What is "playing"?

In between work on some more serious posts (not to mention the day job), let me post a brief comment on Margaret Robertson's article on gamification, "Can't play, won't play". It was written a year ago, so I'm not expecting to provoke an intense debate, but the same argument could easily be made today and it's worth responding to.

In short, Margaret claims:
gamification isn’t gamification at all. What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience. Points and badges have no closer a relationship to games than they do to websites and fitness apps and loyalty cards.
Her preferred vision of games is:
Games manage to produce [rich cognitive, emotional and social] drivers by being complex, responsive mechanisms. Games set their players goals and then make attaining those goals interestingly hard.
My involvement and interest in games is much shallower than Margaret's. She's a leading game designer and spends (I imagine) much of her life either playing or creating games. My interest in games is a psychological one - for me, they are a simplified, purified version of the motivations that drive us in real life. They provide a simple domain in which we can either examine, or manipulate and take advantage of, those motivations.

Undoubtedly Margaret, and the millions of other people who have a sophisticated and detailed experience of many different games, would be unsatisfied with the simple games that might keep me happy. Similarly, a novel which entertains an occasional reader may not provide meaning or interest to a literature graduate. But it doesn't mean it isn't a novel.

Margaret doesn't agree. She says:
...there is no way, not one single way, in which [Nike+] is a game.
Her distinction is between "gamification" (creating meaningful choices, which change the way you experience the game or the world) and "pointsification" (adding quantitative measures which simply count up your achievements). But I don't see why this is a category distinction - rather, it is a matter of degree. There are simple games - like Nike+, which helps you measure your progress as you run further and faster each day - and complex, subtle games like, I don't know, Portal or World of Warcraft. They can both provide meaning if the player invests it into them; or they can both be mechanistic, boring processes if you're not engaged.

Perhaps Margaret sees no meaning in the distinction between running 1k and running 5k in Nike+ - but I certainly did, when I "played" it. I was pretty damn proud to get through the 3k and 5k barriers, having started running for the first time a couple of weeks before - and the transformational experience when I first realised I was not forcing my legs to move, but was enjoying running for its own sake, was packed full of genuine meaning. And it would not have happened without Nike+.

So, no doubt advanced gamers have higher standards. They are no longer satisfied with what entertains us neophytes, and they need more advanced games to engage them and provide meaning. But this doesn't mean the games that entertain me aren't still games. My simple points-based achievements fulfil the same psychological role for me as those meaning-laden choices and consequences do for an experienced game consumer. There are degrees of meaning.

I suspect it's easy for an advanced consumer of any art form to forget the simple pleasures that inexperienced consumers get. Once you've seen The Wire it's easy to dismiss Cagney & Lacey. When you learn the subtleties of Beethoven you may not think the Spice Girls are real music any more. If you have translated Beowulf into modern English, the crudeness of Dan Brown is ruthlessly exposed. But the commuter who enjoys Dan Brown on the tube will be left equally cold by Beowulf, until they've learned how to appreciate it.

Games are no different. Until you've invested enough playtime to become familiar with the distinctions offered by the subtler choices and more complex consequences of Minecraft or Skyrim, points, levels and badges still provide a sense of achievement and, yes, meaning, that can be psychologically very powerful.


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