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An Interview with Sebastian Deterding

By Jane Bozarth / July 2011

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eLearn's Editor-in-Chief Jane Bozarth recently had the opportunity to talk with researcher and UX designer Sebastian Deterding, who specializes in persuasive design and gameful design (or "gamification"). For more information on Sebastian Deterding and his work, including many of his presentations on gamification, view his online portfolio at coding conduct.

Jane Bozarth: "Gamification" has become a buzzword lately, and that's often the first sign that something is being overused and misunderstood. What's your definition of gamification?

Sebastian Deterding: It's the use of game design elements in non-gaming contexts. With serious games, that needn't be digital—you might also "gamify" an offline art exhibition—and that doesn't specify for what purpose you use game design elements. You could introduce them to make something easier to understand or navigate, or more motivating and engaging, or something else. Usually people understand gamification as using game design elements for motivation and engagement, though.

JB: Where do you see concerns with the current interest in "gamifying" learning experiences?

SD: The biggest mistake I see comes from making sense of "why are games fun?" People coming from an economics or behavioral psychology background believe games are fun because they give us "rewards." We see video games that give us points and levels and badges, or creatures in World of Warcraft drop loot if you just hit them often enough with your sword. They think it's these kinds of rewards that make video games fun and engaging and addictive. Often, they draw an analogy between behaviorist reinforcement schedules, points, and loot-dropping—because that is not entirely predictable—and gambling, the intermittent reinforcement scheme where you don't really know when something will happen and therefore do it over and over again. They believe that is why video games are engaging and how you get people to do stuff. However, if you look at all the research on why video games are motivating and engaging, then it turns out it's not about rewards or extrinsic motivation, but about intrinsic motivation.

We play, and we play games, because we inherently enjoy the activity. If you look further at what makes an activity inherently enjoyable, then you see that games deliver on all three things in the current major theory of intrinsic motivation, self-determination theory: they give you experiences of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. In video games you get the sense of competence, of, "Oh, I'm actually able to achieve change in the world, to control my environment, and to get better at that." Good video games provide you interesting challenges to solve, which grow more and more complicated the more you learn. So you get the constant experience, "Oh, here's something I might be able to do," and the constant satisfaction "Oh, I actually can do it." You also get the sense of autonomy. Play is by definition voluntary, and that is something people often overlook, especially in the workspace environment. Also, video games give the player an enormous amount of choices: which goals to pursue, what strategies to use to pursue those goals, how to change your avatar, that kind of thing. So the player has a huge amount of autonomy there. Finally, games are inherently enjoyable because they provide a sense of relatedness: Especially in multiplayer games, you feel you support others and are supported by others in achieving goals, being competent, and in your autonomy.

JB: Say more about extrinsic motivation? I experience the problems with rewards firsthand. I couldn't care less about how many points I get in Angry Birds or if I ever achieve the three stars, as long as I progress to the next level. Often at the end of Ticket to Ride I don't even wait for the scoring to start a new game.

SD: My best example is a friend who was playing my copy of Plants vs. Zombies. She was very frustrated because she got some achievement, some little virtual trophy because she did something in a level very well, and suddenly on the achievements screen, with all of her achievements listed. She was angry and wanted to know, "What is this? How can I get away from all these achievements and get back to playing the game?" She was absolutely not interested in any kind of extrinsic reward. I think the difficulty with the reward framing is that initially it may make sense to helping people connect to their experience. At what point do you get the initial sense of competence, of mastery? After you achieve something. And what happens when you achieve something? The game gives you feedback by letting the pig explode or giving you stars. People are confusing that outer feedback—the system feedback that says, "Hey, you made it!"—with the psychological mechanism that makes this a satisfying experience. The example I like to use is, if I kill a boss-monster in a game of World of Warcraft, I'm not twice as happy if I get 20,000 points for that as compared to 10,000 points. I am twice as happy if that monster was twice as difficult to kill as it was beforehand.

JB: In one of your presentations you used the term "exhaustible." Can you explain what those are?

SD: I tried to build up a difference between "exhaustible" and "generatives." Good game design comes from systems which are generative of a huge possibility space: potential problems, potential moves, potential expressions of people. I use as an example the [pebble strategy] game Go, which has very simple rules but an exponential range of possible moves. There are more possible games of Go than there are atoms in the universe. That ensures the game doesn't get boring—"easy to learn, hard to master," as a game design saying goes. It's easy to grasp the basic idea of Go, but it is almost impossible to exhaust Go, to reach the point of saying, "Ok, I know how to win this." Whereas if you compare that with a game of checkers or tic-tac-toe, after a couple of rounds you can guess how the game is going to end. So with exhaustibles I try to say that current gamified applications are very much like tic-tac-toe or Fisher Price "laugh and learn" toys: the opportunities users have to interact with them, and the kinds of challenges and interesting things to find out and fiddle with in these systems are so limited that they quickly are exhausted. The toy may look playful, in the colors and everything, but if you play around with it you find out that what you can do actually has no depth, no interesting challenge to it, no deep complexity. Once you figure out the basics—"Oh, I hit that button and it makes the sound of a dog barking"—there is nothing more complex to be unraveled, no more complex pattern to solve or recognize. So with exhaustibles I tried to say that current gamified applications are very much like tic-tac-toe or Fisher Price toys: The opportunities users have to interact with them, and the kinds of challenges and interesting things to find out and fiddle with in these systems are so limited that they quickly are exhausted.

JB: Many of us in workplace learning are talking about complex skills, like leadership. It is not framed as a short workshop but a long-haul learning process. We need to keep learners engaged across a long span of time. Can you say a little about novelty and the problem of sustaining interest?

SD: With most of these systems that are "exhaustible," you see an initial spike of engagement. Many people who encounter a system have not engaged with that kind of system beforehand. So there is a novelty effect: It is interesting just because you've never encountered anything like that before. We know that novelty is an important driver of human behavior and human attention. But novelty by definition wears off quickly, and if there is no deeper experience that affords a deepening sense of autonomy and competence and relatedness, then you won't sustain engagement. In my presentations I have three points about that:

First, we shouldn't discard novelty. Exploration and wonder and awe and surprise is an important motivational component of video games. When you see a cut scene after killing a boss-monster, which is when a beautifully rendered vista never before seen opens, or a new creature is introduced, that's an important part of games, but�

Second, compared to the other parts it is very resource intensive. It is why World of Warcraft has to keep churning out new iterations, in the last one essentially turning the whole WoW world upside down. The amount of effort you have to put into creating new content , creating ever-new sensations, is just not as scalable as designing good emergent rule sets.

And third, there is also a collective learning curve. That's what advertisers struggle with: Once someone introduces a creative idea or concept, its novelty is "used up" for the whole market. You can't make the same joke twice and expect the same response. So novelty does not relate only to the system that you design—is this new in what we do?—but to all systems the user has had contact with in his complete life and environment—is this new relative to everything the user has ever experienced before? If I encountered Jeopardy! in three different classes and then you introduce it in your class as well, the novelty has worn off for me. So the first time one encounters badges, points, and leaderboards it will probably result in the novelty effect. But after the second, third time in different systems, it has worn off.

JB: How does all of this apply to eLearning?

SD: It connects back to James Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. He looked at the way that game tutorials and other aspects of video games implemented general principles of good learning well. In 30 years of practice, game designers have discovered a few things about principles of good learning—and how to cater to those in the way they structure games. At best, gamification goes back to that and asks, "What are the psychological principles of good learning for which video games have found good design patterns, and how can we integrate these principles and patterns?" Rather than to look at interface elements that games use, like badges or points. Principles like learning by doing, first easy success, scaffolded complexity, etc.

It connects to eLearning ideally in that instructional designers and eLearning designers, by looking at these kinds of principles and design patterns, can make eLearning in general more motivating and engaging.

JB: In my experience an ongoing, maddening phenomenon in this industry is that people see something like a game—like an Angry Birds—and suddenly they think it's easy and simple and you can buy a $100 plugin that will turn your dry training content into something as engaging as that. They don't want to do the design work but will spend countless hours and dollars adding cosmetic layers to a poorly designed product. They want to spend the effort on the decoration but not on the architecture. Clark Quinn describes this as "putting lipstick on a pig."

SD: That was the problem with "edutainment," and the whole "spoonful of sugar" thing: People thought well, if we created learning that looked like games, with flashy colors and and cartoon characters and nice noises, then they're going to be motivating and engaging. It turns out the reason a game like Plants vs. Zombies is so engaging throughout is not because of it uses cute little cartoon character zombies and plants, but because they spent three years iterating on the design, to get all the design details right. I would say that's sort of the traditional fallacy in the whole space, to believe that the problem is a technology problem. If it would be possible to, under the ruse of a technology solution, to get people to listen to and learn the underlying psychology and design, and design process, that would be the best possible outcome—if they come for the technology but leave with the psychology and the design.

JB: What's new and different? What's the near future?

SD: The near future holds a traditional Gartner hype curve of inflated expectations, disappointment, and then a slow maturation towards productiveness: A couple of people are going to get burned by implementing the obvious surface features and will find that it has, at best, a shallow novelty effect and, at worst, brings all the hidden cost of extrinsic rewards connected to that. What I would assume short term to happen, well, I don't predict the future (laughs).

The pervasive change in terms of technological affordances underlying gamification is the increasing ubiquity of throwaway cheap sensors in our everyday environment. That basically allows us to keep track of our personal behavior. That is suddenly becoming a resource we can integrate into our designs. Before you had to go through the frustrating exercise of self-reporting what you did or did not do. Connected to that, the gamification platforms now, instead of delivering analytics in terms of page views and conversions, are now focused on individual people and behaviors and behavioral outcomes. I would assume in eLearning, most systems are always tracking that. But in the online sphere in general, this shift in analytics is an interesting lasting shift.


  • Wed, 11 Sep 2013
    Post by Brian Keating

    Great article! I think this has a LOT of applications for what I do for a living right now -- facilitating webinars -- as well as my background, which is in language arts education. I'm also interested in learning more about gamification and how to apply it in a meaningful way to the things that matter to me, so thanks for the article!

  • Thu, 21 Jul 2011
    Post by Joan Vinall-Cox

    A fascinating explanation of gamification and the underlying basics of how it works.