Game Layers

The concept of making everyday activities more game-like is hardly a new one. Unfortunately for said concept, it inherits from two different intellectual traditions. The first incorporates insights from psychology and economics. It focuses on issues of motivation, feedback and goals. The second approach draws from performance studies and philosophy, emphasizing the transformation in meaning that occurs when something becomes a game.

This field is currently booming under the name of “gamification.” Unfortunately, that term has become associated with a perniciously behaviorist approach to the topic. Give people points and they’ll do what you want! Not only does this produce consistently bad game design, it largely ignores questions of player subjectivity, aesthetics and meaning. Worse, its overly narrow focus alienates serious scholars from the topic.

I believe it is possible to make everyday activities more meaningful, enjoyable, and playful by drawing on the insights of game design. To do so, we must honor both the intellectual traditions from which this concept draws. Badges, points, achievements and the other trappings of gamification are meaningless without a deep understanding of what the game experience means  to its players. Conversely, we must understand how rules, mechanics and game structures create different types of player engagement and meaning-making, or we are left shooting in the dark!

Rather than use the term gamification, I refer to this approach as creating a “game layer” over everyday activities. It is distinct from traditional game design in that we, as designers, often do not have the freedom to revise the activities themselves. However, we do have the ability to create new contexts and motivations for doing them.

I am involved with several research projects on game layers, working largely as a consultant on theory and design.

Scholar’s Quest uses game design techniques to help graduate students navigate their way to a masters or doctoral degree, and to develop their professional skills as researchers and scholars. It uses a quest-based structure to make implicit knowledge about graduate school explicit. It also emphasizes consistent reflection on the scholarly qualities students hope to achieve, and ties those qualities to both immediate and long-term actions. The project is led by Professor Lee of Teachers College Columbia University.

Just Press Play is based at the School of Interactive Games and Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology. It aims to help undergraduates adopt the behaviors of successful students – not only in terms of academic achievement, but also in terms of personal development. It combines active missions, often conducted offline, with giving students better access to their own behavioral data. The project is supported by a grant from Microsoft Research.

Finally, Science City, another project led by Professor Lee, aims to make science classes more engaging for urban middle-schoolers. It builds on the game dynamics of collectible card games like Pokemon, but ties both card acquisition and deployment to science-based activities. The game emphasizes the development of students’ self-identity as scientists, encouraging them to try on different ways of acting as a scientist in the classroom.

My research goals across all three projects include the different ways students respond to these experiences. I hope to explore both individual personality differences and larger socio-cultural factors to understand the full range of reactions to game layers for learning – not only the overtly positive ones. I am also interested in conceptual / epistemological change among participants, so that we can begin to understand how a game layer influences their ideas about the underlying activity.

Finally, although all three of these projects involve education, I believe the implications of this research go beyond schools. These projects, and others like them, can show us how to make many types of everyday activities more engaging without resorting to “gamification!”

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