Why Gamify and What to Avoid in Library Gamification

In my last post, “Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services,” I presented several ideas for applying game dynamics to library services. After the post, I have received a comment like this, which I thought worthwhile to further explore.

  • What about the risk of gamification – the fact that it can deprive people of internal motivation for serious activities by offering superficial external rewards?

We tend to associate the library with learning, research, scholarship, and something serious. By contrast, games make us think of fun. For this reason, it is natural to worry about a library or any library-related activities such as reading, studying, researching becoming frivolous and trivial by gamification. In an effort to address this concern, I will point out that (a) gamification is a society-wide trend (and as such, highly likely to become not so frivolous after all), (b) what to avoid in gamifying libraries, and (c) what the limit of gamification is in this post. The key to successful gamification is to harness its impressive power while being fully aware of its limit so that you won’t overestimate what you can achieve with it.

Why gamify?

SCVNGR plans to create a game platform as Facebook built a social platform.

Gamification is not just a hot topic in libraries or higher education. It is a much bigger society-wide trend. In a similar way in which Facebook has evolved from a single website to practically ‘the’ social platform and layer of the real world with over 900 million active users as of May 2012, now a game layer is slowly being built on top of the real world. Just as the social layer effectively fused social elements into the world, the game layer brings gaming elements into reality. A game layer that we can compare to Facebook has not yet emerged. Nor is clear how far gamification will penetrate our daily activities. But we can imagine what a semi-universal social platform is going to be like from location-based smartphone apps such as Foursquare and Gowalla. Instead of building a virtual world for a game, these apps gamify the real world. Our mundane everyday activities in the non-game context turn into gaming opportunities for rewards like badges, points, rankings, and statuses.

But why apply game design elements to the non-game context in the first place? The short answer is that people are more motivated, engaged, and often achieve more in games than in the real world. Why are people better at a game than in real life? It is because games offer an environment intentionally designed to provide people with optimal experience by means of various gaming mechanisms and dynamics. Games make people perform better in the way the real world does not. It was in this context that a game designer and game studies researcher, Jane McGonigal, stated that reality is broken.”1 Gamification aims at extracting those game mechanisms and apply them to reality in order to make the real world experience more interesting and engaging.

Gabe Zichermann’s definition of gamificaion as “the process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems” expresses the goal of gamification well.2 In this definition lies a good answer to the question of why libraries need to pay attention to games and game dynamics. Game dynamics can raise library users’ level of engagement with library resources, programs, and services. They can help library users to solve problems more effectively and quickly by making the process fun. A good example of such gamification is the NCSU Mobile Scanvenger Hunt, which was described in the previous post here in ACRL TechConnect blog.

What to avoid in library gamification

Since games can induce strong motivation and spur a high level of productivity, it is easy to overestimate the power of game dynamics. Perhaps, everything we do will turn into a game one day and we will be the slaves of omnipresent games that demand ever more motivation and productivity than we can summon! However, not all games are fun or worth playing. Designing good game experiences is nothing but easy.

The first thing to avoid in gamification is poor gamification. Gamification can easily backfire if it is poorly designed. Creating a library game or gamifying certain aspects of a library doesn’t guarantee that it will be successful with its target group. Games that are too challenging or too boring are both poorly designed games. Naturally, it is much more difficult to design and create a good game than a bad one. The quality of the game – i.e. how fun it is – can make or break your library’s gamification project.

Second, one can over-gamify and make everything into a game. This is quite unlikely to happen at a library. But it is still important to remember that people’s attention is limited in amount. The more information we have to process and digest, the scarcer our attention becomes. If a library offers many different games or a variety of gamified experiences all at once, users may become overwhelmed and tired. For this reason, in pioneering the application of game dynamics to libraries, the best approach might be to start small and simple.

Third, a game that is organization-centered rather than user-centered can be worse than no game at all. A game with organization-centered design uses external rewards to increase the organization’s bottom line in the short term.3 Games designed this way attempt to control behavior with rewards. Once users feel the game is playing them rather than they are playing the game, however, they are likely to have a negative feeling towards the game and the organization. While a library doesn’t have the goal of maximizing profits like a business, which can easily drive a business to lean towards organization-centered gamification, it is entirely possible for a library to design a game that is too heavily focused on the educational aspect of the game, for example. Such gamification is likely to result in lukewarm responses from library patrons if what they are looking for is fun more than anything else. This doesn’t mean that gamification cannot make a significant contribution to learning. It means that successful gamification should bring out learning as a natural by-product of pleasant and fun experiences, not as a forced outcome.

Harnessing the power of game dynamics

Games are played for fun, and the fun comes from their being ‘not’ real life where one’s action comes with inconvenient real-world consequences. For this reason, when a goal other than fun is imposed on it, the game begins to lose its magical effect on motivation and productivity.  It is true that games can achieve amazing things. For example, the game FoldIt revealed the structure of a specific protein that long eluded biochemists.4 But people played this game not because the result would be revolutionary in science but because it was simply fun to play.

It is probably unrealistic to think that every task and project can be turned into a fun game. However, games can be used to make not-so-fun work into something less painful and even enjoyable to some degree, particularly when we lack motivation. In his book, Game Frame, Aaron Dignan cites the story of tennis player Andre Agassi.5 Agassi played a mental game of imagining the tennis ball machine as a black dragon spitting balls in an attempt to smite him. He did not hit 2,500 balls a day purely because it was fun. But by making the grueling practice into a game in his mind and tying the game with his own real-life goal of becoming a successful tennis player, he was able to endure the training and make the progress he needed.

In applying game dynamics to library services and programs, we can take either of two approaches:

  1. The ultimate goal can be simply having fun in some library-related context. There is nothing wrong with this, and at minimum, it will make the library a more friendly and interesting place to patrons.
  2. Or, we can utilize game dynamics to transform a more serious task or project (such as learning how to cite literature for a research paper) into something less painful and even enjoyable.

 

Gamification with little investment

Budge, a gamification website

Gamification is still a new trend. A pioneering gamification app, Gowalla lost to Foursquare in competition and was acquired by Facebook last December, and it is yet to be seen how Facebook will put Gowalla to use. Another gamification tool, Budge is closing down at the end of this month. For this reason, those who are interested in trying a gamification project at a library may wonder if the result will be worth investment.

In this early stage of gamification, it will be useful to remember that gamification doesn’t necessarily require complicated technology or huge investment. For example, you can run a successful game in your library instruction class with a pencil and paper. How about rewarding your library patrons who write to your library’s Facebook page and get most “likes” by other patrons? Or perhaps, a library can surprise and delight the first library patron who checks in your library’s Foursquare or Yelp page by offering a free coffee coupon at the library coffeeshop or simply awarding the Early-Bird badge? In gamification, imagination and creativity can go a long way.

What are your gamification ideas that can engage library patrons and enliven their library experience without huge investment? Share them with us here!

Notes
  1. Jane McGonigal. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 3.
  2. Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham. Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps. (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2011), xiv.
  3.  The distinction between games with organization-centered design vs. those with user-centered is from Scott Nicholson, “A User-Centered Theoretical Framework for Meaningful Gamification,” (pre-print) http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/meaningfulframework.pdf.
  4. Elizabeth Armstrong Moore, “Foldit Game Leads to AIDS Research Breakthrough.” CNET, Sep. 19, 2011, http://news.cnet.com/8301-27083_3-20108365-247/foldit-game-leads-to-aids-research-breakthrough/.
  5. Aaron Dignan, Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success, (New York: Free Press, 2011), 80.

33 Comments on “Why Gamify and What to Avoid in Library Gamification”

  1. […] Aug 7th, 2012 by Bohyun (Library Hat). *** This blog post has been originally published in ACRL TechConnect 0n August 7, […]

  2. […] » Why Gamify and What to Avoid in Library Gamification ACRL TechConnect Blog Many companies are beginning to implement video game technology in conjunction with online marketing efforts to increase customer loyalty and revenue. Universal Web Consulting, a company specializing in e-commerce, explains the importance of such tactics. […]

  3. I invite you to read Scott Nicholson’s post called “The Risks of Rewards: When BLAP Gamification is Problematic” on the blog I co-edit, “tl-dr: Where Gamers and Information Collide.) The post is available at http://tl-dr.ca/?p=2055

  4. Games are a form of, let us hope, voluntary conditioning. The more people accept gamification, the more they are accepting benign conditioning. But even benign conditioning is conditioning and can reenforce a lack of skepticism.

    Games are fine as actual games, where people give fully informed consent for a brief period of time. But I am wary of the creep of gamification and its unintended consequences.

    In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God sends his rain on the good and the evil. He does not coerce us into doing the right thing–he makes it our choice. Whether you believe or not, long valid religious traditions often carry grains of truth. They have to to survive.

    I look forward to reading “The Risks of Rewards.”

  5. […] on acrl.ala.org Share this:TwitterFacebookPinterestLinkedInTumblrStumbleUponDiggRedditEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe […]

  6. […] In my last post, “Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services,” I presented several ideas for applying game dynamics to library services. After the post, I have received a comment like this, which I thought worthwhile to further explore. What about the risk of gamification – the fact that it can deprive people of internal motivation for serious activities by offering superficial external rewards? …The key to successful gamification is to harness its impressive power while being fully aware of its limit so that you won’t overestimate what you can achieve with it.  […]

  7. […] What about the risk of gamification – the fact that it can deprive people of internal motivation for serious activities by offering superficial external rewards? ACRL Tech Connect article on gamification in libraries.  […]

  8. […] What about the risk of gamification – the fact that it can deprive people of internal motivation for serious activities by offering superficial external rewards? ACRL Tech Connect article on gamification in libraries.  […]

  9. […] » Why Gamify and What to Avoid in Library Gamification ACRL TechConnect Blog […]

  10. Thanks for this. We work with faculty as well as students creating course material and gamifying looks like an interesting option to explore. Here I’m actually thinking of faculty rather than students. Faculty are the ones less likely to welcome change and without their buy-in nothing we do will ever reach the students.

    Any suggestions on reaching adult learners? We’ve tried top down model (admittedly without much enthusiasm on our part) and are now looking for ways to introduce professional development as if it might actually be interesting!

    • Bohyun Kim says:

      Hi Scott, Thanks for the comment. Introducing gaming ideas to faculty activities would be definitely more challenging than doing so to students. Since the faculty tend to be very tight on their time, I would target activities that they have to perform anyway and then maybe find a way to gamify them in the way the result will be not only fun but also somehow add value to them aside from added fun. For example, I use Foursqure to keep the list of the places I visited during a trip for a record. It has been developed as a gaming app but I use it for practical purpose mostly. Also what counts as fun can vary sometimes depending on an age group. This may be something to keep in mind if your target group are adults. Hope this helps and good luck!

  11. […] We tend to associate the library with learning, research, scholarship, and something serious. By contrast, games make us think of fun. For this reason, it is natural to worry about a library or any library-related activities such as reading, studying, researching becoming frivolous and trivial by gamification. In an effort to address this concern, I will point out that (a) gamification is a society-wide trend (and as such, highly likely to become not so frivolous after all), (b) what to avoid in gamifying libraries, and (c) what the limit of gamification is in this post. The key to successful gamification is to harness its impressive power while being fully aware of its limit so that you won’t overestimate what you can achieve with it.  […]

  12. […] In my last post, “Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services,” I presented several ideas for applying game dynamics to library services. After the post, I have received a comment like this, which I thought worthwhile to further explore. What about the risk of gamification – the fact that it can deprive people of internal motivation for serious activities by offering superficial external rewards? …The key to successful gamification is to harness its impressive power while being fully aware of its limit so that you won’t overestimate what you can achieve with it.  […]

  13. […] really needs to enhance a user’s experience of a given service. As Bohyun Kim points out in this article, it really either needs to create an atmosphere of fun in a library context or it needs to […]

  14. […] enjoyable for users. There are many positives to be found in gamification. One of the main ones, as Bohyun Kim explains, is that it enables users/workers to complete what could originally be boring and […]

  15. […] and where they come back for more. I will assume that fun is crucial for gamification to work best. Bohyun (2012) is right in his article that that ‘successful gamification should bring out learning as a […]

  16. […] like any other technology solution, comes with caveats that organisations would do well to heed. Why Gamify and What to Avoid in Library Gamification point out that it is easy to overestimate the power of game dynamics identifying poor gamification, […]

  17. […] consider aspects of gamification within my professional career, although I will also be careful, as Kim Bohyun warned, not to go […]

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  22. […] In my last post, “Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services,” I presented several ideas for applying game dynamics to library services. After the post, I have received a comment like this, which I…  […]

  23. […] like any other technology solution, comes with caveats that organisations would do well to heed. Why Gamify and What to Avoid in Library Gamification point out that it is easy to overestimate the power of game dynamics identifying poor gamification, […]

  24. […] Kim, B. (2012, August 7). Why gamify and what to avoid in library gamification [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/?p=1633 […]

  25. […] noted in this article, the information provided through gamification should be imparted seamlessly, whilst the user has […]

  26. […] In conclusion, “successful gamification should bring out learning as a natural by-product of pleasant and fun experi…”. […]

  27. […] of the above factors, the limitation of game is also needed to consider. According to Kim (2012): (1) Poor gamification design will give negative effect to the users. If the design is too simple […]