Play requires consent

For any game to be a game, to work as play, it requires consent. Everyone has to agree to play, as individuals, and then collectively (or individually) agree the rules by which you’ll play, and the boundaries on the experience – the things that aren’t in the game, as well as the things that are.

You learn this, running live games or even tabletop ones. Playing with other people requires consent from all the participants, in the same way that sex does, and if it’s withdrawn then play with that person has to end. At live events we even set up safe words, ways to stop the fantasy and reassert the real world – we’ve always used “STOP THE GAME” shouted as loud as you can, for the avoidance of doubt – and that’s not just a safety call for injuries. It’s also a “get me out of here”, an “I’m not OK with this”, a withdrawal of consent.

In tabletop games, or at least ones with a good group that might touch on dark themes, it’s pretty common to have a quick discussion of hard limits up front. Some people are fine with body horror in their tabletop play, other people just don’t want to go there during pretendy fun time. Some people are terrified of spiders. Some people don’t want in-character relationships. It’s all fine, as long as you negotiate your boundaries up front and don’t make assumptions. (Sometimes you only find out where your boundaries are in the middle of a game, and that’s OK too. That’s when you step out.)

A fair few videogames forget that consent can be withdrawn, or assume that the act of picking up a controller is consent to anything that happens while playing. They forget to set out their boundaries in advance; they don’t signal strongly enough that this or that theme will come up in play and if that’s a problem you might not want to play on. I’ve yet to see a non-text-based videogame that acknowledges scenes players might not want to participate in, warns them ahead of time and lets them skip those scenes specifically without having to just stop playing altogether.

There’s interesting variations on the rule-setting elements of consent in things like permadeath playthroughs, speed runs, cheats and exploits. Some are players adding extra levels of rules for themselves, defining the experience more tightly than the game does; others are players implicitly trying to break the game’s own defined experience – effectively trying to do things the game itself doesn’t consent to. (Except that by virtue of not being sentient, games can’t consent.)

And there are interesting game spaces springing up in which consent is a serious issue. DayZ and Rust are games in which you can not just die but be taken prisoner, have your avatar’s actions dictated by players, and be put in situations to which you have not consented. The tale of a player imprisoned in Rust is funny, sure, but it’s also something they haven’t consented to. It’s only fun as long as you’re happy to go along with it, within the experience you want to have. It stops being fun, it stops being play, the minute you as a human being want out.

A few videogames that are played in group settings or party spaces sometimes run into problems; I’ve been witness to sessions of Johann Sebastian Joust, for example, in which people not playing were used as obstacles, or otherwise drawn into the game. That leads to issues, sometimes. The boundaries between player and not-player aren’t always as clear as who’s holding the controller, and one player assuming consent to play from a not-player who doesn’t want to can get tricky. It’s irritating at best.

But the worst culprits for failing to understand that play requires consent are not really game creators at all. Gamification in the workplace, which is still around and still annoying me, takes the idea of playful activity and participation and makes it compulsory. By removing the ability to refuse your consent you remove a player’s ability to play. Meta-game mechanics (note: none of these are actual game mechanics) like points, scoreboards, achievements and so on rely on a playable game to function in the game world. Without play, an achievement is not anything like a game, in the same way that an exam certificate is not anything like a game. It’s all just work, which you must now do while you’re smiling.

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?

Playing Gamecamp

Yesterday was Gamecamp 4, the first one I’ve been to, and I had a properly fantastic time. Some excellent sessions, some fascinating conversations, and some surprisingly forgiving zombies made it a great day.

Here’s what I took from the day.

  • We like stories in our games, and we like games in our stories, but not all games (or stories) need both.
  • Boss fights interrupt flow, but can be used to build interesting characters. They can be frustrating (Metal Gear Solid), but when they’re done well and foreshadowed properly, they can also be hugely satisfying (Limbo).
  • Free play without structure isn’t a game.
  • Digital games suck at relationships.
  • A lot of digital games writing sucks, full stop.
  • Romance and sex in games are two very different things with different problems to be solved.
  • Some problems being tackled by digital game folks have already been solved by live game folks, and vice versa.
  • When under attack, people seem to instinctively try to get to high ground. When high ground is not available, they use tables.
  • Lemon jousting is harder than it looks.
  • Mechanically, World of Warcraft and Farmville are (depressingly?) similar.
  • We like our extrinsic motivators without coercive social marketing practices.
  • Gamification isn’t particularly interesting to people who already make games.
  • My working definition of emergent stories – stories created by players interacting with game mechanics without a designer getting in the way – is flawed, hugely flawed, but works OK for demonstration purposes.
  • Emergent stories need space to emerge. People make up stories to fill gaps.
  • Story can be constructed after experience, collaboratively.
  • Someone has already run an art heist game in a museum. I really hope they do it again. Soon.
  • Museums, like news organisations, need help making good games with few resources.
  • The Keyworth building at London South Bank Uni would be an excellent venue for a full-scale game of Zombie.
  • The unconference format just works. No bit of my day was boring or slow or non-interactive. I went to half a dozen really interesting talks, and missed about a dozen more, and that’s fine.
  • Always put zombies in the lifts.

Facebook: Sim Social

Facebook is a simulation game.

Hear me out. This is the culmination of quite a long period of mashing obscure concepts into my brain and seeing what sticks. If it doesn’t make sense, please rip it apart in the comments.

Sim Social is a massive multi-user dungeon (MUD) about building an identity, which you do by making “friends”, “sharing” digital artefacts (photos, videos, links, text), and “liking” things – objects, concepts, individuals, brands, the aforementioned digital artefacts. It’s played in real time with real people, and the level to which you decide to play yourself or a character is entirely up to you.

It functions, in a way, like old-school text adventure games. At a basic level, text games let the player use verb noun combinations – “get sword”, “kill snake”, “drink potion” – to act on the game world and progress the game. The verbs involved tend to be very limited and to have strictly defined fields of action. So for instance “get” is a one-time-only action which only works on a particular class of object. It changes the status of that object from being in the game world to being in the player’s inventory, and it opens up the possibility of further actions – “get sword” leads to “use sword”, or in slightly more sophisticated games, “kill snake with sword”.

“Get sword” and “friend Mary” function in fascinatingly similar ways. From your perspective, “Mary” is lying around in the game space – you might come across her through both interacting with certain things (like being in the same room of the MUD at the same time) or you might go into the game specifically looking for “Mary” because you know that she’s there and you want her to be part of your experience on Sim Social. So you find her, and you friend her, and now she’s in your inventory and you can do other things with her, like tag her in photos or get access to her status updates.

This is not to imply, of course, that people are things. But the way Facebook’s interaction is set up – the rules it imposes on the simulation – does imply certain things about the game world.

That’s not a new thought. Ian Bogost talks about the procedural rhetoric of video games – the explicit or implicit arguments that games make about how something works, simply by modelling processes. And George Lakoff, in his work on conceptual metaphor, argued that the metaphors we use define the potential field of action. The language used to discuss something defines how we think and talk about it.

So Facebook (as a text) argues, increasingly with the Like button takeover of Share functions, that if I “like” or “recommend” something (one-directional relationships, indistinguishable from each other, in which ambiguity cannot be expressed) then I must also want to “share” it. And, with the new comment plugin, it gives site owners the opportunity to argue that if I comment on their work I must also “share” it with all my “friends”; that I must be non-anonymous; that I must want to be notified of responses.

By casting a certain interaction in the metaphorical field of “friendship”, and by modelling the processes of “being friends” in a certain way, Facebook (as a game, as a text) makes an argument about socialisation and about relationships in the real world. So does Twitter. So do most social apps.

Facebook, in particular, lays claim to metaphors of relationship, interest and appreciation through the verbs it uses to describe and interact within the game world; it makes wider arguments about identity and privacy too. It simulates building relationships on a deeper level than SimCity simulates city-building, sure, but both exist on a continuum where complex social processes are modelled with certain assumptions built in.

Mark Sample talks about close-reading SimCity, looking at the rhetoric of its models, and unpacking the underlying assumptions behind the simplistic assertion that tax increases cause crime. I’d like to do that with Facebook, if the code was more open, but there are plenty of open assumptions to unpack – Is “liking” something the same thing as “recommending” it? What’s a “friend”? Can identities fluctuate? Facebook has an opinion on these things.

And a closing, background thought is something half-remembered from Shelly Turkle’s Simulation and its Discontents, which is referred to by Play the Past here:

Sherry Turkle tells us about a 13 year old SimCity player who told her about the “Top Ten Rules of SimCity.” One of those rules was that “raising taxes leads to riots.” Now, if the adolescent had simply understood this as a rule in the model, it would be fine, but Turkle insists that the adolescent did not understand that the simulation was a simplification. Turkle claims that this adolescent had uncritically extrapolated a set of rules she used to understand society from SimCity. The claim is that the 13 year old did not understand the game as a model or a toy but instead saw it as a kind of direct representation of the world. In a world increasingly dependent on simulation as basis of knowledge it is important for us to begin to become literate.

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