Entertainment or Utility? (more on gamification)

Giff Constable social games, UI/UX

Several years back, over beers one evening at GDC (Game Developers Conference), I debated design principles with Bernie Yee, my colleague at Electric Sheep who had previously worked at Sony (Everquest) and at Harmonix (Rock Band). He argued that any product had to choose between being an entertainment property or a utility. 

There are a lot of people challenging that claim right now, creating games to influence behavior that would normally go in the “utility” bucket. So far, I have not seen anything break out into the mainstream (if you have, please let me know). Foursquare is increasingly a utility, and Hashable, which tried to make a social CRM game, found customers firmly pushing them towards utility. 

They are doing what application designers should do: understand true user motivations and design for that. 

That doesn’t mean, if you have a more utilitarian application, that you shouldn’t learn from games. Games designers are masters at understanding (and testing) user motivations and the power of clever constraints, challenges and feedback.

But so should any good UX designer. Half of the stuff that goes into the term “gamification”, I just call application design.

Seriously folks, a loyalty points program or a “you are 50% done” message is not a game.

Over a dozen years ago, there were social q&a sites like Experts Exchange (essentially a super-powered vertically-focused used forum, now eclipsed by Stack Overflow I think) that tapped into levels/badges, reputation/peer respect, virtual currency, ego/competition via leaderboards and satisfaction from generosity/cooperation. This did not make Experts Exchange a game, it just meant that the designers understood the motivations of their users. They did not get confused about optimizing for entertainment.

Conversely, when Playfish (now EA) designed social games “Biggest Brain” and “GeoChallenge”, there were definitely opportunities for the player to learn during the game, but it did not really have a bearing on the design. Playfish optimized for fun.

You can and should build a utility that is enjoyable to use, but you need to carefully examine why most people will use your product. Is it entertainment or utility? Answer that question and optimize accordingly.

If you choose to bring game elements into the design of a non-game, make sure it feels natural and holistic. Be cautious of being too literal. Be willing to use a light touch. Slapping character classes on top of an application often feels heavy-handed and a bit of a joke.

Always go back to why someone is really using your product.

The good news about gamification is that it is exposing application designers to new tactics and lessons. My four years at Electric Sheep made me a much better product designer. Once the faddish over-enthusiasm for gamification settles, I suspect many traditional UX designers will feel that way.