Gamification, in its present digital form, is a very new subject. The word itself isn’t even recognized by Webster, Merriam-Webster or American Heritage. Only Oxford among the major English dictionaries lists a definition. According to Gamification.org the term only dates back to 2004 and didn’t enter wide use until 2010. And Gabe Zichermann’s workshop is at present the only course on the subject offering certification, although some colleges have begun to offer gamification classes.
So I don’t feel embarrassed to admit I’m not an expert. I believe in fact my background as a writer gives me a broader perspective on these issues, and I hope some fresh insights into this marketing juggernaut.
In my later teens I designed about 70 strategy board games. I stopped counting and finally gave up in frustration. The big companies wouldn’t take outside submissions, and the companies I could submit to turned them down, although I had a couple close calls. I didn’t have the money to market them myself, and finally turned all my attention to writing novels.
What I realized was that game design was hard. It was easy to make a game that was playable, but brutally difficult to make one that was re-playable. One with that special addictive quality that drew people back to the board. That’s why Parker Brothers could never match the success of Monopoly, and why game companies always compared their latest abstract strategy games to chess – a game over a thousand years old.
People underestimate gamification because it looks like a technical job – coding leaderboard algorithms and such. And technical jobs, once mastered, are easily repeatable and scalable. Building a bridge is easy. Building a Calatrava bridge is not. Gamification, like architecture, is a creative enterprise. And creative enterprises owe their elegance and deceptive simplicity to the vagaries of inspiration as much as to man hours. To misquote Thomas Edison, a creative endeavor is 50% perspiration and 50% inspiration.
Gamification isn’t about to go away, but there is a danger of it rising like a fad and then falling off to a much lower plateau, as unrealistic expectations are disappointed. What companies and other institutions employing gamification have to realize is that results can’t be guaranteed, and that implementations that don’t produce the desired engagement aren’t the fault of the medium itself. To borrow from another of my favorite games, no one remembers Babe Ruth striking out. It’s the home runs that count, but to hit them you need to keep swinging.