The End of the Zero-Sum game


For the last post in my A to Z of Gamification, it feels fitting to end this series with Z, on the potential end of the Zero-Sum game.

Us versus Them

In game theory, a zero-sum game, is one in which the outcome will always be equal to 0. A winning state must be balanced by an equal losing state, so in your classic two player competition 1 winner means there must also be 1 loser.

Life, however, does not really work as simply as that. Whilst it might be tempting to boil down the world to people against you or for you, in reality most of have developed past the idea that you could split the world into some kind of extreme death match social cliques.

From work colleagues to friends, cultures to nations, these groups and relationships are a non-zero sum game, we only win when we help other’s win. If like me, however you struggle to hold onto  the powerful zen like empathy, as demonstrated by the Dalai Lama that this implies, you might Robert Wright’s more cynical and entertaining explanation of the non-zero sum game from his classic 2008 Ted talk.

So creating win-win’s in the game of life, means recognizing that there is a very real threat of lose-lose. Keep playing only looking out for yourself and in the long run there isn’t a game to be played.

The progress to the more connected world we see today through commerce, technology and our affect on one another through even the air, water and food global systems we rely on, hammers the importance of this message home.

Game versus Life

This dynamic is also true, however in the way we view our own lives. We pitch real life on one side and those gaming hours on the other. In the limited time we have to spend we see the minutes ticking down and the trade-offs to make. Either doing the important things in our lives versus experiencing the well-formed enjoyment of playing a game.

Gamification is about changing this zero-sum mentality and finding the sweet spot between life and games. Living a gamified life, audaciously sets out to remove those trade-offs and perhaps its not so ridiculous to believe that successful gamification can even create more time.

Awe is one of the most powerful emotions that game designers create, it is also the emotion that research has shown to expand your perception of time. Giving people the feeling like they have more time available, to be more positive and more generous.

If we can learn from and combine the repeatable experiences game designers have given us, with the awe that our daily lives has to offer. If we can wonder at own place in the world and our capabilities within it, just as we’ve quested as heroes through many a game-world.

Then perhaps the game of life is neither about winning or losing, but a pursuit of the well-played life.

Young Brains and Games Transference


The Y in my A to Z of gamification looks at the concept of ‘transference’ from games experienced in two different generations that researchers have been looking at; Generation Y and to the brain’s youthfulness in older generations.

In over 60s, a study conducted by the University of California found improvements to multi-tasking after playing the game they designed, called NeuroRacer.

But after receiving just 12 hours of training on the game, spread over a month, the 60- to 85-year-old study participants improved their performance until it surpassed that of 20-somethings who played the game for the first time.

The training also improved the participants’ performance in two other important cognitive areas: working memory and sustained attention. And participants maintained their skills at the video game six months after the training had ended.

UCSF Study

Meanwhile, the pervasiveness of games in generation Y, has created a track of research that looks at gamer’s reported blurring of reality and games in to their lives. With examples such as:

“I had been playing Mass Effect 2 for 7 h, my mum walked into the room and said something. I paused for about 5 s looking at her waiting for a wheel of options to appear” (PricelessWil)

“Sometimes get my Sims mixed up with people. ‘remember when you’….oh no, wait, that was my Sim” (Lorela)

Prezi by Angelica de Gortari

It’s something researchers at Nottingham Trent University have called Games Transfer Phenomena.

Whether its through deliberate or inadvertent transference from games, these studies are helping to widen our understanding of the way games get into our brains.

The path runs both ways

So enough of the academic stuff. Showing us that game designers know how to put brainwaves back into games, here is Lat Ware’s awesomely named “Throw trucks with your mind”.

It was successfully funded on kickstarter last year and due for release in 2014.

You’ll fight entirely through NeuroSky’s MindWave headset peripheral that reads the electrical activity of your brain. Your weapon is the world around you and the various psychic manipulations you can perform on it to clobber others.

This is the only game where you can kill your friends by thinking of puppies

XP is for eXperience Points


This is the last post in my 3 part series all about points in games. It sits alongside the points you find in games, which are about keeping score and currency points for spending.

Whilst its true some games use these point systems interchangeably and mix up the names. I’m differentiating in this post the characteristics of XP or eXperience points that set it aside:

XP is not scoring

Having more XP in a game, might be a way for you to compare yourself with other players in a multi-player game, however, the comparison does not invite competition. The objective is not to out-XP (or out-score the other person). Even in the case of a player using their high score as a way to better their performance the next time, scoring is tied to the feeling that the points accumulate for a single event. A battle not with other players, but yourself to beat your high-score, but that next time in another attempt might not be repeated.

XP is not about shopping

Gaining XP gives you access to more powerful skills and makes progressing in the game easier. This is more similar to currency (e.g. gold) gained in the game to buy equipment that augments your character’s skills. However, the equipment exchanged and used is seen as transitory, whilst the experience points ‘spent’ are seen as a long term development of your character’s specialisms and playing style.

XP is about learning

This is the key differentiator of XP to other uses of points. It accumulates over time and keeps building until you level-up, which merely sets another bar for more XP to be gained. You don’t spent it and you’re never done. No other points as discussed previous are awarded in a way that so closely mirrors our analysis and understanding of the path to master and learn a system.

  • Going up the levels steps up in difficulty, with each higher tier needing bigger and bigger chunks of experience. 
  • The actions that you need to do change, so to keep gaining the most amount of experience, you need to try new and more challenging actions. 

The differences are made even clearer if you consider the very different reactions we have when we see cheating across these 3 different types of points.

If it were money, you are seen as cheating the system. With a score you are seen as cheating other players, but cheating to gain XP, first and foremost we recognize this as cheating yourself.

Experience points, when used in this way means designing systems that treat these points as a moderator as well as marker for the progress being made in the game, and avoiding short-cuts to learning.