On Gamification (Part I)

I've been a member of Gamespot - a website dedicated to news and discussion on videogames - since 2003. My rank on it is Super Bagman (Level 23), which I gather isn't particularly high, since the site suggests you can go up to at least Level 71. I also have a list of achievements for having done mundane things, such as registering for the site, voting for the game of the year, and being a "New Game Ninja," whatever that means.

The details about levelling up in rank isn't displayed prominently, so I had to do some digging around to find it. Here's a passage that gives you some idea of what levelling up means:

To level up on GameSpot, all you need to do is to spend your time here. The levelling system exists in order to encourage users to come back to the site, and enjoy using it, in whatever way they want. This means there is really no set method of levelling up.

Common ways of spending time here include but are not limited to:
visiting the forums, posting, reading articles and blogs, watching videos, updating your profile etc. It is factors such as these which contribute towards a user's activity level, and thus, their level itself.

This is gamification. It's basically a way of using symbols (badges, titles, ranks, levels, etc.) to signify your status in a community. In broader terms, it is used to encourage certain behaviors, such has developing healthy habits, or quitting bad ones.

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"The Work of Play" in a nutshell

The book I've been working on in the past year - The Work of Play: Meaning-making in Videogames - has been published last week.

Here's the book in a nutshell:

In a chapter published in the Handbook of Research on New Literacies, Constance Steinkuehler (2008) argues that "we need a more robust account of meaning-making process itself." In this book, I've attempted to respond to that call for research by using a sociological approach that's been used in human-computer interaction studies. A common way of studying games today is through pre- and post-test studies, using quantitative methods to study variables that might impact gameplay. While these studies have been important to the field, they are limited by their ability to describe the actual process of gameplay itself, or respond to why it is that these variables impact gameplay. Moreover, many videogames are designed to be played for hours, not minutes, and players' relationships with games change over these long periods of time. Play has become a "black box" that we seldom look into and, in some case, are not interested in studying, because it's a mess to describe.

The approach used in the book was used by Lucy Suchman when she was at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, studying users following instructions in photocopiers. She found out that the interaction between users and machines can be described as a turn-taking mechanism, during which both parties (the user and the designer) have expectations for how the other processes meaning. When meanings are congruent, then the interaction proceeds smoothly; but Suchman had noticed that when communication breaks down, it is due to one or both parties making inaccurate assumptions that instructions were correctly followed, during which time the user will have to figure out where along the interaction did meaning become unclear.

The book explores games along the same lines, focusing on how players interact with one another (how meanings are developed between players) and how players interact with the game design. Some key findings described in the book are:

  • Players can misunderstand aspects of the game design and still proceed with the play with little to no impediment. This forces us to question how is it that we can ensure the intended game meaning is communicated accurately to players. In commercial games, this is seldom a problem because the key goal is for the players to have fun, however they choose to define meaning. In educational or serious games, this becomes more of a concern because we don't want players to walk away with the wrong message.
  • Players develop meanings independent of the game design. Even while interacting within the design of the game, players are actively looking for meaning, especially in situations where they are playing with one another. The games I describe in the book are fighting games, which are ideal for players who want to play in a group. I noticed that players found creative ways of developing meanings that were unique to themselves, and found ways of defining aspects of gameplay that were important to them, e.g. cheating vs. fairness.
  • Meaning-making is not a static process. Meanings change over time. The more time they spend with the game, the more they can incorporate information in the game. Since this is a qualitative study, I was able to describe these changes over long stretches of time as well as on a moment-to-moment basis.
  • The way players talk about games after playing differs from the way they talk about it while they are playing. It's not that they lie or are forgetful, but that the post hoc discussion is essentially a "reconstruction" of an event that leaves out potentially important aspects of their experience.

The book builds on the work of many game researchers in the field. It is also interdisplinary in its approach, drawing in research in sociology, anthropology, computer science, human-computer interacton, linguistics, and educational game research. I hope this research appeals to anyone in the field of games research. If you happen to read it, I look forward to any feedback and criticism you may have.

You can find the book at the publisher's site (http://www.peterlang.com/?310905) or at Amazon.com.

You can also find a sample chapter at: http://bit.ly/j3VYYl.

CFP: Cultures in virtual worlds

Note: This call for papers was submitted to a few mailing lists. It might be of interest to some of you:

Cultures in Virtual Worlds
A special issue of the New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia

Guest-edited by Jeremy Hunsinger and Adrienne Massanari

Virtual worlds (VW) embody cultures, their artefacts, and their praxes; these new and old spaces of imagination and transformation allow humans to interact in spatial dimensions. Within these spaces, culture manifests with the creation, representation, and circulation of meaningful experiences.  But virtual worlds are not novel in that regard, nor should we make the mistake to assume that they are novel in themselves.  Virtual experiences have been around in some respect for hundreds of years, and virtual worlds based in information technology have existed for at least 40 years.  The current generation of virtual worlds, with roots over four decades old in studies of virtual reality, computer supported cooperative work (CSCW), sociology, cultural studies, and related topics, provide for rich and occasionally immersive environments where people become enculturated within the world sometimes as richly as the rest of their everyday lives.   

We seek research that encounters and investigates cultures in virtual worlds in its plurality and in its richness.   To that end, we invite papers covering the breadth of the topic of cultures in and of virtual worlds. 

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Highlights from GLS 7.0

It's been four years since my last Games+Learning+Society (GLS) conference and it's been a thrill to return. GLS is one of the best conferences that focuses on learning and education and a great place to meet leading scholars in the field.

Although I missed a significant portion of the conference, I have some thoughts to share:

  • Hall of Failure: It's a near unanimous consent that this is a great addition to this conference, and a feature that other conferences--large or small--could benefit from. These are panels that focus specifically on "failures," however you choose to interpret it. The scholars were all refreshingly and brutally honest about why their attempts failed and it was a great opportunity for them to share their learning with the audience. As all researchers know, things can and do go wrong, but we almost never come out and admit it. Instead, we'd rather glean through all the successful moments and focus on that. Not only does that skew the results, that's a lost opportunity to learn from our mistakes. The session I attended included talks by Mark Chen, Eric Klopfer, Jason Haas, Lindsay Grace, and Carlton Reeve. If I had to pick one aspect of GLS 7.0 that I enjoyed the most, it would be this.
  • Gamification: I missed the main talk on gamification, but from what I can tell, there are mixed feelings about its merits. I still need to read more about this in order to comment intelligently on it, but I gather that one of the reason gamification "works" is that it doesn't really do any harm. In other words, it's likely that 90% of the time it does nothing for the learner, and 10% of the time it motivates those who are already motivated; but it never really causes people to learn less. So, if you only focus on the positive (as many studies do), then it would appear mildly successful. The problem, then, is not with gamification itself, but with people who think that gamification alone is enough. Anyway, I'll have to give this more thought in another post.
  • Unexplored tensions: One thing about conferences is that, sometimes, the conversation stops just when it gets interesting because your time has run out and the session is over. Maybe the speakers talk among themselves after, but you're not always privy to those conversations. In this case, I noticed that there were two groups that needed to speak directly with each other: 1) those who found out that hard way that "reality" is boring and cannot be turned into a good game and 2) those who believe that games can teach "reality" (or some aspect of it). To be sure, there's some middle ground. For example, maybe games don't have to reflect reality visually but can still embody some aspect of it, such as some underlying process; but that's a notoriously difficult balance to find. That's probably why it's relatively easier to design a game that teaches real STEM concepts because those are more straightforward to simulate than fuzzy concepts such as "historical thinking." Maybe there should be a session or two that put a practicing teacher, a game designer, a graphic designer and a content expert on the same panel and have them talk directly to each other.
  • Conference pampering: GLS is, by far, the only conference that keeps its attendees well-pampered and fed throughout. No brown bag lunches with dried wraps or you're-on-your-own-for-dinner. They treat you like royalty at GLS and it's incredible. Having been to so many conferences, I really appreciate this, and I'm sure the other attendees do as well.

Review: L.A. Noire

It's June and L.A. Noire is the first game I've actually played this year. Would've been Dead Space 2 except a bizarre bug prevented me from getting very far, so, great jobs guys. I'll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum in this review.

I'm trying to decide whether it's possible to enjoy a game but not actually like it. Rockstar Games has put out some bestselling titles over the years, and L.A. Noire is bound to be a strong Game of the Year contender. But L.A. Noire is a bit like Avatar - you can be dazzled by the visual world you're immersed in if you can also overlook some serious issues.

L.A. Noire has a solid plot. In fact, the narrative is one of the best part of the game, weaving together several storylines in a way that works in a videogame. You play as Cole Phelps, a young detective who moves through different parts of the LAPD, from patrol to traffic, homicide, vice, and arson. Unlike the Grand Theft Auto games, you're on a different side of the law now and you're spending most of your time solving crimes. Although it's released by Rockstar, this isn't much of a car chasing game (although there are a few of those); the key game mechanic here is using your intuition to solve crimes.

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