Motivating non-gamers through playful, gamelike experiences and games
People who are into games and gamification often get excited about it. Yu-Kai Chou, Andrzej Marczewski and Jane McGonigal have all spoken about their passion for games and gamification, and how they feel play can change the world. If you share that passion even a little, and try to make work and life more playful for others, sooner or later you’ll come up against the objection:
“But some people don’t like games.”
This objection throws some powerful curveballs for game-designer enthusiasm to field. Are we failing dissenters or even being unethical by forcing them to play? Are we faced with sidelining them and having to deal with the impacts of their non-engagement? Should we give up the idea of introducing gamelike structures into work and life when we come up against this?
My simple answer to all of these is: no, so long as we do it right.
The right way to get objectors onboard
On the idea of forcing, things are simple: don’t, if at all possible. Many, including Mollick (2014) have shown that ‘mandatory fun’ and forced participation at work decrease motivation, performance and learning. Many definitions of games and gamification (e.g. Suits, 1978) include the idea that participation must be optional. If you don’t choose to play, you’re fulfilling a task, not playing.
But the human motivational triggers that games and gamifications tap into are deeper than games, and predate them. We can tap into them via games and gamification, so long as we can get people to engage voluntarily. We can do this in two ways:
- Design the experience so it takes account of their issues
- Handle objections and ‘sell’ participation
In gamification as opposed to actual games, we have a very specific version of the design solution that’s appealing: we can gamify so subtly and with such a light touch that people don’t feel they’re playing a game. As, in fact, they aren’t. But here we should tread carefully in case we seem manipulative.
Beyond that, both responses should be based on the specifics of the game or gamification, and the specifics of the objection. If we take the objection at face value and fail to get to the reason behind it, we don’t stand much chance of addressing the issue.
So the first step should probably be to do the work to find out why our audience might not like games. We can do this by asking directly or through research in any discovery/scoping phase (the ‘empathy’ phase in design thinking). Although of course we could also just try to design to address as many of these as possible.
I’ve identified seven basic categories of objection, based on my own experience and research. Here are a few ideas for each:
‘Don’t like competition’
- De-emphasise competition
- De-emphasise or avoid points, badges and leaderboards
- Include collaborative elements
- Include activities and actions separate to any competitive element
‘Feel exposed playing’
- Include solo play elements and options
- Reduce actions requiring exposure
- Ensure individuals can contribute to a team without exposure if they choose
‘Don’t see the point’
- Make the link between play and real-world analogy/effects as explicit as possible
- Frame the game/activity carefully to showcase the point
- Make sure rules and instructions emphasise the point
‘Games aren’t serious’
- Make the setting and elements realistic and serious
- Frame the game/activity carefully to showcase its link to real-world situations
- Build in elements that are used in non-game settings, e.g. feedback and review
‘I’m not good at them’
- Design the experience so that there is something for people of all skill levels
- Include elements of luck
- De-emphasise the importance of the outcome, e.g. instead focusing on learning
‘Demands too much focus’
- Limit periods of intense focus
- Limit overall game time
- Include plenty of variety and changing activities
- If possible, make it consumable in small chunks at times of their choice
- Make it more relaxed and social
- Make the game simple
- Reduce the number of rules
- Design a tutorial phase
Objection handling solutions
When it comes to attempts to handle objections around game-playing, a trick borrowed from sales techniques is probably a good start: begin by acknowledging and exploring the objection, rather than dismissing it. It’s perfectly okay to not want to play games. Can they help you understand why? And, based on their answer, you can try to explain how they may find value in this experience anyway.
For example, you could:
- Explain that the game isn’t really about the factor they’re concerned with (e.g. winning/losing)
- Explain the other outcomes and positives they’ll get even if the thing they dislike is present
- Explain how the game is designed to marginalise or eliminate the factor they’re worried about
- Suggest ways to approach the game that minimise the issue
- Explain how, even though games aren’t real, the lessons and skills they help us develop can be applied to real situations
- Coach them through their learning curve to address issues
- Explain how respected and serious organisations such as Google and the armed forces use games
- Explain how this game is different from others they’ve played
Helping the reality combat the idea
For many objectors, it’s not your game that’s the problem, it’s a generalised idea of games, based on bad experiences they had with a specific game, game category or situation (e.g. who they played with). If you’ve designed a game or experience well, it will almost certainly be different from those experiences, and they may well see that, from inside the experience. You just need to make it welcoming enough to convince them to step inside.
Mollick, Ethan R. and Rothbard, Nancy, Mandatory Fun: Consent, Gamification and the Impact of Games at Work (September 30, 2014). The Wharton School Research Paper Series. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2277103 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2277103
Suits, Bernard (2005), The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Broadview Press, pp. 54–55, ISBN1-55111-772-X
is a bespoke learning designer, who focuses on game-based learning and gamification in designing learning experiences. He’s the founder of untold play, where he’s committed to putting the power of play to work in learning. In his 20-year career in L&D, his learning design has won awards from Reed Learning, the Healthcare People Management Association and The NHS London Modernisation Agency. Find out more: www.untoldplay.com