Game over? When play becomes mechanical

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There’s a badge for everything these days Photo credit: rocket ship/ Creative Commons

It doesn’t seem so long ago that gaming mechanics were the hottest thing on the web.  The advent of Foursquare and the juggernaut that is Farmville alerted the world to the potential of simple, social gaming mechanics. We marveled at how hard users were prepared to work for virtual currency and how powerful an incentive points, levels and badges seemed to be in driving participation, sharing and retention. Game theory and user experience design collided with the newly sexy field of Behavioural Economics to offer a panacea for all the world’s social and commercial ills.

Over the last six months, it’s often seemed that there’s literally no field of human endeavour (or suffering) that hasn’t had gaming mechanics applied to it. We can now get points and badges for reading articles, or for watching television. (I remember when you had to at least be able to swim 25 metres or tie a knot.) On a more altruistic level, we Brits can earn points for participating in the “Big Society” . On a more alarming level, US citizens can earn points for voting.

Then came the inevitable backlash. Zynga CEO Mark PIncus caused something of a stir by freely admitting “I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away”.  Ian Bogost developed the Cow Clicker game partly as a satire on the social gaming industry, together with an intelligent and considered articulation of his concerns around the industry.  Ironically, people then played Cow Clicker…and seemed to enjoy it. Continue reading