Forget Gamification: It's Time For Mastery

Rumor has it that Jesse Schell regrets ever having coined the term "gamification."

It's not hard to see why. Gamification is everywhere. Trying to drive traffic to your website? Add points and badges! Want to make your loyalty program more compelling? Add a leaderboard!

The lingo for efforts like these is "chocolate-covered broccoli" -- an attempt to make boring things interesting by slapping some game-type characteristics on them. And the reason it doesn't work is that it completely misses the point of games.

Games aren't about badges. They are about mastery. And mastery implies overcoming obstacles or challenges.

The drive for mastery is a primal urge. It is, in fact, an evolutionary imperative. If we weren't born with the biological need to latch onto difficult things and keep at them until we were successful, we would never hold our own heads up. Or roll over. Or stand up. We don't have to give a one-year-old badges to make her want to walk. The feeling of joy we get from overcoming difficulty, or the sense of power we get from accomplishing what feels at first to be impossible -- these are genetically advantageous mutations that are far more powerful than any extrinsic motivator. They directly affect our ability to survive.



And now consider the traditional education system. It's a kind of game. It's got points. But instead of compelling us to care deeply about the subject, the game for students is simply to earn the points. That is why most students cram for tests and then forget the material almost immediately -- because the system is designed to focus on the extrinsic reward, rather than allowing us to exercise our hard-wired need for mastery.

Earlier this week, I sat on a panel with Willem-Jan Renger of Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands, and Scott Traylor of 360Kid. We spoke about international gaming practices and how they might apply to education. Willem-Jan pointed out that gaming is fundamentally at cross-purposes to the traditional educational structure. Traditionally, educators try to make things as explicit as possible, with clear, direct information, chunked for easy absorption. The formula is X and the answer is Y; make sure you remember it because it'll be on the test. Sounds pretty good, right?

But now think about games for a second. Games do exactly the opposite. They create artificial complexity because, without it, there would be nothing for you to master. Imagine a game where you were told in advance that a surprise monster was lurking around the corner and that you'd have to step right and fire left. It would be spectacularly, mind-bogglingly dull. In games, Willem-Jan told me, we are failing 80% of the time. Imagine if you failed 80% of the time in school. Would you persist?

When we make information too easily accessible in education, we lose something fundamental in the process: the joy inherent in figuring something out. When we pour chocolate on broccoli because we heard gamification is where it's at these days, we are forgetting that the badges are merely symptoms of the mastery associated with them.

Maybe there are some things, like online payment, that we should always make as explicit and as easy as possible -- although it would be an interesting thought experiment to see how you could make a game out of paying for services. In the end, though, gaming is about incenting behavior. Games are designed to get players to adopt a specific goal and then to devote all of their resources to achieving that goal. So next time you're thinking about gamification, forget about the rewards. Forget about the points. You don't need no stinkin' badges.

What you need is the opportunity for mastery. Your customers are creative, adaptive, problem-solving beings. Give them the chance, and they will show you.

After all, wouldn't you like the chance to shine?

2 comments about "Forget Gamification: It's Time For Mastery ".
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  1. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., June 10, 2011 at 5:20 p.m.


    OMG ... you try to explain this stuff to customers who don't game and they ... just ... don't ... get ... it.

    Sadly, that's natural, because most of them aren't trying to develop good games, they're just trying to sell something, or induce a feel-good/high-awareness resonance around a brand. Which is, of course, irrelevant at best to game quality, and often stands in pathological relation to a game-creation effort.

    Mastery, as you say, and 'flow' are central. The points and badges _can_ be socially relevant, in that they prove a certain level of attainment to peers. But they're entirely secondary to developing game experience that recruits the desire to stay on-task, incrementally improve performance, and earn the mostly-spiritual compound-interest of increased expertise.

  2. Rajat Paharia, June 11, 2011 at 1:16 p.m.

    Kaila -

    I agree with everything you say about mastery here, but I think you're painting a false dichotomy with “mastery vs. gamification”. It’s not “either/or”. You can use gamification to drive mastery, just look at Ribbon Hero, Khan Academy and others. It’s naive to think that intrinsic motivators are enough. If they were, we’d all be skinny, healthy and smart. The folks at HopeLab, for instance, realize this. Tweens are getting fatter. They’re not intrinsically motivated to exercise. So they built Zamzee, which tracks and rewards their activity, and now the kids are 30% more active, the equivalent of running an extra marathon every month.

    Gamification, when used well, can have meaningful results and provide meaningful value to people.

    Some links of interest:

    best, - Rajat Paharia
    Founder, Chief Product Officer, Bunchball

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