Category Archives: Theory

Gamification is an Ugly Word


I was recently asked to create a workshop for a conference that would introduce a small group (around 25) to concepts of play for work. Over the last few years I have come to dislike words like gamification, edutainment, or serious games, and what they stand for, but had not really spent much time thinking about why.

There is this idea that if only we could make things which we are not motivated to do more fun, then we would want to do them more. Also games are fun, people often like playing games. So therefore we should make: work, training, learning, education, study, eating well, and exercise more like games, then they will be fun too, and we will enjoy doing them. At least that’s what the plan usually is.

The issue is not only that the execution of this concept is poorly done, but there are often more fundamental issues with it in the first place. Not every task is suited for being made a game of. However, amongst all the mess, there are some good examples of games being used in serious ways, which I will try to highlight later on.

So, I had to prepare a workshop, but I didn’t want it all to be negative, I wanted there to be some positive outcomes for the people who attended. It was also important for me that they went away with more than a simplified idea of how games and work can be mixed.

I observed that there are four broad approaches to mixing work and play, each with their benefits and issues in different amounts. I will go through them one at a time, giving the example of the activity I had the attendees of the workshop complete.

1. Rewards, Badges, Points and Medals.

This is the easiest way to gamify any activity. When tasks are completed, the player is awarded a small reward. The more tasks completed the more rewards are gained. Players can compete with each other to see has the most rewards, encouraging engagement with the game.

It is possible to add timing, reminders, and a little bit of randomness to increase the engagement of the players, see Skinner Box and Operand Conditioning if you are interested in learning more and research out from there, also look at the free-to-play mobile gaming market.

The activity: When the participants entered the room, an equal mixture of black and blue chairs were set out, there were more seats than participants. The group was split into two teams. Each team was tasked with gathering and stacking all the chairs of their teams colour to the side of the room, maximum stack size of five chairs.

Stickers were rewarded for certain tasks completed.

  • First chair moved.
  • Third chair moved.
  • Placed the last chair on the stack.
  • Placed the last chair on the stack three times.
  • On the team that stacked all their chairs the quickest.

Thoughts: The participants did not really enjoy staking chairs, and could see they were being manipulated.

In situations where the person wants to achieve something, is capable of achieving it, but perhaps is not intrinsically motivated to do something, rewards can potentially help. Also, if the activity is optional and engaging, this additional motivation can help. The issue is being forced into a system of rewards and being manipulated, or being told something is now fun because of stickers. Another issue is that people can become reliant on extrinsic rewards. Removing these reward risks removing the desire to complete the original task, even in cases where the person originally enjoyed the task itself.

2. Incidental Outputs of Game are Work

This is a little harder to describe, but the idea is as follows. Sometimes when playing a game, things which are not a major aspect or goal of the game also occur. If the game can be created in such a way that these outcomes are useful, then they could potentially be harnessed for work. For example, although Civilization (Sid Meier) does not explicitly test your knowledge of history, players often get a better grasp of historic events and time periods. Pokémon GO, asks you to collect Pokémon, but to do so successfully requires you to walk around (there are also motivations of play more similar to 1. within Pokémon GO). A really good example of this is how playing games can reduce pain felt (google: reduce pain with games). These games are not designed as training tools for not feeling pain but simply playing games in itself is distracting/engaging enough for it to work.

The activity: I had the participants play Connect-4 with the chairs, placing them in turn into the room. Although the group is focussing on trying to win the game, the nature of the activity means that the chairs were placed in such a way that they could be used as seating again, i.e. returning them to a state similar to when they entered the room.

Thoughts: The participants enjoyed this activity a lot more, however, they noted that it was not an efficient way of completing the task. In general it would have perhaps been a better use of their time to just get the job done, and then move on to something else. The other issue is, an example with placing chairs was relatively easy to determine a game for, but coming up with a truly engaging game with incidental outputs for many jobs, tasks or training would be quite a difficult feat of design.

3. Layered Gaming

In 2. the issue was designing a game that had in game incidental outputs that equated to the none engaging work that was original required. The idea of layered gaming is to further separate the game and the work. Have a game which can be played in parallel to work, an alternative reality that is happening in the same space and time. Depending on the type of work which is required the game must be selected so that it does not interfere with it directly. So whilst doing physically intensive work a thoughtful word or memory game could be played, or vice-versa.

The activity: Whilst stacking the chairs away for the second time, each player was given two scrabble tiles. The players had to form groups which would create the longest work. All players in the group with the longest words would be declared the winners.

Thoughts: In this instance this lead to quite a bit of distraction and not a whole lot of stacking chairs. With more consideration between the choice of game and the work/training activity I think there could be potential in the idea. The difficulty is making the game not interfere negatively with the original task.

4. Just Play

One option, and probably the simplest, is just to make time to play and games. I find it a good way for people to get to know each other. Games allow interaction through systems, and give space for people to both talk about something specific (the game) and about other things in between. There is also opportunity to not say anything and just engage with the game, meaning long awkward silences are far less likely. Finally, games create stories and moments that people can relate to later, and in the case of non-digital games people have to share a space.

The activity: For this example we played a variation of Lemon Joust a game brought to the world by Minkette. Players each balance a lemon on a wooden spoon. When the game begins the players attempt to knock off other players’ lemons with their spoon. Players who have their lemon knocked off are eliminated, the winner is the last remaining player with a lemon on their spoon.

Thoughts: The majority of the participants seemed to enjoy playing or watching the game. This method of just allowing play seems the most honest and least manipulative of the four suggestions. Not to say there are not certain scenarios where each could be appropriate, if well developed. This method is probably the cheapest, but for some reason perhaps the hardest to justify as there is no work being done. All you need to do is a little research and identify some great games for groups of people. With the recent resurgence in board, card and party games there are plenty to choose from. Check out ShutUpAndSitDown for some ideas of games to play.

Final thoughts

Overall I believe the workshop was a success, the participants seemed to enjoy it and gave positive feedback. Of the four activities, lemon joust and connect-4 were the most popular.

There is clearly a spectrum of approaches to mixing games and work. All the way from having games and work embedded in the same system through to having them completely separate from each other.

There is plenty of challenges in making them work together well, and in some cases it may be worth it. However, in my opinion, both the cheapest, simplest and most honest solution is to just create time for play and games, as a different activity to work. This way, there is clearly no manipulation and those that do not want to participate do not have to.

A Zine in Design Research

Restricted Parlour Games Zine PDF

I recently created a zine containing six games for part of the London Design Festival 2016. The zine forms part of the Design Research exhibition at London College of Communication.

The games explore specific rule types visible in parlour games, board games and card games. This rule types are choice, randomness and interaction which are found in varying combinations in most rule books.

Choices give players control over the navigation of a game’s possibility space. By selecting which state to move to next, the player governs play, they are in charge.

Randomness in games removes control from the players. By moving through the game’s probability space in unknown ways, unexpected situations can occur.

Interaction in games draws the players together into a shared experience. By interacting with each other the players navigate the possibility space together, pushing and pulling on each other changing the outcomes for everyone.

Each of these six games was designed to only use rules of one these three forms. The desire was to see what pure rule type games would look like and what the functions of these rule types are.

Each game is short both in rule length and play time and are presented with images of the components required to play the game.

Here is the conclusion drawn from the zine:

By isolating each of the three core aspects of parlour, board, and card games and creating short games it was possible to gain deeper understanding of choice, randomness and interaction and their potential uses when combined.

In the first two games, Race Track and Letter Spaghetti, only choice aspects were utilised. With the absence of randomness and interaction between players, it was only possible to create solitaire style experiences that functioned like puzzles. The weakness in this type of game is that once an optimal solution is found the game stops being engaging.

Both Lucky Chef and The Longest Cow utilised only randomness. Games like this take the control from the player but do provide a sense of surprise or mystery, which has potential to create interesting unforeseen events. The issue is the lack of agency given to the player that without careful foresight could create a shallow experience.

Finally two interaction only games are included, Hear Say and Tower. When interaction is used by itself there is no deviation occurring, creating a feeling of a well rehearsed theatrical play. There is a sense of action moving throughout the players, each player committing their own performance.

If you would like to read the zine in full you can download the PDF.

I would like to expand this process of creating games to explore specific themes found in rules to create a greater understanding of how it is that game rules functions and the effects that they can have on the player.


Restricted Parlour Games Zine PDF

10 Questions to Consider when Exhibiting Games and Designing Games for Exhibitions

More spaces are showing games for many different reasons. It might be demos for games that are available to purchase, games that are in development or perhaps the game itself was specifically designed to be shown in an exhibition. Whatever the reason there are a few questions that I think we should start asking ourselves about showing games in these spaces. This is not a definitive list but a work in progress, the beginning of a wider conversation we as designers, exhibitors and curators should be having. Games are certainly worthy of a platform and space to be shown, and we can learn a lot from other mediums, art, design, performance and theatre, but there are somethings that games do differently. Therefore we must consider what is special about how people view and experience games and how we can make exhibitions and spaces for games better, for those that attend and those that are showing.

Here are ten questions to start that conversation:

  1. How easy is it for someone else to set-up, are there clear instructions, can you make it automatically load when turned on?

It might be that your game is going to be set-up or looked after by someone else, or you be looking after many different games. Make it as easy as possible to go from a crashed or broken state to ready to play. In the case of games on PCs and Macs put a little extra effort in so the game automatically loads up when you either turn on or reset the system. This will make your life and the life of others a whole lot easier.

  1. Is it simple and clear for a new player to restart the game, do you need a big red reset button?

I’ve seen it happen in a number of places. People play a game for a while and then leave it part way through. If a new player with no experience of the game comes to play at this point they may have missed the ‘tutorial’ or learning experience crucial to the overcoming the next obstacle. In fact people often put down the game when they get stuck, so someone picking up the game at this difficulty spike can stop them getting into the game completely. Your game may well have a menu and a restart option but this may not be clear on its own. Is there a way to have a big reset button so a new player can walk to the system and hit it knowing they’ll go back to the beginning? Something like a MakeyMakey could be used for doing this.

  1. How long does it take to learn to play the game, how long to get a good appreciation of the game?

When exhibiting a game, a player will not necessarily have a long time to play your game. There will hopefully be people waiting behind them to have a go, which will add pressure to them. Is the player going to get a suitable understanding of the games rules or controls and a reasonable impression of the game in the time given? If you are showing part of a larger game choose carefully which part it is you show. If you are creating a game specifically for exhibition take this consideration into account at the design phase.

  1. Does your game implicitly state to allow someone else to have a go, after a certain amount of time, after reaching a fixed point?

Again you are probably hoping that lots of people will want to play your game, but games generally are not designed with systems for allowing new players to enter and old players to leave. Consider changing your game to allow for this. At certain points in the game, controlled by time or achievement add an on screen prompt (or non-digital equivalent) that says, ‘You’ve been playing for a while, can you see someone else who would like to play.’ If there isn’t anyone they can keep playing but if there is someone else can have a go without having to ask.

  1. In multiplayer games, could those who have won be encourage through the game itself to look for someone else who might want a go?

In a similar way, multiplayer games should encourage you to share. After a round, match or turn, specifically consider having the winning player give up their spot. Again this can be an onscreen prompt. I have always disliked the often used ‘winner stays on’ rule for game all this does is give the best player more opportunity to get better rather than allowing less skilled players the opportunity to improve.

  1. Who can see your game being played, should it be private just the current player(s), or should it have an audience?

Depending on the type of game and the subject matter there should be some consideration to who can see the game being played. Should it just be the people playing, perhaps they are being asked personal questions or they need a safe space to fail and get better. Possibly showing someone the game before they play will spoil it for them. On the other hand is the game improved with a audience of spectators encouraging and reacting to the players playing. Either way the space and the way the game is set up should really consider that. You can put a curtain around a game, or hide it in a booth. You can put large screens high so others can see them. You can have secondary screens which show the action to the audience specifically.

  1. Are the controls intuitive and clear, do you need to have all those extra buttons accessible when they’re not going to be used?

The worst thing that can happen when learning to play a game is that there are not any clear instructions for the controls. This leads to bashing buttons and hoping things will happen. This is worse with keyboards as there are so many additional potential buttons to try. A simple way to reduce this complexity is by removing the buttons, or highlighting the buttons that are used with stickers or some other markings. A potentially better way is to make a bespoke controller, which through its design communicates intuitively how to use it.

  1. Can you reduce the potential embarrassment that someone may feel if they are not good, or do not understand how to use your game?

A lot of the time we play games in our own homes or with friends, this is somewhere we likely feel safe to fail and get things wrong, and can slowly learn how to play. Picking up a game in a public space and not being able to play can be embarrassing and frustrating. I am not sure what the best way is to solve this in general as it will very much depend on the exact nature of the game and the player, but it is certainly something to take into consideration. If your game is specifically hard maybe having multiple systems, some with an amount of privacy may eliminate the problem.

  1. Could your game disguise the computer and screen, can you hide the familiar technology in cabinets, tables or other bespoke creations?

It is a big challenge but sometimes it is just a little dull seeing rows of computers lined up showing games. I know it makes life and set-up easier but it lacks a little of the potential magic of games. There is potential, given enough budget, time and effort to make bespoke cabinets and tables to hide the hardware in. Instead of mounting screens on walls, they could be behind cutout windows in false walls, giving a flush neat appearance. Instead of keyboards and standard control pads their could be mounted and bespoke controllers. This I admit is a luxury but I think it would help people focus on the games and design rather than the technology used.

  1. What is the purpose of the game, is it advertising itself or is it something that only exists to be exhibited?

Whether the game you are exhibiting is a short demo of a larger game, a full demo for something you wish to sell or something designed specifically for that exhibition the above notions should be considered and potentially embedded into the game. You can design these elements into the fabric of the game itself or you can add a coat of exhibition veneer to an existing game. To make the games exhibition friendly will definitely require more work but it will give the player an experience greater than something they could achieve at home just downloading a demo.

‘What’s Love Got To Do, Got To Do With It?’ a VideoBrains Talk in London

I gave a talk at VideoBrains (@VideoBrains) in February on the subject of love in video games. This is a video of that talk.

VideoBrains, is a great monthly event that happens at Meltdown Bar London (@MeltdownLondon) on Caledonian Road. Check it out if you can get tickets, they sell out fast!

VideoBrains Christmas Event


Last night I made my way to the VideoBrains (@VideoBrains) event founded by Jake Tucker (@_JakeTucker) who had kindly invited me to bring Massively Multiplayer Rock Paper Scissors along for all the attendees to play.

What is VideoBrains, well they describe themselves like this:

VideoBrains is a free monthly conference where video games developers, journalists and players give talks and answer questions. We’ve had fantastic talks on everything from indie marketing to the Slender Man to a behind-the-scenes look at Deus Ex.

We’re partnered with Five out of Ten and Nine Worlds VG and our events take place at Meltdown in London.

The speakers at this event included:

Alan Williamson (@AGBear) who gave a talk about nostalgia and Sega. He spoke about how Sonic has changed (for the worse) and questioned whether the original games were as good as we remembered (yes – was his answer by the way). He then spoke about his ‘Get Well’ game, NiGHTS into Dreams and the game that was given away by Sega, Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams. This game is only playable in its true form at Christmas time, otherwise all the skins change to appear the same as normal. He explained how Nights Journey of Dreams for the Wii left him almost instantly cold. I was left considering how nostalgia is often used as a marketing tool, which more often than not seems to work, everyone hoping that this time, this time everything will be alright.

Christos Reid (@failnaut) gave a personal talk which changed between a few subject matters. An emotional highlight was when he revealed how the games he has made have shown not only that he was not alone, but have gone on to show other people that to.

Another high point included the description of how he beat the Final Fantasy VII boss with a dance mat controller at his friends house as they could not find the proper controller. I’m interested in what affect changing inputs can have on game experience, there is certainly lots of potential in this space.

Finally Christos spoke about a new idea he is thinking about which is a VR game experience where players move through a procedurally generated party, going from kitchen to kitchen having to deal with the things that are happening.

Mat Jones (@pillowfort) brought up the disconnect between character death in games and the game’s narrative. A lot of games have character death as a fail state, however in terms of the narrative of the game, this makes very little sense. This seems to be a hangover from video game arcades encouraging people to pay more to keep playing, which the games industry is still recovering from. I think he ended with some very useful advice, if you’re going to have character death in your games at least make it part of the narrative otherwise find another way.

Alex Roberts (@lexicobob) spoke of her experience of entering game jams with little preparation and developing games for the MegaDrive, GameBoy and SNES. I have not personally entered a game jam yet, but I think it would be a great way of getting me to finish a project instead of getting distracted by the new shiny idea. If I ever look into retro consoles as a tool for game development myself, I think I will take her advice and go for the MegaDrive first, apparently it is the easiest.

Mary Hamilton (@newsmary) and Grant Howitt (@gshowitt) spoke in turns about literacy and proficiency in games. Whilst one spoke the other played one of two games, Just Cause 2 or SuperHexagon. Grant could play Just Cause 2, whilst Mary struggled. However, Mary stunned the crowds with incredibly impressive times on SuperHexagon (despite been jet-lagged and playing in front of an audience). We learnt about the different games they had played growing up and how this affected their ability to play new games, and the way that they played those games. Mary wanting to explore in GTA instead of doing what the game designer had planned and taking the van to complete the driving training mission. Something she says is an influence of playing RPG games, where exploration is rewarded.

Another interesting aspect was how they talked about playing games not only with each other, but for each other. One of them could watch and experience a game without having to be in control.

Jake Tucker (@_JakeTucker) gave a talk recounting his experience with Rainbow 6 and how the more recent releases had lost all the parts which made them enjoyable for him to play. This just seems to be the case across the board, with games changing from what defines them. At one point Jake put up a series of brown game images asking us to spot the game he was specifically talking about, highlighting the loss of variation in a certain market of games, with them all moving towards the same space. I suppose, at least, those old games we use to play still exist.

Sadly Paul Dean (@paullicino), had to cancel his talk due to a corrupted presentation file. From speaking to him earlier he mentioned how it was experimental, I really wonder what he was going to present.

I went in to GameBrains expecting to hear some interesting talk about video games, but there was so much more than that. All the presenters were entertaining, funny, informative and most importantly personable in the way they spoke, sharing a little of themselves with us all. It felt like a safe, comfy place to explore games and what they mean to us individually and as a group. I will see you at the next one.