Recently, people wanted to gamify things. That's "game-i-fy" as in "turn stuff into games", which more or less meant "add points to stuff we don't like to do to make those things more fun".
One of the patron saints of this stuff was supposed to be Jesse Schell, a game designer and teacher who described an ultra-gamified future in a popular talk he gave at the DICE summit a few years ago. He imagined a time when we'd get points for brushing our teeth, points for wearing brand-name tattoos, points for high-fiving friends... points for everything.
Some saw Schell's talk as a warning. Some saw it as satire. And some saw it as inspiration. People contact Schell all the time to gamify things, he told me as we chatted in Las Vegas at the 2013 DICE Summit last week.
"I think there is a lot of confusion about the whole notion of gamification," he told me before getting into an excellent anecdote about some people who thought they wanted to gamify their warehouse.
"Gamification is kind of a naive word and a naive idea," he continued, by way of setting things up. "People think: 'There are things I like about games; everything will get better if I make it more like games.' But when you kind of unpack all that, what people really mean is that 'There are certain things about games that I really like, and can I use some of those things in other experiences?' The problem they're trying to solve is 'I have these other things that I want to be more pleasurable and that's a shift in design that's happening more and more. It used to be that design was about effectiveness and efficiency. And now it's really about what is going to make this design the most pleasurable." Game designers, he said, know about making things more pleasurable.
Schell draws the distinction, by the way, between what's pleasurable and what's fun. Eating a ham sandwich, he suggests, is more the former than the latter. "When someone says, 'I want to gamify the income tax-filing experience,' do they really? And does it need to be fun? Or does it just need to be less painful and maybe you want to create a feeling of satisfaction that, 'I know I've finished everything completely and I get pleasure from that'?
"Very often people say they want to gamify, they don't actually want to make it fun, but they do want to make it more pleasurable."
So here's the bit about the warehouse. Schell was contacted by people who ran one. At this warehouse, employees wore headsets that allowed a computer to give them directions about where to go and what to put where.
"Turnover at the warehouse was really high, and the people running the operation hoped that gamifying the experience would improve things. People would feel more rewarded if their warehouse job was more like a game."
The warehouse people wanted to gamify. That was going to solve things. Schell wasn't sure they needed to.
"You could come up with points and blah blah blah, but I said, 'let's unpack this and let's back up. You say this is a new problem. Why didn't this used to be a problem?'
"'Well, I don't know, I think it has to do with the computer system we used to have.'
"I'm like, 'how did it used to work?'
"'It used to be kind of a team would meet up in the morning; there was a guy in charge of figuring everything out. He would come up with a plan for who should do what. He would tell them what to go and do. They'd do some of it on their own. They'd work it out together.'
"So basically they took the human element out of it. All the human socialisation got taken out of it and all of the freedom, too... And now the computer decided everything. So I asked questions: 'Well, do you want to put that back in? ...You make them wear an earset all day. What kind of music do you put on that?'
"'Oh, we don't.'
"'I guess. We didn't think about that.'
"So you could build in social elements. You could build in a thing where music is a part of it and you get to pick your music. Those things are pleasurable, but I don't know if I'd call that fun or a game.... People make a mistake when they jump to the game goal structures."
Schell said the warehouse people could add a points system. They could try turning the whole thing into a game. But his point is that it doesn't need to be that way.
People outside of gaming want what gaming's got. They think what we gamers enjoy are points. Maybe. But Schell seems to be onto something. That we gamers enjoy what we're doing is the thing. And finding out why we are enjoying ourselves and borrowing some of that? That might make even the most tedious jobs better — even if those jobs don't suddenly get an Achievement system added on top of them.
Top picture: 1morecastle.com