Feedback does not equal game design

 Posted by (Visited 27758 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Jan 042011

Not familiar with game mechanics or game theory? Ralph Koster, author of Theory of Fun for Game Design, says game mechanics are “rule-based systems / simulations that facilitate and encourage a user to explore and learn the properties of their possibility space through the use of feedback mechanisms.”

In conventional terms, think earning rewards for swiping your credit or debit card or staying at a particular hotel or flying a certain airline. Unconventionally – and this is where my prediction comes into play – think affording your customers and prospects accumulating rewards in exchange for engaging via your website (i.e., points, badges, leaderboards, awards, etc.).

via Daily Dose – Game Theory And Gaming Mechanics For Your Website.

I feel bad picking on this article given that it surely is selling copies of my book. Except that  the above example does not include “exploring and learning the properties of a possibility space.” So it’s wrong. To be more blunt, the second paragraph misses the point of the first.

Just giving feedback is not game design, and it will be lousy “gamification.”

When we train game designers, when we critique projects, and when we discuss what makes games compelling, we certainly do discuss feedback. But what we dwell on is the game systems, the core loop.

If you really want to gamify something, you need to make the core loop be something to explore and master. Buying an airplane ticket or staying at a hotel isn’t something you “master.” Piling up points is not good gamification.

The feedback exists to give cues to the user that they are learning something. It isn’t food pellets for rats to reward them for pushing a lever. Good gamification will be less Skinnerian and more like getting an A in class as a recognition of how well you mastered the subject.

Oh, and hi everybody, I’m back blogging, I hope. 🙂

  25 Responses to “Feedback does not equal game design”

  1. Good to see you posting again, Raph.

    Also; you’re totally right.

  2. Welcome back. 🙂

    Oh… and amen.

  3. Looking forward to reading more posts Raph.

    An interesting slideshare presentation which hammers this point too: Pwnd: Gamification and its discontents

  4. The article itself was rather worrying to read, but then I clicked on to one of the suggested services-

    “Game designers have known for years how to incent and motivate Participation. They do it through a process called Gamification.
    Now Nitro brings the power of Gamification to you.”

    -and now I’m just horrified. It didn’t know it had already gotten to this point.

  5. Thank you for speaking out on this issue. Honestly I tend to ignore most of this “adding points and calling it gamification” stuff entirely – it’s painful to think about. I do hope that it leads more people to think about what a game really is, though.

    Any activity is more rewarding and engaging if it provides the actor with Autonomy, Challenge, and Responsiveness (i.e. feedback on the results of actions, and on improvement). Games are among the most rewarding/engaging activities out there because they can provide these three things in spades – people often escape into games because their day-to-day life contains little or none of the above.

    All of this “gamification” just seems like people trying to improve Responsiveness/Feedback in order to make activities more rewarding and engaging. This is a fantastic idea, and I’m sure they can learn a lot from games since we’ve developed a number of tools to improve feedback on a player’s progress in developing a skill, among other things. But it’s not “gamification” because it has nothing to do with games.

    I expect a lot of activities will have new feedback systems bolted onto them and the resulting improvement will be virtually nil – because there activity affords little or no Autonomy and/or Challenge. Buying an airline ticket being a perfect example.

    The fascinating thing to me is that “gamification” of this kind can be applied to any job, including game development. Increasing these three elements in an activity increases the chances of that becoming a “flow” activity… which is desirable in making your game experiences… and I think it’s something that managers should think about in making the experience of game development better as well. I touched on that parallel in a recent blog post.

    Glad you’re back to blogging! 🙂

  6. All behavior is Skinnerian. But smarter rats demand more complex and subtle rewards (sometimes) to tickle the pleasure centers of their brains.

    The sensation of mastery is a particularly savory food pellet.

  7. It’s unfortunate that most social games are relying only on positive feedback to drive their experiences. Why is it that even the slightest shred of complexity is a sin in that space?

  8. Good point Raph.

    On a related note, I’d love to see you post some thoughts on ‘gamification’ and the Magic Circle. It’s been some time since I read your book, but I seem to recall a point about games existing within a space of safety, of little to no real-world cost to the player, etc. Seems this is directly at odds with the ‘gamification’ idea, for all but the most trivial tasks.

  9. @Garumoo: That’s a really good presentation! Thanks for the link!

  10. While Raph, you’re right on point as usual with this.

    Unfortunately, I have a bad feeling that all of the game designers (and researchers, pundits, etc.) who are concerned about how “gamification” is getting picked up in the main stream are generally going to amount to little more than a chorus howling in the wilderness. From where I’m sitting it looks like we’re going to see a whole lot of systems with more or less traditional reward mechanisms (e.g. frequent flier miles) reframed with shiny graphics or leader boards (or just given new names), and this is what most people will call gamification in 2011. Sometime later this year, maybe things will die down a bit and we can try to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

  11. It’s specifically the more Skinnerian aspects that entice the interest of certain groups. How can we use this to sell more airline tickets?

    To them, “gamification” would be specifically about what to add to their marketing to get customers to hit the pellet-bar more (and more, what they can cheapest and most easily add; depth is rarely either).

    I mean, how long have the “buy 12 lunches/coffees, get one free” style punchcards been around? Achievement: Free Sandwich? You just know right now, someone is in a conference room asking “Okay, so how can we gamify our marketing campaign?”

  12. Which is, in a nutshell, what’s wrong with Mafia Wars-type games. There are no interesting choices to make and the system does not require mastery (it offers nothing to master). All it does is give you points of type A for clicking button X and points of type B for clicking button Y.

  13. Good to see you back.
    And I perfectly agree – I tried to make the argument in the deck garumoo kindly mentioned (, slide 29).
    However, there is something to be said for the pleasure and novelty of *juicy* feedback, the joy of minimum input->maximum effect, like a baby enjoying hitting a mobile because that simple movement creates a lot of noise and motion. But then again, just like that mobile, the pleasures of novelty wear off quickly, so though it has merit, its far less sustainable than the joy of a deep system to master.

  14. In operant conditioning terms, you’re talking about satiation. You can only eat so many food pellets before your brain tells you “enough!”.

    You don’t have to go very deep to delay the onset of satiation. All it takes is a reward schedule with an element of randomness. And in this light “gamification” is just a shiny new buzzword for something Publisher’s Clearinghouse figured out many, many years ago — to whit, you can sell a hell of a lot of magazine subscriptions with a game/contest/sweepstakes.

    You can only keep a rat at a food pellet dispenser until he’s full, but you can keep a slot player spinning those wheels until he’s bankrupt.

  15. @ Sebastian,

    Arguably, Pachinko would be an example where the novelty of a lot of noise and motion doesn’t wear off terribly fast. The minimal gambling mechanic (or reward structure, depending on which terminology you want to use) appears sufficient to prevent this. Less joy, certainly, but when the sinister goal is to make something compelling…

    (Also, yes! Good to see you back, Raph! I’d just been assuming you were taking a holiday break.)

  16. Businesses providing rewards to customers who engage with them resembles commerce patterns much more closely than it resembles game patterns. Their narrow perspective on engaging consumers leads them to call it something else.

  17. @ Yukon,

    Satiation! I’d not thought of that. That explains my thought better than I did. 🙂

  18. mastered WHAT subject? to WHAT end? to WHOSE self actualization or human benefits? and THAT is why all this gamification cultural stuff is just gambling 2.0 and nothing more than a sales pitch for fashion consultants.

    Advertising/promotion agencies created these type of “socialized gaming” programs 30 years ago. What we have now is too many fat/binary thinking happy meal 30 year old kids who cant interact with anything that dosent have a screen.

    BTW- get your kids “vaccinated”.;) Reality thanks you.

  19. Interesting timing to read this. We just had a presentation about a point/reward provider for education, where students earn points that can be reimbursed for virtual or real world items. Kind of like selling magazine subscriptions, earning points, and being able to turn them in for fabulous prizes.

  20. Kind of like selling magazine subscriptions, earning points, and being able to turn them in for fabulous prizes…

    or selling “seeds” from backs of comic books for fly by nighters who offer you the “bicycle” but only send you the “capgun”

    each generation has its adoloscents to con… ours just extends the children to 40.

    nothing to see hear.. move on.

  21. Yukon is right. Learning something is a food pellet. So is mindless excitement. The problem is turning gaming into an intellectual exercise devoid of passions. A lot, probably the majority, aren’t all that stimulated by math puzzles.

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  23. If you really want to gamify something, you need to make the core loop be something to explore and master. Buying an airplane ticket or staying at a hotel isn’t something you “master.” Piling up points is not good gamification.

    I would have agreed with you a year ago, but upon joining a consulting firm where travel is the norm four days a week, I can vouch that some people have truly “mastered” travel, optimized hotel points and learned how to understand and exploit a corporate system — just think of Clooney in “Up in the Air”. Major airline and hotel chains have created systems with fairly intricate “core loops,” however, unlike a good game, they are not inherently interesting. They are only interesting so far as you can use them to your own benefit (and when you have a peer group that values them).

    To make it more concrete, Starwood hotels offer different levels of “status” that can be achieved by nights or stays. The stay requirement is a significantly lower number than the night requirement. Now Starwood’s system is sophisticated enough to catch you checking in and out of the same hotel in the same day, but not sophisticated enough to catch you moving hotels within a city, so travelers will switch hotels every night in order to gain stays toward “platinum status.” To this system you add promotions targeting specific hotels or nights, the Starwood credit card, and you have a fairly sophisticated core loop. At least as sophisticated as an achievement for killing x number of furbolgs.

    All of that aside, I think your argument is compelling. The best games have something to teach — whether that is negotiation from “Settlers of Catan” or timing and strategy in Starcraft II. Thanks Raph.

  24. Clooneys character in “UP IN THE AIR”
    was not to be considered a “master” of “anything” of real value…. looking for games to teach was the folly of his characters life.

    forget it. im writing to another life form.:)

    Coupons only exist to delude one to their value in the equation of regularly overpriced products or services.

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