Monday, February 18, 2013

What Games Aren't

Gamification is definitely one of the more polarizing topics to bring up in instructional design communities these days. That said, let's put the whole "is gamification bad or good" discussion on the backburner for now and acknowledge the fact that, regardless of how any of us feel one way or the other, gamification projects are definitely happening. Unfortunately many of these projects are being proposed by people who don't understand games in the first place.

I've been a gamer longer than I've been an educator, so I admittedly have more than a bit of emotional investment in wanting people to see the value that games have beyond "for funsies". I think that's why I get so frustrated when I see people and companies trot out gamified learning that clearly has made some bizarre and inaccurate assumptions about games in general.

So, from this gamer to non-gamers everywhere, here are two assumptions about games that I'd LOVE people in our industry to stop making.

1) Learning content + a game-like setup = better learning

Shoving the facts you want learners to know into a game doesn't always lead to good bang for your buck. Just ask anyone who grew up in the 80s. We were subjected to a major wave of educational games, many of which weren't particularly effective. Sure, we have fond memories of titles like The Oregon Trail and Sim City, but for all the endless hours of play time we put into these games I think it's safe to say we didn't actually learn much from them.

The intent was good: create engaging games that will also pass on knowledge to the player. Unfortunately, most of what kids learned from these games was simplistic surface information. I mean, seriously, no matter how long you play The Oregon Trail the most you're going to get out of it is that inventory control is important and dysentery is bad. That's not a lot of learning considering the average amount of time a player spent with the game.

Modern gamification sometimes suffers from this problem as well. The group working on the project is so excited about the idea of a gamified system that they don't realize how little their game is actually teaching. Just because something has been turned into a game, doesn't mean that it's actually going to impact the learner much.

2) All games are fun

Games are fun, that's why gamification keeps learner interest, right?

Um... no. Some games (depending on your standards, MANY games) are unbearable, unenjoyable pieces of junk.

Non-gamers typically only have exposure to successful games. You know, things like World of Warcraft, Halo, Angry Birds, or Super Mario. They rarely have much experience with the real gamer experience: wading through a myriad of shoddy, half-baked games in order to find titles that are actually worth your time. Some of these are legitimate efforts to make something great that just didn't turn out as planned, some are cheap efforts to cash in on a trend or licensing tie-in, but regardless of intent, many are just plain not fun at all.

For a great example, check out the 1982 Atari game E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a title notoriously considered the worst videogame of all time. This cheap attempt to take advantage of the popularity of the movie lead to a game that's by all accounts tedious and incoherent. Here, see for yourself:

Google "worst videogames" and you'll get list after list of games this bad. Clearly the mere act of using game elements does not, in fact, lead to an enjoyable experience. But, unfortunately, there are way too many people making gamified systems who don't understand this simple fact.

So if you or someone you work with has been asked to create a gamified system make sure you start off with the following:

  • Involve someone who already "gets" gaming.
  • Try playing games yourself and get a feel for the experience. Play both excellent games AND terrible ones so you can learn the difference.
  • Continually check that the gamified system you're designing is actually teaching something both meaningful and worth the investment of player time.
But before you do any of this, really ask yourself if a gamified system is actually the right tool for the job. It's surprising how often it actually isn't.

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