Why Does “Just Add Gameplay” Endure?

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly writes a regular column about all things video game for TechCrunch. He is a consultant, game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

I could hear the sound of academics rolling their eyes from three states away. This in response to an article that appeared on VentureBeat about a game called Classcraft. In short, Classcraft attempts to gamify education through the use of roleplaying game mechanics. Students have characters, they level up based on things done in the classroom, and this activity increases their interest (because videogames) leading to a more engaged class.

Using gaming in this way is not a novel idea, nor is the criticism that such approaches are behaviorist. You can teach facts and figures with the prospect of reward bananas, experts invariably say, but at the cost of reasoning skills. The kids might learn how to game the game, but whatevs. As Drive tells it, the more extrinsic rewards are attached to problems, the less creative students become.

And yet, in everything from “games for brands” through to “games for change” the same essential idea pops up again and again. “All you have to do to increase engagement is just add gameplay” has a surprising magnetism. Countless projects over the years have attempted to square the circle of trying to impart something to an audience via some form of game or gamelike.

I mean stuff like:

  • Through gameplay we will teach people how to recycle and help save the environment.
  • Through gameplay we will increase motivation in depressed patients.
  • Through gameplay we will increase transactions.
  • Through gameplay we will instill values of social responsibility.
  • Of religions.
  • Of political views.
  • Etc

They all sound great in story form, but the actual hit rate for this type of use of gameplay is nearly zero. At best what tends to emerge from this whole sector is a set anecdotal examples or fragments of data that maybe might sorta kinda point the way, but then retreats. Obvious problems tend to exist in execution (the studio making the game doesn’t know how to make good software) and/or dissonance (the play of the game has little to do with the intended goal). They end up making a “game” that blares a message or a game that is fun in but doesn’t translate its fun into anything wider.

And yet projects set up in this vein continue to get funded. Perhaps the reason why is the mediated relationships under which they get funded. Educational games, for example, are usually sold at the institutional level. In a situation not unlike watching one of the pitches from Mad Men, the story of what the product could be with visuals and stats to match is 80% of the battle for getting over the funding line. The actual product less so.

The world of brand, advertising and related games operates under a similar logic. Rather like the thinking that led detergent companies to create the soap opera to have some content to show between advertisements, brand-game projects believe that they increase awareness through getting players into the world of the brand. That might mean commercial brands like a burger chain, but often its charities and social responsibility organizations that become enamored by this idea.

Another popular model is the game as trojan horse. The thinking goes that gameplay is highly engaging, engagement is the key to service adoption, and so therefore you use one to drive the other. This is why virtual worlds got hot, why Klout was thought valuable by someone, and why the investment rush in a brace of location sharing startups a few years back. However the “games” involved are usually too thin to stay engaging for long. Even Foursquare’s had to move on, but the trojan narrative is very attractive to some. (In that vein, watch what happens in VR).

I understand why a section of the game development industry has peeled off to focus on this kind of market. For some it’s just a payday for relatively low-risk work (certainly compared to the wilds of commercial game development). For some it’s really just about a way to build a startup that will exit quickly.

For many, however, the goal is more noble. The games-for-change set, for example, genuinely believes in the power of gaming to influence social behavior for the better while acknowledging that that power seems locked away. Paying projects act as extended research opportunities toward finding the solution, and then we’ll all live in a better future. Just like every other sector of the games industry, the future is a powerful motivator.

But the whole sector essentially functions on naivety. That’s the part that fascinates me. Digital games are, after all, not a new medium. They’ve been with us for at least 50 years, commercially so for a good 40. Today games are so widely available that they are major cultural events at all ends of the spectrum. Nearly everyone everywhere (in the Western world at least) has played some form of digital game, even if it’s just Words With Friends on their phone or Candy Crush on Facebook.

But at the corporate or institutional level a powerful cognitive dissonance pervades. They still talk about gaming’s supposed power, make sweeping equivocations about the value of “engagement” and use flaky reasoning to assert the value of such endeavors. Gaming, it seems, is still seen as the stepping stone. It yet retains its mystique regardless of its success rate.

Will the naivety cycle continue? For a time, but I wouldn’t bet on it forever. There are enough earnest believers in the power of gaming to evangelize its message, whose enthusiasm then infects others. And, not to sound overly cynical, there is a ready supply of executives who like to be told stories about what might be and project how that fits their goals. My hope, however, is that over time the wider influence of gaming will increase the expectations bar.

End users aren’t as naive as institutions. Just as viewers tolerate advertising to access real content, game players don’t engage with the ulterior ambitions behind games so much as simply tolerate them. Just because games are interactive doesn’t really mean that they have some magic power to circumvent propagandistic filters, it never has. Players show up for the gameplay first and foremost, not as set dressing for something else.

Sooner or later the institutional world is going to catch on.