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Why Gamify and What to Avoid in Library Gamification

*** This blog post has been originally published in ACRL TechConnect 0n August 7, 2012. ***

In my last post, “Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services,” I presented several ideas for applying game dynamics to library services. After the post, I have received a comment like this, which I thought worthwhile to further explore.

  • What about the risk of gamification – the fact that it can deprive people of internal motivation for serious activities by offering superficial external rewards?

We tend to associate the library with learning, research, scholarship, and something serious. By contrast, games make us think of fun. For this reason, it is natural to worry about a library or any library-related activities such as reading, studying, researching becoming frivolous and trivial by gamification. In an effort to address this concern, I will point out that (a) gamification is a society-wide trend (and as such, highly likely to become not so frivolous after all), (b) what to avoid in gamifying libraries, and (c) what the limit of gamification is in this post. The key to successful gamification is to harness its impressive power while being fully aware of its limit so that you won’t overestimate what you can achieve with it.

Why gamify?

SCVNGR plans to create a game platform as Facebook built a social platform.

Gamification is not just a hot topic in libraries or higher education. It is a much bigger society-wide trend. In a similar way in which Facebook has evolved from a single website to practically ‘the’ social platform and layer of the real world with over 900 million active users as of May 2012, now a game layer is slowly being built on top of the real world. Just as the social layer effectively fused social elements into the world, the game layer brings gaming elements into reality. A game layer that we can compare to Facebook has not yet emerged. Nor is clear how far gamification will penetrate our daily activities. But we can imagine what a semi-universal social platform is going to be like from location-based smartphone apps such as Foursquare and Gowalla. Instead of building a virtual world for a game, these apps gamify the real world. Our mundane everyday activities in the non-game context turn into gaming opportunities for rewards like badges, points, rankings, and statuses.

But why apply game design elements to the non-game context in the first place? The short answer is that people are more motivated, engaged, and often achieve more in games than in the real world. Why are people better at a game than in real life? It is because games offer an environment intentionally designed to provide people with optimal experience by means of various gaming mechanisms and dynamics. Games make people perform better in the way the real world does not. It was in this context that a game designer and game studies researcher, Jane McGonigal, stated that reality is broken.”1 Gamification aims at extracting those game mechanisms and apply them to reality in order to make the real world experience more interesting and engaging.

Gabe Zichermann’s definition of gamificaion as“the process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems” expresses the goal of gamification well.2 In this definition lies a good answer to the question of why libraries need to pay attention to games and game dynamics. Game dynamics can raise library users’ level of engagement with library resources, programs, and services. They can help library users to solve problems more effectively and quickly by making the process fun. A good example of such gamification is the NCSU Mobile Scanvenger Hunt, which was described in the previous post here in ACRL TechConnect blog.

What to avoid in library gamification

Since games can induce strong motivation and spur a high level of productivity, it is easy to overestimate the power of game dynamics. Perhaps, everything we do will turn into a game one day and we will be the slaves of omnipresent games that demands ever more motivation and productivity than we can summon! However, not all games are fun or worth playing. Designing good game experiences is nothing but easy.

The first thing to avoid in gamification is poor gamification. Gamification can easily backfire if it is poorly designed. Creating a library game or gamifying certain aspects of a library doesn’t guarantee that it will be successful with its target group. Games that are too challenging or too boring are both poorly designed games. Naturally, it is much more difficult to design and create a good game than a bad one. The quality of the game – i.e. how fun it is – can make or break your library’s gamification project.

Second, one can over-gamify and make everything into a game. This is quite unlikely to happen at a library. But it is still important to remember that people have a limited amount of attention. The more information we have to process and digest, the scarcer our attention becomes. If a library offers many different games or a variety of gamified experiences all at once, users may become overwhelmed and tired. For this reason, in pioneering the application of game dynamics to libraries, the best approach might be to start small and simple.

Third, a game that is organization-centered rather than user-centered can be worse than no game at all. A game with organization-centered design uses external rewards to increase the organization’s bottom line in the short term.3 Games designed this way attempt to control behavior with rewards. Once users feel the game is playing them rather than they are playing the game, however, they are likely to have a negative feeling towards the game and the organization. While a library doesn’t have the goal of maximizing profits like a business, which can easily drive a business to lean towards organization-centered gamification, it is entirely possible for a library to design a game that is too heavily focused on the educational aspect of the game, for example. Such gamification is likely to result in lukewarm responses from library patrons if what they are looking for is fun more than anything else. This doesn’t mean that gamification cannot make a significant contribution to learning. It means that successful gamification should bring out learning as a natural by-product of pleasant and fun experiences, not as a forced outcome.

Harnessing the power of game dynamics

Games are played for fun, and the fun comes from their being ‘not’ real life where one’s action comes with inconvenient real-world consequences. For this reason, when a goal other than fun is imposed on it, the game begins to lose its magical effect on motivation and productivity.  It is true that games can achieve amazing things. For example, the game FoldIt revealed the structure of a specific protein that long eluded biochemists.4 But people played this game not because the result would be revolutionary in science but because it was simply fun to play.

It is probably unrealistic to think that every task and project can be turned into a fun game. However, games can be used to make not-so-fun work into something less painful and even enjoyable to some degree, particularly when we lack motivation. In his book, Game Frame, Aaron Dignan cites the story of tennis player Andre Agassi.5 Agassi played a mental game of imagining the tennis ball machine as a black dragon spitting balls in an attempt to smite him. He did not hit 2,500 balls a day purely because it was fun. But by making the grueling practice into a game in his mind and tying the game with his own real-life goal of becoming a successful tennis player, he was able to endure the training and make the progress he needed.

In applying game dynamics to library services and programs, we can take either of two approaches:

  1. The ultimate goal can be simply having fun in some library-related context. There is nothing wrong with this, and at minimum, it will make the library a more friendly and interesting place to patrons.
  2. Or, we can utilize game dynamics to transform a more serious task or project (such as learning how to cite literature for a research paper) into something less painful and even enjoyable.

 

Gamification with little investment

Budge, a gamification website

Gamification is still a new trend. A pioneering gamification app, Gowalla lost to Foursquare in competition and was acquired by Facebook last December, and it is yet to be seen how Facebook will put Gowalla to use. Another gamification tool, Budge is closing down at the end of this month. For this reason, those who are interested in trying a gamification project at a library but may wonder if the result will be worth investment.

In this early stage of gamification, it will be useful to remember that gamification doesn’t necessarily require complicated technology or huge investment. You can run a successful game in your library instruction class with a pencil and paper. How about rewarding your library patrons who write to your library’s Facebook page and get most “likes” by other patrons? Or perhaps, a library can surprise and delight the first library patron who checks in your library’s Foursquare or Yelp page by offering a free coffee coupon at the library coffeeshop or simply awarding the Early-Bird badge? In gamification, imagination and creativity can go a long way.

What are your gamification ideas that can engage library patrons and enliven their library experience without huge investment? Share them with us here!

Notes
  1. Jane McGonigal. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 3.
  2. Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham. Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps. (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2011), xiv.
  3.  The distinction between games with organization-centered design vs. those with user-centered is from Scott Nicholson, “A User-Centered Theoretical Framework for Meaningful Gamification,” (pre-print) http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/meaningfulframework.pdf.
  4. Elizabeth Armstrong Moore, “Foldit Game Leads to AIDS Research Breakthrough.” CNET, Sep. 19, 2011, http://news.cnet.com/8301-27083_3-20108365-247/foldit-game-leads-to-aids-research-breakthrough/.
  5. Aaron Dignan, Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success, (New York: Free Press, 2011), 80.

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