Broken Games: Gamification Gone Wrong


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I was at a large conference this summer. The organizers had added a game to the conference app. If you tweeted from the app, or reviewed a session or entered a code at a location, you were awarded points in the game. The prize was not trivial, a paid trip to the conference the following year for the person who "earned" the most points. Great idea. Except it was broken, very broken.

I don't mean that app or the codes didn't work; I mean there were several major flaws in the game design. Most attendees didn't know the game existed in the app until they got to the conference and by then the leader board showed several top scoring people had over 800 points on the first day. In a system where you are awarded 10-20 points per interaction, their leads were so immense that most attendees never bothered playing. A game that was supposed to be fun, just wasn't because there was no way to win if you started playing at the conference, no second place and no random prizes for participants.

Conference organizers are always looking for new ways to entice attendees to submit session reviews and awarding points in a game for something like that probably seemed like a great idea, except that there was no requirement that you actually attend the session before submitting a review. Those at the top of the leader board likely submitted a review for every session. So, rather than getting the organizers more data about sessions, it got them more noise in the data and probably made it tough to tell what the actual participants really thought about any given session.

Gamification is not as simple as slapping a point system on some already expected behaviors. (We call that grading.) To design a game you have to consider all the ways a person can beat that game. You have to consider if winning behavior also matches the behavior you want from participants. If you want people to review a session after attending it then you have to give out an access code in the actual session. If you want a level playing field for all participants then you have to make sure everyone starts at the same time. If the game rewards cheating, like reviewing sessions you didn't attend just to get points, then the game discredits the players.

But games can fail for other reasons too. I was at an event a while back where they had a special door prize to be drawn just from those who clicked on a special button on the organization website. To be fair you could only enter at the event. Implicitly, this only favors people with a smartphone able to visit the website and click the button, but worse than that, the button did not show up on the mobile version of the site. Most attendees did not enter. But there were some real computers in the room, for another purpose. I went to one, visited the site, clicked the contest button and entered my name. I should not have been surprised when I won, but I was in the middle of a conversation and hadn't noticed they were having the drawing already. Did I cheat by entering the contest in the only way available? Should I have told others to go use the computers to enter? Is it my fault that the game creators failed to test their plan with mobile devices? And yes, I recognize my own hypocrisy that I complain when a game is not fair, but quickly exploit a loophole when I find one that gives me an advantage.

Good games are balanced, fair, and fun. It takes carefully planning to make a good game work, but a game can fail miserably if even one part of the equation is off. Players who know they can't win often choose not to play. Players who can't access the tools of the game will also opt out. These are the circumstances our struggling students are already dealing with. Is it any wonder they choose not to play school?

If you are excited about adding gaming principles to your classroom look first at what is already a game for students, consider the ways a student might "beat" your game by exploiting a loophole you didn't see coming, and above all, make sure all the players have a reason to stay in the game.