Over 70 years ago, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote a book call Homo Ludens (man the player). He recognized play as an important activity with five characteristics:
- Play is free, is in fact freedom.
- Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
- Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
- Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
- Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.
We are now in an age where “gamification” is a hot topic. The good news is that many people are coming to understand that, though play is not an exclusively human activity (as any pet owner notice), it is an essential part of being human –and therefore powerful. The bad news is that some of the characteristics are being twisted out of shape.
It is strange that play is often trivialized, especially as we become adults. I suppose there is an argument for putting away childish things, but play seems to me to be much more than something for children.
So I find it exciting that play–in the form of game making—is finally being appreciated. I think we can thank the generation that grew up with video games for bringing play back to our serious endeavors. The use of play to engage people in problem solving recently hit headlines when a difficult challenge, understanding the folding properties of an HIV enzyme, was solved by people playing a game called FoldIt. By making a problem that had stymied researchers for years into a game, an answer was arrived at within a few days.
Similarly, people seeking social good, such as more efficient use of energy, have found that elements of gaming are more effective than arguments or data. The chance to earn a smiley face on your bill appears to encourage people to turn back their thermostats more than a comparison chart with specific information on saving money. For drivers of Ford hybrid cars, adding leaves to a tree animation has become part of avoiding bad habits that consume gasoline.
To me, none of this was amazing. Fun is a major motivator, and I suspect that people often have more passion for competitions that are in reality of no consequence to them then for the Darwinian competitions that seemed to have become more explicit in our culture. (I think a poll of fans and players of professional sport would find that fans have more fun.)
So why is there a sudden interest in this untapped reservoir of human focus of creativity?
Certainly, the experience of videogames by a generation taking the controls of industry and government is a factor, but that it not a full explanation for the rising interest in gamification. The phenomenon would go nowhere if we didn’t have the technologies that enable it.
- new sensors allow real-time measurements,
- processing allows instant animation and scoring, and
- the Internet and wireless systems permit people to participate in communities of players.
This is driven in part by commerce. Advertisers have created badges and scoring and competition with the idea of delivering their messages and hooking users. Entertainment technologist Jesse Schell describes a future obsessed with points that I find nightmarish.
There are unintended consequences when people who don’t “get” the idea of fun. Often games that result seem to have more resemblance of drills that happened to earn gold stars then of competitions or puzzles that involve surprise, creativity, imagination, and stimulation. Many games seem to be of such limited concept that they will soon become stale, and I worry about either their becoming obligatory in some sense (because their creators can’t quite believe people don’t love them) or counterproductive—encouraging people to cheat or to take the opposite lesson. Games can also become obsessions, which can drain the fun away while retaining engagement. Some video gamers will find this to be an all too familiar phenomenon, especially those who have lost many hours trying to win unwinnable games.
Game designer and author Lee Sheldon’s ideas for gamifying education have an admirable focus on underlying themes and use of stories. He seems to want the game itself to have meaning. Game designer Jane McGonigal goes further, seeing games as a means to solve our planet’s most difficult problems. I love her optimistic take on gaming and how it endows its devotees with habits of:
- Urgent optimism
- Social fabric
- Blissful productivity, and
- Epic meaning.
I suspect that gaming and fun have permanently penetrated the serious world. McGonigal gives me hope that a better understanding of the essence of gaming will emerge so that their designs are more elegant and gamification will be used in an appropriate manner more often. Can we understand better how games can fit seamlessly into our lives without overwhelming them in distorting them? Can we avoid relying too much on games and simulations, both in terms of decision-making and in terms of limiting modes of thought? (To me, this is the greatest concern, especially since humans seem to love ideologies and theories to the point where they over generalize and cause damage. Gaming creates a very similar risk.)
Overall, I think we should celebrate the inclusion of fun is respected part of our non-leisure activities. Drudgery does not equal merit. In many ways, what is done for the love of the activity is of more practical value than something that is done as a no-nonsense obligation. I hope that we will all have the tools, questions, and perspectives available to us that will incorporate play into more of our lives and make our days both more fun and more valuable.