Adventure into Webland

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The internet is a real place, but you’ve always suspected that right? No intriciate web of such imagination and creative energy could ever exist solely in the bits and bytes of code. Somewhere it warps from the layers of sites we create as portals into a land of fields and rivers, roads and castles. I think there may even be some sewers.

This is my story, my journey through this wide and wondrous place I call, Webland.

And this month. I’ll be wondering through Webland on another A to Z, as part of…

3 Forms of Narrative to use in Gamification

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Narrative. The scenes or vignettes that create a collage of emotions that once connected in the player’s mind create the story. The N in my A to Z of Gamification leads us to the importance of narrative.

There’s still an on-going debate about the degree to which the video games genre can or needs to provide storytelling alongside gameplay. The difficulties with integrating narrative with gameplay lies along a spectrum, that sets at one end the need to create a sequence of events that make up a story vs. the agency and immersion a player expects from gameplay.

Treating these two as only resolvable by the cut-scenes of an explicit narrative, doesn’t really work in gamification and risks missing out on interesting and more integrated ways of using other forms of narratives to create personal experiences.

The Story in the game: Explicit Narrative

Here the story is brought to life via characters and emotional touch-points created via cut-scenes and/or what is being rather sexily called “Ludonarrative”

aspects of video game storytelling that are controlled by the player. It is contrasted with fixed or embedded narrative which are the purely narrative, non-interactive aspects of the game

Cut-scenes and improved voice-acting have gradually improved in games, increasing the effectiveness of this form of narration. Over the last year, there have also been great examples of games that are favouring environmental cues and timed-interactions to tell their stories.

These stories are all similar in that they are part of the experience designed tightly within the game and their failure or success is down to how artfully they have been scripted and integrated it with the requisite gameplay.

The Story of how we played: Emergent Narrative

However, looking beyond the story crafted within the game itself and how it bleeds into the bigger player experience, here is where you’ll find some of the most memorable stories of our triumphs and near deaths. The laughter or the screams shared in moments alone or with friends whilst playing a game. These stories comes from the gameplay and this kind of narrative can be as important as the stories within the games themselves.

For XCOM, an alien fighting strategy game and one of my favourite games of the last few years, it was the design choices to allow you to name and customise your team of soldiers, to then have the possibility of permanent death that made the game for me.

By getting players to invest themselves in the action and through this fill in the gaps to create their own narrative, it creates a personalised experience. Whilst this may not be written scene by scene by a traditional writer, these experiences are no less designed in.

My Story: Internal Narrative

The third and final narrative is one of identity and is closely linked to the player journey. Furthest from the direct control of the game designer, it is nevertheless an important part of narrative in games as a medium, precisely because any medium which requires our active engagement over time has the potential to transform us.

This is not to say books and movies, don’t have this ability, but the added call and response from a player moment to moment brings it that much closer to potentially affecting our internal narratives. In a research study, participants asked to recount a personal narrative were found to following seven constructs:

  1. Redemption from bad to good via a sacrifice, recovery, growth or learning.
  2. Contamination: from good to bad. Victimization, betrayal, loss, failure, illness/injury, disappointment, or disillusionment.
  3. Agency: knowing I can affect my own life through four possible pathways: self-mastery, status/victory, achievement/ responsibility and empowerment
  4. Communion: how I came to love and be loved, and understand my connection to others and the world
  5. Exploratory narrative processing: Getting to know oneself
  6. Coherent positive resolution: I can get through tough times
  7. Meaning Making: the moral of the story is, could range from no reflection, a concrete lesson through to deeper insight

The gamification solutions, which excite me are the ones I see linking and blending these 3 forms of narrative. When we participate in an alternate reality game, create mythical beast to fight to reach a fitness goal or accept the challenge to solve puzzles for science our narratives become blurred.

Morals and Manipulation

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Addictive, obsession, these are some of the words a few people have commented so far in their own experiences with games. So as we come to the halfway point in my A to Z of Gamification, I’d like to turn to questions and concerns around the ethics of creating game-like experiences in our lives. M is for Morals and Manipulation.

Nir Eyal, proposed an interesting manipulation matrix model which draws a line between products designed for good vs. bad, based on two factors: What the end outcome is for the user and whether or not the maker uses it themselves.

Source: www.nirandfar.com

With these two factors, the matrix presents a simple and easy to understand model for the moral choices behind designing and developing for the end user, which works rather neatly as a practical test of a universally recognized ethical code. The “Golden Rule”.

One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.

However, to fully reflect the meaning of “manipulation” in the execution as well as intention of the designer, I think its worth consider one other factor.

This is helpfully described in a post by Jonathan Fields, which lists the 3 factors in manipulation as:

1) The intent behind your desire to persuade that person,
2) The truthfulness and transparency of the process, and
3) The net benefit or impact on that person

The affect of truthfulness and transparency of the intent of the designer or product maker is extremely important. Without it, it is possible to have both end benefit and genuine intent, be complicated because we ultimately all hold different views about what constitutes a ‘good life’. Imagine this:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Did I mention they’re Teenage too?

I am a member of a group of “totally awesome turtle worshippers in the order of Mutant Ninjas“, we believe that all people who come to worship and love turtles will live happier more spiritual lives. My intent is true and as a full member of the turtle order, every day I see our faith in the awesomeness of turtles to benefit the lives who follow their teachings of “COWABUNGA!”.

That, puts me in the Facilitator mode right?

Except, maybe I don’t tell people this.

To get people to come and join the turtle group, I invite a high school student to a talk about how volunteering can enhance a college application. Or a young woman who just went through a bad breakup, I tell her the group helps people to rebuild confidence for a fresh start. I invite them to our “turtle meetings” under the guise of leading them through their problems and then invite them to the next meeting and the next one. Till we’re living in a turtle retreat and planning the coming of the Great A’Tuin.

A facilitator, who artfully tricks you, is still manipulating you and the benefit to your life is being measured by their biases and world view. What differentiates these two scenarios, beyond intent and benefit is whether deceit was involved.

In order to be free of manipulation there must be a choice given to the user, based on them being able to see the truth behind what the designer intends.

(O.k. that example wasn’t the one I had in mind when I started writing this post. But, hey sometimes you just have to go with the call of COWABUNGA! Check out this example for less turtles and more UX design, which details two examples from a MOOC and networking site to demonstrate the same issue of manipulation in design.)

Learning and The Long Road to Mastery

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L for  Leaning in Gamification, I believe, can come in two distinct flavours. The leaning high that comes from solving and mastering a knowable system and the long term learning over a lifetime, towards a state of continued mastery.

The Learning Drug

The chemicals in the brain are priming us to get a kick out of mastering a system and environment around us. Our in-built survival trait. The person or any animal that learns, lives another day.

As coined over 10 years ago, Raph Koster, Game designer and author of “The Fun Theory”.

Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.

In other words, with games, learning is the drug.

Games have been created in known environments, with systems that are designed to be learnt and mastered. In gamification, however, the task is to bring that desire and chasing of learning into the big, meandering unknown of our lives. Blurring and bringing them closer together into smaller and smaller abstractions of a system we can learn to master.

The advancement of games with their greater diversity and complexity now being explored makes this merging of learning spaces possible.

Where previously a game system would have had to have every solution solved in advance, every avenue of possibility already coded or constrained. Now, procedurally generated, creative and collaborative modes have changed what we know is possible to build a game around.

The games created to take on unsolved science challenges are one example of this. Here is Adrien Treuille talking about the amazing world of collaborative science through games like protein folding game Foldit and nano-engineering in EteRNA.

The Long Road To Mastery

The now famous figure made popular by the book Outliers, of 10,000 hours to get to mastery, is further qualified in the original paper as time spent in deliberate practice.  But in order master anything, there is a learning loop that must happen:

New Learning (understanding of the new skill/concept) –> Practice (ingraining this through repeated attempts) –> Habit (practice turns to unconscious execution)

Move too quickly through this cycle by rushing through you understanding of how to carry out a new skill and you’ll misapply it in practice, if you are unobservant and unfocused whilst practising, progress will never become ingrained as habit or this is when bad habits can form.

Gamification solutions in learning have to avoid accidentally making what might be called ‘mindless practice‘ a rewarding activity. Games have shown us the power of habit loops to keep the player coming back in the middle stage of a gamified system,  but on its own this does not guarantee mastery.

The game player journeys I covered in previous post recognize the middle stage’s role in continually turning practice into habitual actions, but also providing opportunities for deliberate practice that stretch skills.

Viewed as learning loops, the end mastery or beginners ‘newbie’ stages are just different iterations of the same learning loop. The first learning experience of the game is the ‘on-boarding’. However, when we think of the increasingly finessed difficulty in an ‘end game’, this mastery is a state of being rather than an end completion.

In the quest to learning and master anything, we know, this is a journey that is never truly finished.