The game is the frame: what realworld software can learn from games

Sebastian Deterding has put together an attractive and substantive presentation for UXCamp Europe, exploring the principles of game design and how these principles may or may not be applicable to software design. Historically, user experience has focused on tasks and efficiency, not fun.

To cut to the chase, Deterding concludes that software user experience is fundamentally different from games, for two reasons. Most importantly, what makes games fun is that they are voluntary and have no real-world consequences. If there is obligation or consequences, then the fun goes away. Secondly, in a game, the designer controls the tools and the goals, but in realworld activities, the designer is traditionally very remote from the actual goals. At work, the goals are set by managers, by the needs of the company for things like sales and solving customer problems – not by the software designer.

To first order, Deterding is right, and this explains why the application of game design principles to realworld activities often falls short. Social software “game-design” systems that reward users for actions like making blog comments – actions that are meaningless by themselves, and become drudgery in a realworld context.

But I don’t think game principles apply only when there are no realworld consequences or obligations. For example, fundraising campaigns have long used public thermometers and social competition, for the realworld goal of supporting nonprofit causes. People participate in these programs as volunteers – it’s not the same kind of obligation as a job you’ll be fired from if you neglect. But people participate with a sense of community obligation, and the campaigns build on people’s sense of social obligation to each other. In a particular community, someone can choose not to participate, at some real cost to community standing.

To give another example, Chris Messina gave a recent talk, where he explains how he used game design practices from Flickr in helping to design and promote a campaign to spread Firefox, when the open source browser was a scrappy newcomer gaining recruits against incumbent Ineternet Explorer. The campaign had explicit tools that helped participants climb a ladder of activity, and meet their personal goals by meeting the goals of the Firefox project.

Ladder of participation, SpreadFirefox campaign

So I don’t think that a game needs to be free of realworld consequences or obligations. But the game needs to be aligned with those consequences and social dynamics.

The other issue that Deterding raises is that software designers are traditionally far removed from realworld goals. This is true – and this is something that needs to be fixed for game mechanics in realworld games to be anything more than window dressing. This means that tools need to be configurable to provide much more control to the people with real world goals, to integrate them into the experience.

Deterding reaches a similar conclusion to John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and their team at Deloitte, from a different direction. They argue that social software in the enterprise is bound to fail, unless and until it is connected to the realworld business goals and metrics. And this is going to be a key focus of the next generations of business social software.

Unlike Deterding, I don’t think that fun is orthogonal to realworld impact. But fun in a real world context is enabled (or, more often than not, removed) by social dynamics – by leadership and culture. And by the degree to which the goals of an organization align or thwart the goals of participants. Tools can’t do these things, can’t fix them if they’re broken, can’t add them if they’re missing.

So, I agree with Deterding that the shallow use of game dynamics doesn’t do much good for software for activities with realworld consequences. I am more optimistic than Detarding about the potential, but only when the goals and social dynamics, leadership and culture are aligned.

I strongly recommend the presentation if you are thinking about this topic – the presentation walks through elements such as clear goals, bite-sized actions, scaffolded challenges, and social comparison that make up a game, has good comparisons and contrasts with software design, and has good resources for further learning: