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The importance of gamefulness to experience design

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In working through a large, complicated project for an automotive client, my team at Critical Mass faced an experience design challenge that only a gamer could solve. The features we came up with were well-received by client stakeholders, but one request continued to prove elusive. The feature, as expressed by our lead client, was: “More fun!”

To address it, I shifted our focus briefly toward the world of video games. Here is a corner of culture that is literally in the business of fun. Game designers make experiences built solely to engage and delight, while gamers spend countless hours inside these experiences for the sheer joy and challenge of them. I started asking: What do menus in games look like? What makes them fun to navigate and not tedious? What types of animations feel playful? But above all—why do so many of us still see experience design and game design as two separate things?

I’m calling it now: this wall separating the worlds of ‘video games’ and ‘user experience design’ will fall.

I’m not talking about gamification. I’m talking about gaming. Gamification is a transactional tactic focused on achievement (like accumulating points). Gaming is different. It’s about having fun and playing just because. What follows is a closer look at the actual experience of playing a game, and how we can break down the barriers between game design and experience design.

So, what motivates gameplay?

Defining the difference between 'gamification' and 'gaming' helps us understand why a (video) gamer’s motivations are a special category unto themselves. Game designer and author Jane McGonigal articulated such a distinction through the term gamefulness, which shifts our focus away from goals and toward a wide variety of other motivations and rewards that include confidence in one’s abilities, enjoying the pursuit of challenges, perseverance and a tolerance for failure. Good video game design lets people experience an alternate world while reframing setbacks as an invitation to advance. Friction as fun.

What’s the gamer’s mindset?

In fact, games are friction. Bernard Suits famously coined the most delightfully succinct definition of gameplay in his 1978 book The Grasshopper as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” Each element is crucial. It shouldn’t be the result of coercion. It shouldn’t be too easy. And the undertaking should be done simply for its own sake. This description is known as the lusory attitude. It’s the mindset one deliberately adopts when entering an experience and decides it is one of play. The lusory attitude runs counter to our zero-sum world of game theory and competition, where a game is defined by its traits (there’s a goal, an opponent, rules, etc.), rather than the mindset one has when doing something. The act of playing is its own purpose, and the rewards emerge gradually.

How do you inspire engagement?

In working with our automotive client, we had to make the concept of a lusory attitude more practical so our designers could use it to create and our client had the words to critique. One way was to describe interactions in terms of touch and sensation rather than cause and effect. Another tactic that evokes a lusory attitude is called interactional encouragement, which can be as simple as animating the words “Nice!” or “I like it!” on the screen after certain actions or selections. Even describing a user journey as a video game level helps prevent overly transactional designs focused on extracting something (i.e., a desired action) from the user, in favour of guided wandering and moments of discovery. (I still regularly peruse game design handbooks to uncover obscure terms, concepts and analogies to use in design reviews.)

Unifying gamefulness and experience design

As UX enters the world of VR headsets and reality augmentation, consider the possibility that gamers—not advertisers—already have the necessary experience to solve seemingly 'new' design challenges. 'Game design' should even be a focus area for recruitment efforts (one panel I attended at PAX East recently was titled 'So you want to use gaming in your career… somehow', and I can assure you there is no shortage of talent or interest!). Perhaps the more time marketers spend playing video games, the stronger an intuition we, as marketers, can develop about what makes something engaging and appealing to the user. It’s natural for us to unconsciously file video games into their own trivial category separate from ‘work', but a lot of good could come from dissolving the distinction altogether.

The important thing when designing experiences is—have fun. It’s not until we embrace the spirit of gamefulness that we’ll finally start seeing ‘users’ and ‘consumers’ for what they really are. Players.

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Mark Mulvey is strategy director at Critical Mass.

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