The Wonderment in Citizen Science

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W in the my A to Z of Gamification takes us to one of my favourite words, wonder and its closely related cousin awe.

Wonderment         “The feeling aroused by something strange and surprising”
Awe                         “An overwhelming feeling of wonder or admiration”

Visuwords dictionary

But I think this excerpt from a talk by Jason Silva, self confessed “wonder junkie” relays it best.

My answer to Jason’s question, of how we might set the conditions to “become the uncompromising child voyagers that can retain a child’s eye view of what might be.” Is of course, games.

It turns out that many gamers feel the same way. Awe and Wonder consistently appear in surveys looking at the emotions that video games most strongly inspire and even appearing in the top 3 in one survey, which found for ‘wonderment’ only coming in behind ‘contentment’ and ‘amusement’.

Wonderment…41.5% said it enhanced their enjoyment and an additional 41.2% (for a total of 82.7%) said they sought out games that gave them this feeling.

In fact, of all the emotions studied in this survey, this was the highest scorer in terms of respondents actively seeking it out, as even the top 2 emotions did not clear 40% in seeking out the emotion. It seems amazing players is one of the most effective techniques videogames can muster.

We inherently know as children the value and joy of playing games and to me, so much of the trends and interest in gamification is perhaps the adult world’s grasping at the structures and solutions that might bring back that childlike wonder into our lives again.

Einstein Quote: Wonder and Awe, Art and ScienceThe Science Game

Scientific discovery is one of the greatest sources of wonderment and awe. So it’s not surprising that many of the most successful gamification solutions out there come from the world of citizen science.

However, in a 2013 Times article featuring Zooniverse, one of the leading web portals for citizen science projects, the director Chris Lintott stated he was nervous about making their projects more ‘gamified’, citing some disappointing results they’ve seen. He said:

“We’ve done some trials where we experimented with giving feedback in the form of points, and we found that while some of the people who weren’t very good did look to improve, others simply left.

[…] Also, there’s a danger of clumsy gamification. If I’m right, and people are doing this because they want an authentic experience of doing research, then making it a bit game-like could destroy that.”

I think, he’s both right and wrong here. Many games have no feedback in the form of points and the world of citizen science has more in common with sandbox and ‘loose goal’ games like Minecraft rather than a Tetris puzzle solver about maxing out your points.

Games are entirely capable of creating wonderment and awe, as seen in the gamer surveys conducted, even without the real-life context of possible breakthrough discoveries to play with. The real challenge with gamification in citizen science is therefore how to enhance and bring out these already seeded emotions.

To remind players of those awe-inspiring goals or subject matter, and to create the potential to see these with childlike eyes when we stare at a grainy picture and realise we’re looking at a galaxy.

The Value of Virtual Goods

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For something to be a virtual good it has to have cost something, an in game currency value which ultimately translates into something else that has real world value, nope not real money. Effort. The exchange of effort (i.e. work) for goods whether digital or not, is how the world runs.

But what about in the world of gamification, that bridges both game and non-game. What is the value of virtual goods when playing perhaps at a gamified life? To answer this, I looked specifically at the virtual goods used in two of the  platforms I use HabitRPG and 750words.

HabitRPG Goods Screenshot

Decisions, decisions…

HabitRPG uses gold and silver accumulation for ticking off your good habits and getting through your to-do lists, which can then be spent on gear for your character.

These virtual goods sit alongside the rewards the ones I set for myself for any number of gold pieces. So 40 in game gold, will buy me a night-off to splurge or 65 gold will finally get me the Game of Thrones next season *woot*.

Yes I’d still have to pay real money for it, but feeling like I’ve earned the right to buy it, as part of completing my habits feels that much sweeter.

With such tempting real life rewards on offer, the question becomes why would I or all the other player ever choose to ignore our real life rewards and instead opt to buy a virtual one.

Unpacking the psychology of virtual goods

I look bad-ass

Customising my avatar is a form of self expression. This is my peacock moment of showing off what I’ve achieved.

Gear-up for a greater challenge

The stats on this gear like increasing my constitution with a new robe or the power of spells means the game needs to get harder to remain challenging. The gear therefore allows me to feel like I could expand my daily or take on an even bigger goal in my to-dos.

Giving Back

In the platform 750words, which gamifies your writing habits, the approach to virtual goods is completely different. The only item you can earn is the virtual coffee cup, which comes from completing monthly challenges or by being a paying member.

Here there is no way to spend these cups to either affect the game’s level of challenge or as a form of self expression. There’s no avatar. In this platform, instead you spend coffee cups on voting for site features or being allowed to post an inspirational note on one of the site’s pages. That’s it.

The cups of coffee encourage a sense of belonging to the community and investment in its future development. Its a form of philanthropy, which is further shown by the way you can also donate your cups to a winning pool for the monthly challenges. This gifting, like the inspirational notes can be seen as another form of self expression, but might also simply be motivated by altruism.

I wrote another more detailed analysis of the gamification design of 750 words, guest posted in Yu Kai Chou’s Gamification site

User vs Player experiences

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I’ve been using the term user and player interchangeably in my A to Z of gamification series. But now we’re finally at U, let’s take a look at the differences between the user and player experience.

From Nicole Lazzaro’s chapter in the book “Game Usability“, here are the 7 differences she draws out between user experience (UX) and player experience (PX) goals and characteristics.

user vs player experience

Sebastian Deterding, User Experience Designer & Researcher depicts in his presentation on What UX can (and cannot) learn from games, an inherent conflict at the heart of the design of a user vs player experience.

User Player Conflict of Interest

Source: Slideshare “Just Add Points”

The whole point of games is to create intense emotions, and to prolong their experience as much as possible. By contrast, productivity software is all about getting your work done as efficiently and quickly as possible. How you feel is at best a secondary consideration.

Or if there is an emotional focus in user experience, it prioritises the avoidance of ‘frustration’ or even ‘anger’ in the user through poor design getting in the way of them achieving their goal. In contrast a ‘fun’ game experience, might deliberately seek to cause just enough frustration in the player for them to feel the sweet satisfaction when we finally do win.

Some argue that this isn’t a separate design discipline to user experience design at all. Usability design might be about removing the friction, but there has always been an element of psychology that looks to motivate the user to engage with a product or site more deeply. Fun is just one of those elements.

Source: UX Stack Exchange Question – Is “having fun” a quality of User Experience?

How fun, rewarding, or satisfying an experience is, can have a huge impact on the engagement and ultimate success of a site. Engaged users are far more likely to overlook friction and keep participating. Fun increases user motivation. (Reply from peteropeter)

Those in the field of gamification may not need to create new definitions or approaches to design experiences. Instead, I believe, the greater challenge ahead is how to marry up and deliver up an experience placed squarely between what a user might need to get the job done and what a player demands to make it worthwhile.