Definitions: Gamification vs. Motivational Design vs. ... Play?

10:16:00 AM

To be sure, Jesse Schell has become a hero to me, and I'm not one prone to having heroes at all. And, the profound admiration for his work and his public speaking was born not via his landmark 2010 D.I.C.E. Summit talk. I hadn't even heard of it or of him when I cued up the next episode in a podcast I had already been listening to avidly: S.A.L.T. (Seminars in Long Term Thinking produced by Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation). The episode Schell delivered was dubbed, Visions of the Gamepocolypse, and I've been a fan of his ever since.

Based on the introductary remarks, this lecture was to be the full exposition of the insights Schell only introduced in the one delivered to the D.I.C.E. audience. Over the course of the hour-long podcast, he revealed with remakable clarity what he dubbed "The Gamepocolypse," but beyond his bullet points of sensors, devices, and all the hardware advancements and Web ecosystems that would permit the end of the world as-we-know-it through gamification, two of his talking points made a lasting impression on me.

The first of these was somewhat ego-serving; he couched the beginning of his lecture on the presumption that if you pay attention, it is truly possible to forcast the future or at least have a really good guess at possible ones. It's not only a presumption I agree with as the title of this blog can testify to, but also it's likely the statement that rendered him, there on the spot, a hero to me rather than another thought-provoking listen on a podcast I had already come to love.

The other thing that, literally, put goose pimples on my forearms was his classification of the competing factions in this Gamepocalypse. He classifies them as such:
The Pursuaders:
"All these guys care about is making money ... They want to get the money and get out."
 The Artists:
"They want to advance their medium. They wanna get something new out there ... for its own sake."
 The Humanitarians"They want to make things that will make people's life better ... To help us improve metally, physically, spiritually."
 The Fullfillers:
"These peoples want to fulfill peoples wishes, their dreams, desires, and hope."
About a month and a half later, a Google Alert I had put on Schell delivered to me another one of his speaking engagements, and yet again he closed this talk (which was on different topic altogether) with the same formulation: the artists, the humanitarians, the persuaders and the fulfullers.

This verified to that it was an important point in Schell's ideas, and it is. What to make of this, my meditations on gamification have yet to yeild a practical application for it, other than knowing it could potentially be the framework on which to base a business model for the capitalization of a Transmedia production.

Now, yesterday morning, I got around to watching a taped interview he gave while participating in the For the Win symposium which convened on Aug. 8 of this year. Perhaps it was the nature of the symposium, or that the conference room in which it was filmed was too drab in decor and conducted by an uninspired interviewer, but, for once, a wedge appeared in Schell's rhetoric that I, humbly, think aught to be addressed.

Also, to be fair, after watching the opening debate of that same symposium, I suspect that the event was rather stifling. In my imagination, and had I been in Jesse Schell's shoes at the time, I likely would have had my hand curled into "the bird" underneath the table while doing this interview. So, though I have my personal critique of this particular interview, I suspect that Schell had more things on his mind at the time than to be careful with his rhetoric. Regardless, his statements were thought provoking and merit a more thorough examination.



To a large extant, the interview questions and answers revolved around the topic-kernel of what is or what do we really call this "gamification" thing. At the 8:30 mark (the in-a-nutshell moment) Schell states:
"I think what people are really trying to talk about is the notion of motivational design, even though they don't always use those phrases. When I press people about it, it really is what they're talking about. They're talking about 'How can I create a system where you care; you actually care more about completing certain tasks within the system whether that system be trying to get you to fill out forms about car insurance, or trying to care about your own education, or an excercise program ... is it possible for me to create a system so that you care."
Personally I think that kind of recasting of gamification into "motivational design" has value from the standpoint of "The Pursuaders." That is not only the language Schell's persuaders use to talk to each other, but it is, in fact, what they're out to do - to make the banalities of things like insurance forms something we care about just as much as they do. Their job and their industry depends on us caring about their needs.

But, for anyone who has lived in New York City for any stretch of time knows first-hand is that the amount of caring anyone can sustain for anything that is constant and unrelenting (I'm thinking about the daily, almost hourly, solicitations by vagrants, alcoholics, self-anointed messengers of The Lord, and troupes of Mariachi bands dressed up as vaqueros) drops to nil just before it goes straight into outright contempt for even the suggestion of yet another "entertaining" performance.


Incidentally, as of late the Mariachi's have done a bit of their own "Motivational Design" to their act. Now they're being accompanied by what we hope is truly their wife and infant child and not their sweet cousin from down the block for whom they'll cut a piece of the pie in what she manages to score in the collections basket while they're are freed up to pump their accordion to La Bamba, again.


I think we will care the first or second time, but soon we will learn to resent the design of their act for the bad faith it uses in appealing to our treasured sincerity in a motivation that most healthy adults carry: to try our best to lend hand to the sick, suffering and those in a state of lack.


Again, to be fair, I believe that a better venue than this recorded interview - one that would permit Schell a full treatment to the question of what "gamification" is - would yield that his views are much more comprehensive and thorough than this nine-minute clip taken alone would suggest. Regardless, for just this, particular clip, I would have to say that gamification is not mere motivational design. It is that, but only amidst the persuaders.


In the middle section of this clip, Schell takes the tack that motivation is a well understood discipline whereas human pleasure remains a mystery even to those whose science aught to have a ready answer: the academic psychologists. I think at the end of the day, psychology will play a strong role in understanding pleasure, but so too will biology. But when it comes to gamification per se, and how it unites motivation and pleasure, there is already a thriving science and discipline to understand how it does so.


Specifically, I invoke the emerging sub-discipline of the social sciences dubbed ludology (the study play in human beings and in groups of people). Already the research has made thorough investigations of gaming cultures and the research has measurable dynamics of game systems such as MMORPG's, Fantasy Table-top role playing games, and game play as a whole1.


Once one starts surveying the essays, the studies and the literature that the science of ludology has already produced, it becomes clear that the artists, the humanitarians and the fulfillers should not only be invited to sit at the round conference table occupied by the pursuaders, but are, in fact, required to be there; to contribute to the discourse of gamification if the whole project has any hope of staving off the contempt that has descended on Facebook and the like. That is, if we, the general public (the users), are going to care about games, and that this caring is going to be a sustained one rather than subject to the tapering off that Schell describes in this clip, then Gamification ≠ Motivational Design. Gamification = Play.


And, if there is going to be a good discussion at this round conference table on how to package, produce and deliver play for a profit, (and why we will all ultimately care about it) then let's, at least, give an honorable mention to one of the foundational texts to the study of Ludology: Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture.


I've taken the liberty of posting at the end of this argument the first eleven pages of this book graciously made available for preview on Google Books. But, to summarize the essence of the entire opening chapter, Huizinga makes the following points:

  1. Play is significant
  2. Play is a serious activity (think of how serious two chess players can be about their game).
  3. Play is a voluntary activity. (If it's forced, it is no longer play, it's work. He equates play to freedom itself). "Here, then, we have the first main characteristic of play: that it is free, is in fact freedom" (8).
  4. Play is bound by space; it occurs in a sanctified "playground"; it is somehow outside of the ordinary or real world. (Think: chess board, sandbox, a frame (as in fine art), a stage or a football field as the playground or, a better word, arena).
  5. Play is bound by time. (There is a clear moment when the game starts and end, and it's iterative process (to play the game again) is a foundational part of play. You see this at work in Foursquare, for instance, when the leaderboard resets every week)
  6. "it creates order, is order" (10). (Think that every game has clear rules from which intrinsic order arises in gameplay because of it. Think first down, second down, third down, your turn, then my turn, etc.).
  7. Play is tense. "The player wants something to 'go', to 'come off'; he wants to 'succeed' by his own exertions" (10-11). (i.e. there are stakes involved and one can win or loose).
As an aside, Huizinga takes this framework of play and then analyzes some very adult activities such as philosophy, sport, art and fashion, and even war based on these criteria. Modern ludologists have already come to the conclusion that adult play is a vital component in community building, and it is evident that the Web or a particular Web page/platform like a forum, a user group or a social network thrives in accordance to how well the community (your community) is present and has clearly defined its rules of engagement with little to no users trying to "game" the system and be, in Huizinga's words, a spoil-sport.


And so, in this context, it's not too far of a stretch to see why and how motivation and pleasure unite in games and in the forthcoming gamification of the Web. On the one hand, people, like that old cyberpunk adage, "want to be free." And pleasure is a lot of things, but one ingredient of it has to do with getting what you want. There's pleasure in getting what you want so long as you don't have to give up too much of something else you also want to get it.


Also, in a world that is almost always ambiguous, clear order is a gratifying experience in so far as there's pleasure in understanding the "why" of things. This dynamic plays out in movies, TV shows and novels where we feel like we know the "why" in the character's actions and behaviors better than we know ourselves, our friends and our family. 


Motivation dovetails into play specifically at Huizinga's point #7: in that striving for something to 'come off' and to work towards something where stakes are involved.


Elsewhere in the introduction Huizinga points out that play and games are "engrossing" and absorb the player (during his exposition of point #4). In a Ted talk, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presents an compelling explanation of how complete absorption in a task - what he calls "flow" - engenders a state of temporary bliss or euphoria. He studies artists, but presumably the results of his studies apply equally to gamers.


There is, in my opinion, sufficient evidence to construct a robust theory of how gamification can satisfy both motivation and pleasure. The task at hand is to design a competent study that can accurately measure how and when a game achieves this.


Ultimately, I think that what gamification is as a cultural movement and a trend is nothing more than an effort to reunite what has been for a few generations the separation between work and leisure. It is the means, the vehicle, and the pathway whereby those two activities unite once again.

French philosopher Henri Lefebvre does an outstanding treatment in his first volume of Critique Of Everyday Life of unpacking the factors and forces since the industrial revolution that separated work and leisure for us into two distinct realms. However, another industrial revolution  is in our midst which Schell recognizes at the For the Win symposium - a revolution in communication technologies and automation - and now, work and leisure are primed to become one again because of it or through it.

Gamification then, in my humble opinion, is a manifestation of this cultural imperative. It is the thing that will ultimately make it okay to hang out on Facebook while sitting at your work-place, and the thing that will make it okay to work from home and at night or on the weekends. We're all guilty of complaining that this is happening already, and, frankly, we're overwhelmed by it in the current context. Now comes gamification, and suddenly, if all goes well and all players - the artists, the humanitarians, the persuaders and the fulfillers - do their job right by hashing out a fair compromise between them then gamification could possibly ameliorate this problem. Then, maybe, just maybe, what we all have to look forward to is that life for us and our children will be characterized by constant play.


On the other hand, if the persuaders, and the persuaders alone, have their way as they did with social media, the result of the gamification process could result in a commensurate increase in alienation and exploitation. This united work-leisure model for modernity will not have the quality of play. And so, like with all brand new technologies, we, as a civilization, are once again entrusted with the responsibility to put these new technologies at the service of progress and a better tomorrow while minimizing the intrinsic risk in their introduction.


Based on what I've already seen, read and learned from him, I'm confident that my hero, Jesse Schell, will fight the good fight in the arena of persuaders in making gamification a worthy new facet of not only my life, but all of ours.



Waskul, D. D. (2006). The Role-Playing Game and The Game of Role-Playing: The Ludic Self and Everyday Life. In J. P. Williams, S. Q. Hendricks, & W. K. Winkler (Eds.), Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games (pp. 19-38). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

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