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Een gesprek met Sebastian Deterding over motivatie en gamification

Vijf jaar geleden bezocht ik op uitnodiging de Games Learning en Society Conferentie in Madison. Een van de keynote sprekers was Sebastian Deterding, door anderen gedoopt tot gamification ‘guru’. Zelf ziet hij dat een beetje anders -kun je straks lezen- maar hij is toch wel onmiskenbaar een autoriteit op het gebied van games en learning.

Tussen 2012 en nu schreef hij The Gameful World, een boek over de gamificatie van onze wereld met bijdragen van grote namen zoals Jane McGonical, Ian Bogost, Bernie DeKoven en vele anderen. Een aanrader.

Op het congres besloot ik hem te interviewen voor een boek dat in de maak was. Dat boek is er nooit gekomen, maar het interview ligt er nog. Ik merk dat ik er vaak naar grijp voor lezingen en presentaties als bron om iets te zeggen over ‘fun’, leren en motivatie.

Dus: de hoogste tijd om het te publiceren hier, zodat ook anderen eruit kunnen citeren en leren. Want ja, het is oud én in het Engels én veel te lang volgens de ‘regels van het bloggen’, maar het is óók nog steeds actueel, nuttig en zeer de moeite waard. Telefoon op stil en lezen maar!

Stop shooting sparrows with canon balls

Some people would say Sebastian Deterding is an expert or even a ‘guru’ in the gamification movement. He is frequently asked for keynotes at small and big conferences and co-wrote the definition of gamification in the paper Gamification: Toward a Definition (Deterding, Dixon, Khaled, Nacke, CHI 2011).

But when asked about this, he says these titles make him feel like an imposter. “It’s a new field and everyone is just making it up as they go. I do that no less than others. It’s just that… well… if you look at the gamification movement as a big ocean, I got my surfboard out just a little sooner than others and got to catch the first big wave. That is where these titles come from.”

Of course that is not everything. He was also one of the first who combined a research perspective with his practical experience as an interaction designer. Deterding: “The theory put to practice was very appealing to people, I did not only say it could be done, but I made it doable.”

Deterding got interested in gamification during his research in Holland (Utrecht) about design guidelines in pervasive games. Deterding: “I just got annoyed by the whole serious games scene. Serious games are like shooting sparrows with canon balls – it’s a German saying. It means: You put all this effort in building a complex, expensive technological game, then you have to make people play it, you hope they learn something and you keep your fingers crossed that they transfer that knowledge to their real life. “

“For example: You play a financial literacy game and we hope that two months down the line when you open a bank account you remember all these things from the game and actively use them. That felt to me like jumping through al lot of hoops. So I thought: Why not use all the things we know about what makes us want to play games and use these as design guidelines in the real life things we want to change? That would mean: Using game structures like leveling up and doable challenges in your banking.”

So…help us out here… What are you designing then when doing gamification? Games? Interaction? Behavior? Life?

“For me it is experience design with a specific view on human motivation. That is the angle I am interested in: Motivational design. What can I design to help craft human motivation? Games are a good inspiration and game design is a helpful lens because it has practical tools to make an experience engaging. That is after all the central goal of game design. But it is just one of the lenses you can use.”

“Gamification as a term is therefore not sustainable. Think of graphic designers who use design principles from architecture to -­‐for example-­‐ understand the concept of negative space. This does not mean we are ‘architecturefying’ graphic design. It’s going to be motivational design in the end, with useful tools from other fields, like game design.”

Could you explain why it’s not game design what you are doing?

“Let me give you an example. Suppose you have to design a fun experience to make people quit smoking. That would be like serving two mistresses at the same time. First you have to design an experience that makes people stop smoking. But the second constrain is: now make it fun. That has a weird tension in it. A traditional game designer would say: Let’s throw out all the stuff that is not fun and keep the stuff that is fun. But then you might throw the learning stuff away. So that’s why I claim it’is not game design.”

We would definitely like to hear more about one of your mistresses: The ‘fun’ one. It seems to be a slippery concept to design…

“Fun is a rather elusive term. In Raph Koster’s book ‘A theory of fun for game design’ he says that fun is just another word for learning. And by learning he does not mean the institutionalized learning that happens in schools. What he means is that the mastery of something, like solving a puzzle or persuading another player. That is joyful, because we experience our own growing competence in the world. The enjoyment happens when you do something you couldn’t do before.”

“If you really look at what he is saying, you quickly end up in self-­‐determination-­‐ theory. This theory says that humans have physical needs, but also psychological needs. We need a feeling of autonomy, competence and relatedness.”

“Autonomy means that we act from an internal locus of causality and a sense of agency. YOU want to decide what you do. Competence means that you want to be able to master certain things in life. And relatedness means that we need to feel encouraged in our autonomy and competence by others. You can use this on games and explain why they are fun. Games use elements that support autonomy (free to play), competence (levels, interesting choices) and relatedness (multiplayer).”

And that’s fun, ultimately?

“Yes, I think this is what people find enjoyable. It’s a clarification of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described in Flow, an optimal experience.”

So, we just need to add these elements to make anything fun?

“Well, they are important ingredients in playing games. And I think what is missing the most in gamification at the moment, is the realization that games need play. Play is the way in which you interact with games.”

“You cannot make anything fun by making it in a game. In fact: We do not play videogames because they are fun, videogames are fun, because we do them voluntarily. I found this when I interviewed lots of people who interact with videogames in a work-­‐related context. And they do not enjoy videogames all the time.”

“A game journalist always says that he gets mocked by friends when he says he has to go home at ten in the evening, because he still has to play a game for a review. His friends mock: You have such a hard job… But they do not realize that having to play a game until the end because you HAVE TO is no fun at all.”

“You get stuck because it is a new game and there are no online cheats and tips. This is actually hard work and can be very stressful. So the social framing of playing a game is important. That is why when HAVE TO PLAY a game in school or work for educational purposes is not always fun. Here is that sense of agency again: The feeling of autonomy. If it is not your choice to play, it might not be fun.”

“Another important part of the fun is the play community. One of the most important works in this field is Bernie DeKoven: The well-­‐Played game. The fun community is concerned about each other and whether everyone is still having fun. It is not about winning the game, but about the fun for everyone. That is satisfying the core need of relatedness. You are very likely to produce the opposite of play if you do not frame your game as free and autotelic.”

But is gamification in school or for a quit smoking campaign then even possible?

“Yes, it is. You can choose to reframe the situation. For example make optional side quests for students to do. The students who are not motivated to do the classroom game, do these quests and think they hack the system by not doing what the teacher wants. They found a way to reassure their autonomy in the situation. But in fact they are still learning. And once they have a entry point, they might also do the rest of the game. So that’s reframing the situation: Creating a structures that affords people to see free space and have a free play experience.”

Do you have some more tips if you want to do gamification?

“First thing is to understand the situation that you are redesigning. Analyse it as if it were a game. What are the rules, actions, feedback, and challanges in this situation?”

“Then you ask yourself: what is wrong with this if it were a game? For example: In which way is the feedback broken? Or are the rules unclear?”

“On the other hand try to understand the users. What are their values, needs, goals? Make your system connect to that. And do not cheat them into a system that does not support their autonomy.”

“Then: if you set the activities and goals you want to achieve, ask yourself: How can I take this system to provide better feedback, let users make their own goals or find a narrative to make users see the profit for their goals. Like: Aha! Now I see how this helps me to get to my own goals!”

“And finally, if you do set up a system, start with the core activity or actions and test this with your users. And go through that cycle repeatedly: Will this thing I designed help my users to achieve their (and my) goals? Iterate until it works.”

Last but not least: What is the biggest problem you encounter doing this?

“The biggest problem is mostly the clients. They just want a game. They ask: Why all this research? Why clarify all your questions about my company or goal? Then I say: When you clarify the question enough, you probably have already found the answer along the way.”

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