Gamification: Game Playing and Fiero

This is part two of the series, to start from the beginning, click here.

Humans have enjoyed playing games for thousands of years; archaeologists have found extensive evidence of dice-like games being played in region of South Eastern Iran approximately 3,000 years ago, and board games – like senet – being enjoyed by the Ancient Egyptians some 5,000 years ago.

Considered by some to be an early form of escapism, and a simple way of coping with the harsh realities of life, games such as Jacks (or Knucklebones) were invented by the Lydians and theorised to have been utilised to cope during times of famine.

But games are not limited to this simplistic, traditional view. Most human interaction within any society involves many aspects of game playing. Eric Berne‘s 1964 book “Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships” extensively details many different types of human interaction from a variety of perspectives, such as how differing power dynamics, or roles such as adult to adult, or adult to child, affect each players strategy in the game. Gamification seems to stand to confirm Kurt Vonnegut’s review of Games People Play, where he stated that; “…the good Doctor has provided story lines that hacks will not exhaust in the next 10,000 years”. The identification of these games provided an early insight in to what would eventually become the basis for Palringo’s Reputation and Achievements System, and how a competitive system based on these principles can be a very powerful engine for growth.

In the introduction I briefly mention the concept of fiero. Fiero is a defined by Jane McGonigal in her book “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World” as a word to:

“…describe an emotional high we don’t have a good word for in English [Fiero being Italian for ‘Pride’]. Fiero is what we feel when we triumph over adversity. You know when you feel it – and when you feel it […] we all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell.”

Fiero is the basis for all game systems. You win, you feel good, you lose, you feel bad…and then you’re annoyed by the obvious display of fiero by the victor, and you try even harder to win – after all, everybody loves to win.

Simply put, fiero breads competition and powers our innate urge to win.

A key consideration that must be made when designing any game system is the difficulty to achieve fiero. While no-one actually likes losing, always winning also quickly becomes bland – after the initial hits of fiero dissipate.

Casino Poker has a number of variables, but to simplify this example we will focus on two factors;

  1. Skill of the Player
  2. Disposable Cash

Casinos spend significant time and resources to ensure their players are sitting at tables where they all have a similar level of skill and cash to ensure the best game experience for everyone. There is little fun when there is no challenge, and easily winning (or always losing) causes the same level of disenfranchisement as never having any risk. A multi-millionaire winning a $100 bet feels much less fiero than a student on minimum wage winning the same bet. This is also true for the other players, if you are at a table with a person that simply doesn’t care about the wagers that are being made, then the fiero you experience when winning is massively reduced.

These systems require the players to “buy-in”, much like the social contract that exists stating that participants should not lie when playing ‘Truth or Dare”. Managing this belief in the system – in the poker example, promoting good player to higher tables – is important to ensure continued competition.

Foursquare operates a system that distributes points to users when they check-in to bars, clubs, restaurants, and so on. These check-ins are also supported by a series of achievements: checking in to a bar on a week day evening, or going to the gym 10 times in a month. Xbox LIVE (XBL) Gamerscore – often considered to be the first and best video game meta-scoring system – has a similar system of points and achievements.

The big difference between the two however is that a player’s XBL Gamerscore is counted forever, where Achievements you unlocked in 2007 are still counted towards your score in 2013, and can never reduce. In contrast, Foursquare only counts points for a rolling 7 days, where points I earn today will be counted towards my score until next Monday. In this regard Palringo Reputation is closer to Gamerscore, where points are counted forever, but with the added complexity of being able to lose reputation by losing achievements.

Foursquare is tailored to be much more competitive, constantly informing you of your friends activity – with notifications when they check in – as well as any new achievements they unlock. You can always see how you rate against your friends, in a simple leaderboard system where having the most points means you’re #1. Competing on a 7 days basis, where simply being inactive takes you out of the running, means that the challenge is always fresh, in an ever changing landscape, where victory is only temporary, and must be continually fought for.

The Palringo Reputation and Achievements system primarily serves two types of fiero. The first (bigger, and rarer) via Reputation, and the second (smaller and more frequent) via Achievements. To build on the previous two examples, Reputation is a meta-score to provide a quick, clean, and cross-culture mechanic to compare two or more users. Our users use their Reputation as their primary means to compare, compete and brag about their standing within the Palringo Community. Achievements are used as guides to inform users on how to increase their Reputation, as well as encourage behaviour that we deem is suitable for Palringo – for example, running multiple groups, with a high number of users, as detailed by our “Crowd Sorcerer” achievement.

In the next part of this series, I will expand on just how Palringo uses gamification, and fiero, to guide user behaviour and cement our place as the de-facto massive Group Messaging Application in the world.

Gamification: An Introduction

Gamification is a buzzword for the application of various aspects of positive psychology in conjunction with game-like elements used to guide people’s behaviours when performing tasks. While this is by no means solely utilised by software, many modern software applications have utilised its theories extensively, especially video games such as World of Warcraft.

We have an entire generation that grew up playing video games, being born in 1989 I have played games my entire life, and have seen first hand their progression from side-scrollers like Super Mario to the insanely complex high-end graphics of series such as Half Life. Even with the massive increases in processing power, memory and storage, gameplay has same stayed roughly the same. Most games follow the same pattern, you start a level, you play, you fail, you try again, you fail, you try again, you fail, you try again, and again, and again, and then you succeed. Then you start the next level.

This wash-rinse-repeat style of gameplay coupled with regular praise creates a very tight feedback loop and is even in some of the oldest video games.

Jane McGonigal in her book “Reality is Broken” frequently states that praise (or fiero), coupled with an increasing difficulty and frequent testing, creates a quickly addictive environment. It is the sense of accomplishment, traceable progression, and an attainable next step that keeps people coming back for more.

Tetris has a very simple premise. You score points by completing a row of blocks using various shapes that are generated (fall) in a pseudo-random order to progress. Every time you complete a row you are awarded points, the row flashes and then disappears (your small-reward), allowing you to use the re-claimed space to complete more rows. When you have scored enough points by removing enough rows you advance to the next level (traceable progression), which clears the whole screen (your big reward), and increases the difficulty (genuine testing). Tetris is perhaps one of the most obviously repetitive games in existence but Tetris combats this with two further sub-systems. A high-score leaderboard displaying the number of points you have earnt, allowing you to track your progress between sessions, and increasing the number of points you earn for each successful clearance of a line on the harder levels (genuine accomplishment), making a clearance much more satisfying on Level 9, than on Level 1.

It is the supply of praise – specifically the management of craving vs. frequency of genuine accomplishments – that must be utilised if you wish to create a system that truly works.

B. F. Skinner, an Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University devised the “Operant Conditioning Chamber” – commonly, and for the rest of this series, referred to as the “Skinner Box” – whilst a Masters student at Harvard in 1930. An extremely simplified example of this could be a rat in a box, with only a red light and a button. When the red light flashes, the rat has a few seconds to press the button and be dispensed food. If the light has not flashed, then pressing the button does nothing. Over time, the rat learns to associate the feedback loop of Light => Press Button => Food and will act accordingly, and it is this basic premise that fuels most gamified systems.

User performs desired action -> User gains reward
User performs undesired action -> User receives nothing, or is punished.

Using this premise within a video game environment is simple – games as a whole are by their very nature built around similar constructs which most are familiar with, be it from playing Tag in the playground at school as a child, to card games like Poker – and so polishing these functions requires less relative effort.

Applying these theories to a software application is considerably harder and requires the application to be suitable. A word processor, for example, is unlikely to benefit – although one could argue that even Word has many of these elements. It is my belief that the more social an application is, the more suitable and powerful gamification mechanisms are.

Palringo utilises two complementary systems. A points-based scoring system referred to as “Reputation” or “Rep” which is displayed to all as a Level (for example, “Level 1”) and a goal-based system called “Achievements“; these are badges that you earn, and again are displayed to everyone. At a conceptual level, users receive points based on behaviour that we deem appropriate, and are deducted points for behaviour we do not. Various achievements are used as both long and short term goals to give users a guide as to what to aim for next, thus further helping shape their behaviour.

I will go in to more detail about how Palringo has continues to successfully operate and expand this system as this series progresses but before I continue I feel I must explicitly state what this series is not, and will not cover. It will not cover any detail of the Palringo system that is contained within a black-box – i.e. it does not describe all factors of our Reputation system. Some factors however will be mentioned explicitly, many may be alluded to, lots will be omitted in their entirety, and there may be the occasional false flag. This is to protect the integrity of our system, and reduce the possibilities for exploitation. This series will also not contain any detailed technical descriptions, or examples of code.

What this series will cover are the themes, behaviours, and insights that are required to create a successfully gamified system – one that can, if required, save a company.

Part Two of this series: Game Playing and Fiero.