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game dynamics

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.

Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services

*** This blog post has been originally published in ACRL TechConnect 0n July 9, 2012. ***

There is a lot of talk about games at libraries. Public libraries in particular have been active in incorporating games in their programs and collections. Even for academic libraries, gaming is no longer a foreign topic. The 2012 Horizon Report sees Game-Based Learning to be on the 2-3 years horizon for adoption. That is not a very long time away from the present.

I am not going to talk about games here, of which I am a rather poor player in general. Instead, I would like to talk about game dynamics and how they can be applied to library services. I am really late for writing about this idea, which I heard about a few years ago. But probably now is as good a time as any as the Horizon Report this year mentions gaming.

A light bulb in my head lit up when I listened to the TED talk, “The game layer on top of the world” by Seth Priebatsch during my commute. (See the video below.) There, he talks about the game layer as something that is being built now after the social layer that Facebook has pretty much established. Just as the social layer has fundamentally changed the mode of human interaction and the way of our lives as a result, Priebatsch sees a similar potential in the game layer.

What has attracted my attention in this talk about the game layer was not so much the game per se as the the impressive power the game dynamics wield to human beings. Once you hear those examples of the game dynamics, their impact is immediately obvious. But until now, I haven’t had a conscious understanding about how successful well-designed games can be at providing people with such engaging and immersive experience.

According to Priebatsch, among those game dynamics are: (a) appointment dynamic, (b) influence & status, (c) progress dynamic, and (d) communal discovery. (He says that there are three more but he only mentions four in the talk.) Since he details what each of these dynamics mean in the talk below with clear examples, I am not going to repeat the explanation.

Seth Priebatsch: The game layer on top of the world

To simply put, these game dynamics are very powerful motivators for human action. Did you know that Farmville can change the behavior pattern of over 70 million people by simply changing a rule for how often a Famville user needs to water the crop? The power of these game dynamics stems from the fact that they require meeting relatively simple conditions in return for attainable rewards. Games usually begin with simple tasks that award you with some goods and elevation in your status or level. Then gradually, the tasks become complicated for more challenging rewards. The game dynamics drive game players to plan and perform simple to complicated actions. These often motivate individuals to exert a significant level of diligence, creativity, and resourcefulness.

What is really cool about these game dynamics is that they are applicable to any human action in the real world, and not just in the gaming world. Sure, you can create a game to tap into people’s creativity and diligence. (In another TED talk, “Gaming can make a better world,” Jane McGonigal explores the possibility of harnessing the human energy and creativity spent on gaming to solve the real-world problems. See the video below.) But, you do not have to. You can just as easily embed these game dynamics outside the traditional game sphere. These dynamics tend to be quite effectively utilized in games. But they do not have to be restricted to online games.

So my question is whether these game dynamics can be applied to make library services more engaging and interesting to library users? Can libraries take advantage of these game dynamics to help library users to attain the goals that they themselves probably want to reach but often fail to?

Here are some of my thought-experiments applying game dynamics to library services.

  1. Provide level-up experience for library users.
    Suppose your user logs into a library proxy system every time for browsing library’s databases, e-books, and e-journals. How about based upon the time spent and the number and frequency of log-ins, allowing the user to level up from ‘novice library user’ to ‘super researcher’? Of course, you would probably want to use way more appealing terms such as “Paladin level 20 Killer Ninja Researcher” instead of “Super Researcher.”
  2. Award some status and powers associated with library use that can be admired (with the addition of visible tokens for them).
    Allow users to tweet, Facebook, and G+ their updated status and powers as they level up, so that it can be boasted to others. Status and power is meaningless unless it is looked up to by others in one’s own community. How about re-issuing library cards as in Judo with some sort of belt system: red belt, black belt, brown belt, white belt etc.? Add up some sleek mini-posters that celebrate some of those high belt status in the library space where everybody can see. Or even better something users can boast in their Facebook pages. It might just work to motivate library users to study more, read more, and research more.
  3. Show the progress bar in library catalog.
    The progress bar makes you goal-oriented. It gives you satisfaction whenever you move the bar one notch to the right. It makes you feel that you are moving towards something good. Why not show the progress bar in the library OPAC? If a user run a search, show the progress! If a user selects a record in the search results, move one notch up in the progress bar. If s/he clicks holdings or the links in the record, how about showing the Happy Face or a Dancing Penguin for a second before moving on? Humans have such a soft spot for positive feedback that if a required action is simple and easy enough, they might just do it for fun.
  4. Color-code the status of checked-out books.
    In the library’s “My Account” page, mark past-due books as red and newly checked-out books as green. Items that are about the midway of the check-out period can be in yellow. Or show it as an hourglass that loses its sand on the top part as you pass the due date of library books. This may make people more compelled to return the overdue items.
  5. Library currency to accumulate and spend?
    Let users to boast taking out and returning books from the library to others. Maybe give them points per transaction? Social reading is already a big phenomenon. Combined with a library, it can create even more fun experience. Maybe it can be just like Gowalla or Foursquare. Maybe users can trace their reading history and find others with a similar reading pattern. How about letting library users to accumulate and spend library points (or currency) for coffee at a library cafe? Now some students may seriously start reading.

Game dynamics are significant because they can be used to build a foundation for our willing participation in a project for our own optimum performance. Libraries have been an indispensable means for individuals who aspire for learning, experience, and knowledge, and serving those individuals has been always a crucial mission of libraries. Game dynamics can be utilized to help libraries to serve such mission more effectively.

PS. Also check out the talk below by Jane McGonigal about her explanation regarding why people are so much more successful at games than at the real life and how we may perhaps harness that potential to solve the real life problems.

Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world

 

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