How points can miss the point - thoughts on gamification

I like games. I like work.

But I'm bothered by "gamification" - the trend of using game design methods to encourage specific behavior in non-game situations, like the work environment. Usually this involves the use of points, badges, levels, and other feedback mechanisms. Often there is an element of competition involved.

Since I enjoy both games and work, one might think I'd be a fan of bringing the two closer together. Actually, I find the idea fundamentally problematic and prone to misuse. If I worked like I play games, or cared about work like I care about games, I would have been fired many times over by now.

What are we missing when we advocate gamification systems focused on points and badges? It might be a misunderstanding of games, or perhaps a narrow focus on a particular type of game or on a specific type of mechanic employed in games. Sure, the collection of points and levels can be enjoyable in games, but points aren't the intrinsic reason people play games. Points, in games and in gamification, are extrinsic motivators that can provide a temporary motivation boost or a  framework for a more intrinsic motivation, but which don't in themselves drive long-term engagement.

For every good game, I can show you something besides points that is the real reason I'm interested in that game. These reasons will be things like beauty, risk, competition, empathy, cooperation, excitement, mastery, surprise, uncertainty, approbation, story, joy, exercise, fear, relaxation, zoning out, maybe even friendship.

Sometimes points will enable one of these intrinsic motivators, but intrinsic motivators more often manifest in other ways and points are either absent or irrelevant. Points can even be counterproductive when deep intrinsic motivators like beauty, joy, mastery, empathy, cooperation, and friendship are in play.

Let's take an example. A game I've never played (it's PS3-only), but which crystalized some of these thoughts for me: Journey.

I've heard Journey spoken of as a unique game that emerged out of a unique development philosophy. In addition to wishing to tell a beautiful and haunting story, Journey attempts to create an anonymous social environment where interactions are overwhelmingly positive. In order to accomplish this, modes of interaction are severely curtailed. Players can make a single social gesture: a sort of "song" where the character's avatar hums a player-specific musical note and displays a glowing glyph over its head. Players can't interfere with each other (except to "recharge" each others' jump ability) and cannot communicate using language expect what it is possible to sing using these monosyllabic expressions.
Here is a video of some Journey game-play with a half-silly, half-serious running commentary. Watch a little.

I'd like to draw your attention to just before 10:00 in this video, as the avatar is skiing down a slope and the short monologue by the caster after this. Then keep watching for another minute to see him meet up with another player. To paraphrase, this is a game that gets you to want to explore using story, beauty, and curiosity. There are no points. There is only "I wonder if ...", "What happens next?", and "Wow". The only thing approximating leveling is the fact that the character gains an enhanced ability to jump and "sing" as the game goes on, but in the context of this game it appears to be more of a plot device than a leveling system. And yet, the player wants to go on, wants to explore and find out more about the story, and (most surprisingly perhaps) loves to interact with others in the world and considers them to be friends.

Journey uses beauty, story, curiosity, serendipity, cooperation, and friendship to make the game interesting, re-playable, and emotional. And it obviously succeeds. For me it's surprisingly riveting to simply watch someone else play the game. (If you want to know more, the first video in the series is here, and here is a review that mostly relates the experience of watching others play the game including a touching anecdote.) You don't get this kind of experience and meaning using only points.

The best games, like Journey, are games that aspire to be more than games. These games embody stories, art, community, cooperation, competition, opportunities for mastery, or all of these things. Yet, even these exceptional games don't capture our imaginations for all that long.

So what do we take from this? Mostly a lot of questions. Points systems are certainly useful in some situations, especially when used to structure competition. But I wonder if the overwhelming place of points in the gamification discussion belies something fundamental missing from the work environments we are trying to fix using gamification techniques. When we use points, levels, and badges to motivate, does that indicate a lack of intrinsic motivation in the environment? Are gamification systems acting as amplifiers of the meaning of our work, or are they attempting to impose an artificial rewards system that is at odds with the meaning of our work? If work is meaningful, wouldn't it be best to directly communicate that meaning to workers rather than filtering it through a metaphor of points and levels? If work isn't meaningful, or if the meaning of our work is negative or morally questionable, then why do we glorify the tools used to trick people into working on these things?

Shouldn't gamification be about the question of how, in our work environments, we communicate the meaning of our work? How do we provide opportunities for mastery, joy, beauty, and positive social interaction in the workplace and in our lives? Those, and other positive intrinsic motivators, are the goals. Points are, at best, a means to these ends.