Just add points? What UX can (and cannot) learn from games

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Can game mechanics help us to make applications and websites more fun and engaging? My presentation at the UX Camp Europe 2010 on May 29 and 30 in Berlin attempted a sobering look at what user experience designers can and cannot learn from games.


  • Just add points? what ux designers can (and cannot) learn from games Sebastian Deterding UXCamp Europe Berlin, May 30, 2010 cbn
  • The Fun Theory Problems... 1 3 2 4 Why games What we are fun can learn Theres a meme currently circulating in the UX community that the best way to motivate user behaviour is to make it fun and the best way to make it fun is game mechanics. Today, Id like to (1) present this meme, (2) summarise the research on why games are fun, (3) show some problems with applying game design in other contexts, and (4) point out what we can actually learn from game design.
  • The Fun Theory 1 So on to point number one.
  • Can we get more people to use the bottle bank by making it fun to do? The most articulate version of The Fun Theory is a recent viral video campaign by Volkswagen Sweden that runs by that name. Heres one example how they use game mechanics to motivate users to use the bottle bank.
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  • Fun is the easiest way to change peoples behaviour. Thefuntheory.com On the campaign website, youll find more videos, a (now closed) competition and the core idea: Fun is the easiest way to change peoples behaviour. (One thing I always wonder is: What happens on day 2? What is the replay value of these designs? But more on that later.)
  • 1982: Thomas Malone To wit, the idea that we can deduce heuristics for designing more enjoyable applications from video games is nothing new. If you look up the scholarly HCI databases, youll already find papers on this in the early 1980s, the first heydays of video games (http://bit.ly/ csscek.)
  • Work made fun gets done! 1994: The Fish! Strategy In the 1990s, there was a business bible craze around The FISH! strategy. Briefly, it states that for employees to be productive and creative, they have to be intrinsically motivated, which is best achieved by a playful attitude towards their work. (In a sense, Dan H. Pinks recent business bible Drive is just a reiteration of this focus on intrinsic motivation.)
  • Research Design Application Yet there is also a growing amount of serious research (especially within the learning sciences) on creating more motivating work and learning environments by leveraging game design. Within the design community, you find no shortage of presentations and blog posts on the topic, and there are already some applications explicitly using game mechanics (links at the end of this presentation).
  • Games With A Purpose Maybe the most well-known application are the Games With A Purpose by re:captcha inventor Luis von Ahn, like the ESP Game: On the surface, players earn points by guessing which word comes to mind of an anonymous counterpart when seeing a picture. In the background, the inputs are used as highly accurate image tags.
  • Book Oven Another example is Book Oven, a web platform for book publishing. The platform crowdsources the otherwise tedious act of proof reading by presenting users with small snippets of text. Users earn points for every snippet checked, and can compare themselves with other users on a leader board to apparently amazing effects:
  • One editor told me: Your bite-sized edits is Crack Cocaine for proof readers. Hugh McGuire cofounder, bookoven.com According to co-founder Hugh McGuire, a lot of professional proof readers who do this kind of thing for a living during daytime log into Bookoven in the evening to do it for free.
  • twitter In a very similar way, Twitter has recently crowdsourced its translation again with small snippets, points earned per snippet, and levels. Even these bare bones mechanics seem to work quite well: To achieve level 11, one has to translate 1484 snippets and I know quite a number of people in my twittersphere who are at level 10.
  • 2 Why games are fun So the obvious question is: Why? Why is this so motivating, so much fun? What exactly is at work here?
  • Just add points! The answer I find reiterated over and over in most of the current debate in UX design is: Just add points (and leaderboards)! Points are seen as a kind of monosodium glutamate you can spice up any interaction or product with.
  • Foursquare Foursquare best exemplifies this approach: To motivate a desired user behaviour (check-ins), users earn points for performing it. The points are then displayed on leaderboards to stimulate competition, and users can achieve levels or badges with a certain number of points or combination of check-ins.
  • Fun is just another word for learning. Raph Koster a theory of fun for game design However, this approach is way too simplistic if seen in context of the wealth of thought and research in game studies and game design. Personally, I think that Raph Koster most concisely summed up what we currently know about why games are fun when he said: Fun is just another word for learning.
  • Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. With games, learning is the drug. Raph Koster a theory of fun for game design Now, fun is learning sounds quite counterintuitive at first. What Koster means (and what is backed up by research on intrinsic motivation) is that the fun of games is the positive experience of mastering something: a new skill, a solved puzzle, a recognised pattern. We win a game by noticing and then mastering the rule patterns and this experience of competence creates fun.
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/photonquantique/3364593945/sizes/l/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/sulamith/1342528771/sizes/o/ We flee from We flee into To give you an example: The same kind of mathematics that school kids usually despise in school is actively sought out and performed by them with intense focus and joy in Trading Card Games like Magic: The Gathering, where mastery requires complex multiplication, fractions, and statistic analysis of which card combinations form a winning deck. So what makes the difference?
  • Fun is just another word for learning. under optimal conditions Raph Koster a theory of fun for game design What separates games from school (and what we have to add to Kosters definition) is that games create optimal conditions for learning. Fun is learning under optimal conditions. And games show us just what exactly those optimal conditions are.
  • Reality is broken. Games work better. Games are the ultimate happiness machines. Jane McGonigal ux week 2009 In a sense, this is the point researcher and game designer Jane McGonigal makes: Games take to heart many principles of positive psychology, which is why they are far more enjoyable than everyday life. So what are those principles? Lets return to the crowdsourced twitter translation. Even this simple interface already shows many of the most important design principles.
  • S.M.A.R.T. goals Principle #1: Games set specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timed short- and long-term goals (you might say they do time management 101 for the user). Short-term: I am level 4 and want to get to level 5. Long-term: Level 11! In contrast, think of how often in life (or school) we have no, unclear, vague or even conflicting go