcomes. Even if there is no winning or losing, the experience of the game can be understood through some form of reflective process.

In general, this article supplies a fantastic overview of gaming literature and makes a convincing argument that games are an increasingly important category of social experience.