Gamified Apps are not Games

Gamified Apps are not Games

I grew up in a little town in the western part of Kentucky, in a stereotypical farm economy just east of the breadbasket. My family was decidedly rural and we were farmers — soybeans, corn, tobacco, gardens, cows, horses, tractors, fences.

My dad wasn’t especially good at it — his reach often exceeded his grasp — but he managed to hold things together. Farming is as tough as you’d imagine (to quote a friend from high school who is still farming, “the American farmer is the biggest gambler on the planet”). I loved the pastures and creeks and woods, but I hated the all-consuming nature of farm work — it’s an endless amount of very hard manual labor, and I never warmed up to it.

Whether I liked it or not, I was stuck being a “farm kid”, but I had my coping strategies: reading, writing, music, games, electronics and eventually, programming. Books and stories were my first big bulwark against it all, and I was a manic reader of anything I could get my eyes on. In grade school I was a precocious, over-achieving book lover — bored to death and annoying to my teachers.

SRA was a weird bright spot. SRA cards were essentially the gamification of reading, the brainchild of Don Parker, who in the 50’s successfully pitched the system to Science Research Associates Inc., a small Chicago-based publishing company that developed vocational and aptitude tests. (The SRA Reading Laboratory Kit was first published in 1957 and eventually wound up at McGraw-Hill in 1989, where it still lives today, with over 100 million served).

SRA consisted of large boxes filled with color-coded cardboard sheets, each including a reading exercise. A student would work on a card independently of other students, then grade their own answers to multiple choice questions. Correct answers meant moving ahead until you leveled up to the next color.

The reading was short and dull, but it was a glorious grind through the colors as fast as possible. Its foundation was pure behaviorism — the pleasure of moving to a new color, or being sent to “the box” as a reward for some other good behavior.

This is a perfect example of a complicated, rather than complex, system, the epitome of gamification. The ostensible goal is to become better at reading comprehension, but the adaptive response that emerges is to become an “expert” at short-term, rote memorization. It has the effect of training the reader to navigate a complicated space in an ordered manner (“read, test, reward”) — an attention-limiting exercise that leaves little time to explore a richer, more complex space (for instance, “read, discuss, reply”).

For kids like me it was something new to combat boredom, but ultimately it did little to make me more capable as a young reader and thinker. It simply made me specialize, which is what all gamification systems do.

Unfortunately, a lot of what passes for games these days, especially on mobile, are much more like gamified apps. These games sacrifice complexity for task completion, choice for selection, and meaning for mastery. Skill is purely a function of correct responses rather the deeper learning that accompanies a well-designed risk/reward game mechanic. This is not unlike the problems inherent in Social Media, as discussed in this wonderful piece by Jordan Greenhall. Cherry-picking from the article:

In a truly complex environment, we are always empowered (and indeed often required) to generate novel (creative) actions in response to perceived circumstances. In other words, our field of choice is unbounded and, therefore, symmetric to the unbounded field potential of the complex system in which we are living. We are thus challenged to and trained to improve our responsive capacity to complex circumstances.


In a complicated environment, we are ultimately engaging in the very different mode of simply selecting the “right” or “best” action from a finite list. This is an optimization game, and while it can be extremely useful when competing in finite complicated environments (e.g., Chess) it is a capacity that is oblique to creative response. Therefore, again, the basic problem is that meaningful (and widespread) participation in this kind of platform is training our agency away from capacities that are truly adaptive and towards a narrow specialization for particular complicated games.

For the video game industry to mean something beyond profits, we’ve got to get better at generating complex gaming experiences. We must forego the desire to slam together twitchy mechanics in favor of more thoughtful design that brings back the magic of “play”, that improves our players’ “agentic capacity”, as Greenhall puts it:

In the case of complexity, the optimal choice goes in a very different direction: to become responsive. Because complex systems change, and by definition change unexpectedly, the only “best” approach is to seek to maximize your agentic capacity in general. In complication, one specializes. In complexity, one becomes more generally capable.

In order to do this at a meaningful scale, we must first be able to rely on funding sources to give us the time we need to design and implement better games. This means that publishers have to be willing to share more risk than what is typical in the industry right now. Second, we need producers and designers to be more thoughtful and eschew the gamified design tropes that have arisen over the last decade.

If you’re making games for living — whether you’re writing checks or cashing them — start challenging yourself to go back to the days of video game yore when our industry looked a little more lovingly at quality. Ask yourself if a complicated ecosystem, already saturated with hundreds of thousands of gamified apps, needs another one.

Mixing Linear Content with Non-Linear Context

There are at least three fundamental aspects of scientific inquiry — I’ve always liked the way that Ken Wilber refers to them – as three “strands” of valid knowing:

  1. Instrumental Injunction is the foundation of the scientific method, and always of the form, “if you want to know this, you must do this.” If you want to see moon craters you need a telescope. If you want to understand how a quaternion works, study Mathematics. If you want to play a game, you gotta learn the rules.
  1. Intuitive Apprehension is an immediate, direct understanding brought forward by the injunction – the acquisition and grasping of data. You look through a telescope. You study quats (and if you go into the theory of quats, you try to keep from frying your brain). You play by the rules.
  1. Communal Affirmation (or rejection) is a checking of results (apprehension of data) with others who have adequately completed the injunctive and apprehensive strands. You talk to others who have seen the same moon craters you have. You share and validate code (for example, in a video game) that replaces some of your old Euler matrices with quats. You find and play games with other players and share your strategies.

Using these strands, think about a chain of activities in a social game. Call it a quest. How does a quest work, fundamentally? How does it deliver a compelling experience — something of value? Let’s obviousify:

  1. If you want to complete a quest, you need to follow instructions. For example, you’re playing a fantasy game and the town Bard tells you a story about his missing magic lute and how he lost it, then asks you to find and return it for a reward. He infers or tells you directly what to do to get it back.
  1. You start checking off the places you need to visit, people you need to meet, battles you need to win, etc. until you finish the quest. You return to the bard for your reward. At this point you know how the quest works — its risks, its meaning to the game’s fiction, what you learned, how the journey went/felt, your reward and so on.
  1. Other players choose the same quest. Their experiences are similar to yours. If enough players finish and broadcast, the quest becomes popular, affirming or rejecting your own judgement.

A quest should have intrinsic value — (1) and (2). Without at least the appearance of gameplay — something meaningful to do, something learningful and the freedom to do it — few players will take it on and even fewer will finish it.

A quest should also have extrinsic value — (3). In fact, extrinsicly-speaking, the quest exists mostly (perhaps only) because many players have completed it and can verify and validate it. At some point the number of shared experiences will sum such that the quest will become common enough knowledge within the game world, making the prospect of finding and completing the quest far more interesting and challenging than by (1) and (2) alone.

Gamification weights (3) so much that gameplay has little value. The objective of the quest is to “play”, validate, then play again — rinse and repeat, scratch and win. It works to a certain extent, because it has a logical foundation to it. Quest components — where you go, what you do, what you see and understand, knowledge and rewards you get for your effort during the process — have less value. The reward is extrinsic and based on some other context — locations on a map, for example.

Traditional gameplay weights (1) and (2). The gameplay has most of the value — the reward is instrinsic.

How do we combine the intrinsic with the extrinsic in a way that leverages both (ideally with optimal development efficiency)? Or, how do we make the extrinsic a little more intrinsic — and the intrinsic a little more extrinsic? How do mix linear content with non-linear context?

Here’s one example. The quest is our “Quest for the Magic Lute”: Find the Bard’s lute through a manageable but somewhat complex narrative of places, people and battle encounters, then return for a handsome reward. However, upon completion there’s an additional reward — you’re now allowed to pass on the quest to others with some game-generated modifications. You might be allowed to substitute a qualifying item from your inventory for the quest target, and create the “Quest for the Magic Ring.” Or you can change two or three places on the path and the game will re-plot the journey.  Or you can re-write some of the story, within prescribed limitations, keeping the basic integrity of the narrative intact.

Changing a few parameters — intrinsic parametrization, a bit like mashing-up — alters the original logic or quality of the quest, adding more or different value. Taking ownership of the quest — changing the starting gate to the experience and its external identity — adds extrinsic value since you’re motivated to spread the word about “your” quest. If enough players take ownership — sort of like curating their own content — players become motivated to look for “repeatably unique” experiences where something familiar is also something new.