Gamifying games: Steam trading cards

The Summer Sale cards drop when you vote on games you want to buy, or spend money on games. Subtle.

The Summer Sale cards drop when you vote on games you want to buy, or spend money on games. Subtle.

As part of the Steam summer sale, which ends tomorrow, the service has released publicly the trading card system that’s been in beta for a few months. It works like this: participating games have a ‘badge’ that you can acquire for your profile, and that contributes to a recently introduced level system. You get the badge by collecting cards – virtual items that land in your inventory – and crafting them together, and in the process you might get a special emoticon you can use in chat as well. You can get up to half the cards you need by playing the game, and the rest you have to trade with friends or buy on the community market. You can make the same badge multiple times, earning you more experience points towards your level and getting you a new image. And if you’re high enough level, you have a chance at getting booster packs that contain several cards, or foil cards that can be combined for an extra special badge.

Let’s be absolutely clear here: we are talking about .jpgs on screens. Collections of pixels.

Every time someone buys a card, Steam gets a cut – and I assume so do the game devs. People who don’t care about the cards get a chance at making some very easy money – pennies at a time, perhaps more if they get a rare drop. People who care a lot can plough time and money into buying rare pictures. People who feel like making money off this can play the market – that’s already happening with the summer sale cards, as they’re high enough volume to sit at a stable price, but folks are only making a penny or two at a time. But once the economy starts to settle down, some folks will get good enough at it that they won’t need to pay real money for games ever again. Some people will most likely write bots to autobuy items below a certain price, too, once prices start to stabilise more broadly. If it’s successful – and it looks successful, right now – it’ll become its own market, the way MMO trading posts do, algorithmic trading and all.

At the moment, badges aren’t tied to achievements – special pictures unlocked when you do something specific within games – so there’s no gameplay tie. In part that’s likely to be because achievement cheating is so common, devaluing achievements as a participation mechanic. But the flip side is that you can get card drops just by having a game open – you don’t need to be actively playing it – so plenty of people are leaving their computers on with card-dropping games open, and idle. Games they’ve not yet played, or games they’ve played to death and don’t want to have to go back to in order to get the new special picture. It’s not a bad way of making a bit of pocket money.

But it’s almost certainly not what the system designers wanted, unless the whole purpose was just to get players to open up games more often. It’s definitely a way of getting a game’s ‘hours played’ stats up, if that’s a metric you care about. A lot of people buy games in Steam sales then don’t play them (I’m guilty of this) – this might be a way to trigger collector types into at least opening them up for the sake of collecting something else. But because of the current implementation, it’s not actually incentivising play: it’s just getting people to sit on menu screens while they do other things. Activity levels in Steam are going to go up very fast, but people won’t actually be playing. It’s a gamification system that offers incentives for a behaviour that the designers probably don’t actually want. (Well, the game designers at least. I can certainly imagine that a lot of transaction fees and inflated activity metrics aren’t a particularly bad thing for Valve.)

Incidentally, the :weed: emoticon, which drops from the Port Royale 3 badge, is going for $10. People really, really like special internet pictures.

If you don’t want to talk to people, turn your comments off

Advance warning: long post is long, and opinionated. Please, if you disagree, help me improve my thinking on this subject. And if you have more good examples or resources to share, please do.

News websites have a problem.

Well, OK, they have a lot of problems. The one I want to talk about is the comments. Generally, the standard of discourse on news websites is pretty low. It’s become almost an industry standard to have all manner of unpleasantness below the line on news stories.

Really, this isn’t limited to news comments. All over the web, people are discovering a new ability to speak without constraints, with far fewer consequences than speech acts offline, and to explore and colonise new spaces in which to converse.

Continue reading

The pointsification of news comments

Nieman Lab has a post up on “the newsonomics of gamification and civilisation“. It talks about using points and badges, earned by reading, sharing and commenting on stories, to mark people out as “being a valued member of our local news community”, and then discusses some other activities that could be “incentivised” (there’s a word that should be hunted down and destroyed by the @guardianstyle team) with the application of points and badges.

Honestly, articles like this make me tremendously sad. Points and badges are not the same thing as long-term engagement or monetisation, as Foursquare has already amply demonstrated. Gamified activities are not the same thing as play. And if all we have to offer our readers in return for their actions are empty, meaningless “rewards” instead of genuine value, they will – long term – leave. I’ve talked before about the overjustification effect – it applies particularly to news organisations, where we want people to value the activities they do on our websites because they are genuinely enjoyable, useful, interesting, engaging, in their own rights. Blogging, commenting, discussing, sharing, reading, viewing – these things should not be chores. (And “paying contributors with points” is not paying contributors at all, and is intellectually dishonest as well as potentially exploitative.) As Kathy Sierra says in the comments:

I say “may” because the potential demotivating side effects of extrinsic rewards do not apply to areas that have no intrinsically rewarding aspect. In other words, using extrinsic rewards to help me get through something tedious, rote, mundane, painful, etc. — things I would never ordinarily find pleasurable *without* the rewards — is an excellent use of gamification with mostly all upside. But to use gamification in areas like education, civic engagement, or even just participating on a website or forum, we should proceed with extreme caution and thought. Because after the short-term spike in engagement, we may create a permanent motivation deficit. We may end up worse than we were before.

I always feel like articles like this miss the point somewhat. By focussing on gamification and assuming that’s all there is to game dynamics, news organisations are genuinely missing out on real opportunities to innovatively use games for journalism. Indie games companies are already doing this sort of thing. Things like Sweatshop, the many Wikileaks games, the Osama bin Laden Counter Strike map, and innovative data journalism experiments in Minecraft (this year’s Young Rewired State best in show winners) – they all have problems, but they all exist, and this field will get larger as game design tools are simplified and as more people have greater access to the tools for digital game creation. News organisations risk missing the boat.

But the most depressing thing is that by taking to automated systems to assign value, news organisations miss out on opportunities to actually talk to people, to build genuine community. Some gamification systems can work, especially for getting people to do things they don’t already want to do, but automating away reader interaction seems a little like an admission that a news organisation sees little intrinsic value in its readers comments, and expects its readers to comment out of duty or out of competitiveness rather than desire.

If people appreciate the community, feel they belong and want to contribute, why do you need to give them points? If people like your content and want to share it, why would points make a difference? Conversely, if they don’t, aren’t you just incentivising spam? If people feel their news tips are valued and appreciated, why would points make a difference to that? If you want your users to do something, why is gamification the answer? Surely, changing the activity into something they actually want to do would be a better, more effective option?

Google News: doing gamification wrong

OK, I know I’m late to this. I’ve been busy. But it’s still irritating me, more than a fortnight after it was announced, so here we are.

Google News US has launched collectable badges for reading news stories.

This is stupid. There are several reasons why it’s stupid, and I’m sure you can come up with your own – leave some in the comments if I’ve missed them. Here are my main problems with the idea.

These badges don’t represent anything. You don’t have to learn anything or complete anything or even finish reading the news articles in order to get the shiny reward. There’s no sense of achievement, no mastery involved here. So what’s it rewarding?

They encourage clickspam. Look, most of the people who seriously care about collecting these badges are going to be hardcore completionists. The easiest way to collect them is to CTRL+click your way down the entire Google News homepage a couple of times a day for a couple of weeks. Done. Does anyone benefit from that? Anyone at all?

They’re counterproductive. It’s relatively well established that extrinsic rewards (eg digital badges) reduce intrinsic motivation (eg the desire to be informed about the news). It’s called the overjustification effect. You might get some short-term results in terms of improved participation – but once I’ve gotten all the badges, what then? If the only reason I’m reading the news is to collect the shiny things, what happens when all the shiny things are gone?

They make it about Google, not about the news. This isn’t an attempt to serve me better as a user. We’re heading perilously close to the Foursquare badgification realisation (slide 12 here) – when it becomes clear that certain user actions are in fact of very little benefit to the user, but of great benefit to the company. I’m not going to choose Google News over any other aggregator unless it’s genuinely better. Badges might shift that balance very briefly – but shiny things and Google+ integration are no substitute for fantastic experiences. There’s still no real reason to stop using Flipboard or Zite or Twitter.

They make digital news consumption self-conscious. If I want to make my badges public, they become part of my publicly constructed identity. So if I have a guilty penchant for celebrity facelift gossip, I’m not indulging it through Google News any more, because I want the world to see me in a certain way – for similar reasons, certain classic novels are far more often purchased than read. Making personal consumption data public distorts behaviour.

They’re getting in the way of better ideas. As @betterthemask pointed out when I was getting narked about this on Twitter: this is Google, you’d expect them to iterate. But if this is their prototype, I can’t help but feel they’ve got the whole thing ass-backwards. What if they’d started with the desire to encourage more people to actually seek out news, and then built something that would appeal to folks teetering on the edge?

What if they’d made something that genuinely helped make news consumption more fun?

Braindump: just add points

Interesting presentation by Sebastian Deterding looking at what user experience designers can learn from game design.

Although news orgs face very different challenges from UX designers, the basic messages about shallow vs deep engagement, using multiple interacting points/currencies and measuring achievement, effort and attainment in a meaningful way are very relevant. Take a look:

It’s interesting to look at the Huffington Post’s community moderation badges in terms of this presentation. My gut instinct is that they fall, along with Foursquare, into a category of too simplistic game-like systems (“Just Add Points”) that don’t actually tap into the power and fun of learning that is one of the fundamental building blocks of good game design.

It’s also worth checking out this post on rescuing princesses at the Lost Garden. If you click through to the slides (PDF) there’s a thoughtful discussion of the differences between app and game design, and a very useful breakdown of STARS atoms – essentially, small chunks that introduce players/users to new skills, let them discover how to use them, and ensure they have mastered them.

Between them, these two posts and the thoughts behind them make a mockery of the idea of game mechanics as simple point systems you can pop atop pre-designed apps or comment systems or whatever it is you’re already doing. You have to design with exploratory learning in mind, with a learning curve that doesn’t flatten out horizontally or vertically and with end goals and nested goals to maintain engagement.

I wonder how the Guardian’s crowdsourced investigation into MPs’ expenses would have gone if they’d added this sort of rich game-led design? As well as giving long-term and short-term goals/rewards (like Twitter translator levels, perhaps) with status bars to show progress, perhaps they could have rewarded people who found something of real import with a status bump, or added exploratory learning elements by advancing users towards the goal of signing off on things other people had flagged as interesting. Or teaching basic maths, or collating data into a wiki-style “what does my MP spend” database, or encouraging/letting users learn to create their own visualisations of the data. Hard to say how well or whether that would have worked, but it’s easy to see wider possibilities in projects like that.

/end braindump