“Gamification” is a huge buzz term these days. It refers to the use of games and game mechanics to all sorts of tasks, including those we don’t normally think of as fun, such as chores or public policy outcomes. The popularity of video games shows us that people will engage in focused activity – even if it isn’t in itself ‘fun’ – if it’s structured around principles such as challenge and reward, tension and release, levelling up, and effective feedback. It not only helps people achieve goals, but can also lead to deeper understanding, thanks to the immersive power of games.
Technology Review points to an intriguing example of this immersive power in action with Spent, a game designed to show players what it’s like to live in poverty. Personally, I’ve experienced the emotional power of this sort of immersion in a game called Loneliness. It’s a simple, minimalist game that takes you through what it feels like to be socially isolated – shunned. It actually brought tears to my eyes. Its emotional power is especially intriguing because it’s so simple…abstract, even. It suggests that we don’t need sophisticated graphics or ‘realistic’ games to tap into their immersive potential. These games have tremendous power to teach empathy.
Games are powerful tools. Gamification does leave me with some questions, though. Where is the line between making the most out of the human response to games on one hand, and manipulating people on the other? If we are in some sense hard wired to respond to games, does this mean that using games to ‘get’ people to eat their veggies, say, amounts to a sort of denial of individual choice? Traditionally, art is the way that we develop and refine our sense of empathy. Literature and theatre can put us in someone else’s shoes. Is there something about the subtlety of other arts that we miss in the abstracted world of games? Finally, I know that whenever we talk about gamification to achieve goals like education on Spark, I hear from people who are disturbed by the idea, primarily in a moral sense. The objection is generally that life isn’t always fun, and kids ought to learn to accomplish goals for reasons other than the rewards of successful game play. So, what if we are able to make virtually any task game-like? After all, game designer, Jane McGonigal has even made recovering from a head injury into a game. Is there something else that we are sacrificing in gamification, and what is that something?