Playing games, gamification, and the gulf between them

games and gamificationMy post on gamification last week garnered plenty of comments on LinkedIn. Many responses exposed the vague ways people use the word gamification to imply, well, something good about a service that some companies provide. Like advertising’s liberal use of improved! without explaining what’s improved, the genius of the word gamification is that it can be applied as a plausible sounding selling point to all kinds of products, without ever saying what gamification is, or specifying its benefits. So let’s explore the gulf between playing games and gamification in the world of events.

Playing games with Bernie DeKoven

Bernie DeKoven published his classic book The Well-Played Game, (originally published in 1978) long before its time. Eventually, a generation of game designers discovered its importance and the book was reissued in 2013, five years before his death.

I was lucky enough to play games led by Bernie. I still remember my joy while playing a glorious session of the “pointless game” Prui. (Recommendation: play Prui at least once before you die. A group of people and an empty room is all you need.)

A game designer’s experience

Here’s an eloquent description of game designer and performative games artist Professor Eric Zimmerman‘s experience of playing games with Bernie in the 60’s:

“Not too long ago, I was privileged to take part in a New Games event led by Bernie. On a brisk afternoon in the Netherlands, a few dozen players stood outside in a circle. With the boundless panache of a practiced ringmaster and the eternal patience of a kindergarten teacher, Bernie taught us several games.

Bernie led by example, always reminding us that we could change the rules to suit the moment, or that we could exit the game whenever we wanted. Attuned to the spirit of the group, he flowed effortlessly from one game to another, tweaking a ruleset to make a game feel better, always somehow knowing exactly when it was time to move on.

He wove his spell. Or, rather, we wove it together. As we threw animal gestures across thin air, raced like hell with locked knees to capture enemies, and became a single blind organism with a forest of groping hands, Bernie helped us massage our play into a more beautiful shape. In a short space of time, jaded gamers, know-it-all developers, and standoffish academics became squealing, sweating, smiling purveyors of play.

‘This is amazing! I can feel the equilibrium shift and restore itself. I can’t tell which one of us is making it happen. But I feel so sensitive–I can sense the game. I can sense the way we’re playing it together. And I love it. I love being this way. I love doing this thing, playing this game with you.'”

Eric Zimmerman, from the original Foreword to The Well-Played Game

The joy of playing

I hope it’s obvious at this point what a well-played game can be like. (Though, of course, experiencing transcends reading about a game.)

One more quote. Bernie wrote the following in 1978 about playing well:

“If I’m playing well, I am, in fact, complete. I am without purpose because all my purposes are being fulfilled. I’m doing it. I am making it. I’m succeeding. This is the reason for playing this game. This is the purpose of this game for me. The goals, the rules, everything I did in order to create the safety and permission I needed, were so that I could do this-so I could experience this excellence, this shared excellence of the well-played game.”

I’m hearing joy here.

Games and gamification

Merriam-Webster defines gamification as “the process of adding games or gamelike elements to something (such as a task) so as to encourage participation”.

Now, compare what you’ve just read with your experience of “gamification” of meetings.

If you’re like me, there’s no comparison between the experience of playing a game well and the experience (often negative) of participating in “gamified” conference sessions. The former is transcendent, the latter often something to avoid.

As I wrote last week, gamification concentrates on competition and rewards to encourage participation. Proponents don’t directly address whether gamification actually leads to joy and fun. Instead, they imply it by including a version of the word “game”.

As game designer and author Ian Bogost put it:

“The rhetorical power of the word “gamification” is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want: it takes games—a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people—and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.”
—Ian Bogost, Gamification is Bullshit (2011)


Yes, competitive experiences can be fun. (Though, as I write this on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday 2020, I’m wondering how much fun the Chiefs and Buccaneer players will experience.) It turns out that including competition into a well-played game is surprisingly tricky. Bernie, who designed events and computer games in the 1970’s and 80’s, wrote extensively about this, including the roles of coaches and spectators.


Yes, rewards can be fun too, provided the rewards are really, well, rewarding.

The problem is that manufactured competitive experiences usually feel fake. I’m supposed to get excited about beating some other randomly chosen team so I can win a prize I generally don’t want that much. Even if the prize is substantial — “an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii!” — what I have to go through to “win” is unlikely to feel joyous.

And, of course, “you have to play to win.” But, as Bernie says in The Well-Played Game:

“…as I’ve seen and said so many times, if I have to play, I’m not really playing.”

Once someone requires you to “play the game”, gamification becomes little more than trying to make an obligatory task more enjoyable. Articles like this one, which touts the benefits of gamification on an already highly competitive group, are silent on the effects of a coercive learning environment on participants in general, many of whom may resent being constantly compared with their peers.

Gamification confusion

Many of the comments on last week’s post referenced using games to improve the effectiveness of learning, or adding some fun activities to an event. This is a straw man argument, because, yes, using games to achieve specific objectives, like learning something experientially, or having fun is often helpful. Applied Improvisation (1, 2), about which I’ve written a fair amount, is a fine example, as are serious games. But these approaches are not gamification as it’s routinely marketed! In reality, these are game-like activities that have value in their own right, rather than band-aiding them onto existing meeting activities.

In contrast, the concept of “gamifying” something we already do at a meeting is basically a marketing strategy rather than something that’s actually useful.

Incorporating playing games well into events

Here are a couple examples of successfully incorporating game playing, ala Bernie DeKoven, into events.

Simulations and serious games

A number of years ago, I participated in a high-end business simulation that took place during a meeting industry conference. [If anyone can provide more information on this session, please let me know!]

It included briefings and a set of high-quality videos that introduced a motorsports business situation leading to several possible choices. We split into small groups and discussed what our group thought was the best choice. We shared and discussed the group conclusions en masse and chose one of them, which led to another video segment showing the consequences and giving us another set of choices. After, I think, three choice points, the simulation ended and we debriefed and discussed the lessons learned.

The small groups didn’t create significant connection, so I wouldn’t class this as gamification, but it was a learning experience with game-like features.

I remember that creating this single example was clearly very expensive and only provided limited (though probably quite effective) learning. The session provided the same kind of experience as some interactive courseware built for education.

Applied Improvisation

Ask people what “improvisation” brings to mind, and many mention improvisation in the performing arts, aka improv. As the name suggests, applied improvisation (AI) applies improv techniques, skills, and games developed and formalized over the last hundred years to learning activities in areas like team building, social work, health care, responding to emergencies, etc. — in other words, student-centered interactive learning.

Today, AI practitioners have a rich inventory of hundreds of games, with a myriad of variations. (Some invented, as you might expect, in the moment as needed.) A skilled AI practitioner is able to design meeting sessions that satisfy complex needs for improved human interaction. These sessions are also a lot of fun!

The gulf between playing games and gamification

Both of the above examples require significant resources. Simulations involve careful learning design plus the creation of supporting materials. Successful AI must be led by a highly trained, skillful, and experienced practitioner.

In addition, these approaches are not examples of gamification. Why? Because simulations and AI sessions are designed from the ground up to meet specific outcomes, rather than slapping achievements, badges, leader boards, and payments onto a traditional learning environment.

To conclude, incorporating playing games thoughtfully and productively into meetings is possible, and plainly desirable. But it’s not something you can do meaningfully on a formulaic basis by adding competition and rewards, which is what proponents of gamification are selling. Caveat emptor!

Gamification makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli

gamification chocolate-dipped broccoliGamification “makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli”. Education professor Amy Bruckman, coined this analogy in a 1999 paper on game software design:

“Most attempts at making software both educational and fun end up being neither. Fun is often treated like a sugar coating to be added to an educational core. Which makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli. The problem is that too many game designers are using long-outmoded models of what it means to be “educational”.

Can educational be fun? Amy Bruckman

Game designer and author Ian Bogost makes the same point, somewhat more forcefully:

“…gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.

Bullshitters are many things, but they are not stupid. The rhetorical power of the word “gamification” is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want: it takes games—a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people—and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.”
—Ian Bogost, Gamification is Bullshit (2011)

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I know the world is crazy right now — and here’s what you can do about it

the world is crazy

“I know the world is crazy right now. I know it’s hard to find the good in the news but you won’t find it there because the news asks you to be only a passive consumer of the world’s pain and joy. What we need to do is rise from our seats and participate in the world as fully as possible.”
Chris Corrigan, Pick up the unclaimed portion of joy

Illustration from The Never-Ending Play Of Life, in which Bernie De Koven is quoted by Chris.

Create Your Dream Conference Collectively On This Friday’s #Eventprofs Happy Hour

Creating the perfect conferencesubscribe_nowJoin me and my special guest Bernie DeKoven on Friday, November 20, 2015 from 4 – 6 pm EST for a unique online experience where we’ll collectively create our perfect conference. Instead of our usual Google Hangout, we’ll be hosting this show for the first time on the live-casting video platform Blab.

Bernie DeKoven is a legendary American game designer, author, lecturer and fun theorist. He is most notable for his classic book, first published in 1978, The Well Played Game “one of the most brilliant and overlooked books on games to date”, for his contributions to the New Games Foundation, his pioneering work in computer game design, and for his long-running web site, Bernie has spent the last 45 years working to teach new ways to play and create community.

Bernie is also a sweetheart.

The blab will go live at 4 pm EST. Join us before 4:30 pm, when Bernie will lead us through the first ever online version of “Did I Mention“, which we will then use to collectively build our ideal conference.

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to play with Bernie, building a collective vision of what a conference can be. To participate, you’ll need to be logged into Twitter in the browser you’re using. Simply click on the “Subscribe Now” below to subscribe to (in advance) or join the blab.
subscribe_nowHaven’t blabbed before? No worries—this post by Jocelyn Gonzalez covers everything you might need to know.

Join us!

[Added November 20, after the Blab was over.]
Here’s a recording of the resulting Blab!

A story about turning win-lose into win-win

turning win-lose into win-win

Turning win-lose into win-win? Wouldn’t you like to know how to do that? Read on!

Playing win-lose

As a kid I played chess. I was good enough to get on the school team (which included the soon-to-be-grandmaster Ray Keene, chess correspondent of the London Times since 1985) and even placed in the top ten for my age group in the London Chess Championships.

When I started to play I loved the game, but I slowly discovered that playing chess competitively took a huge toll on me. I equated my self-worth with my success at winning which led to severe stress at every school and regional competition.

I felt sure that playing chess was about win-lose. This conviction even spread its poisonous reach into casual games with my kids. I’d teach them the game and then find myself battling not to crush them and their connection with the game. Removing my queen to even the odds still didn’t change the fundamentals of how I played the game.

So I gave up playing chess.

For 25 years.

Last week, Bernie DeKoven told me how I could play chess again.

A week of improv

On turning 61, I gave myself a birthday present and flew to San Francisco for an improv intensive at BATS. For three days I was immersed in learning improv with sixteen other classmates and two wonderful teachers, Barbara Scott & Lisa Rowland. (I subsequently posted on Facebook that those three days were the most fun I ever remember having in my life that didn’t involve sex.) After a day reconnecting with my daughter who had moved to San Francisco nine months earlier, I attended the Applied Improvisation Network’s 2012 World Conference (AIN 2012), plunging into a four day exploration with 206 collaborators of how improvisation can be applied to facilitation, business, training, learning, spiritual practice, and much more. And there I finally met Bernie DeKoven face-to-face.

Bernie has spent much of his life exploring and championing the power and importance of games and play. In the 1960’s Bernie created the five-volume Interplay Games Catalog containing one thousand games. He went on to create the Games Preserve for the deeper exploration of games, wrote The Well Played Game, and became co-director of the New Games Foundation, designer of the New Games Training, an alternative to competitive sports that now is taught at almost every elementary school in the world.

We had met and connected online when I discovered his Deep Fun website and started retweeting some of his blog posts. Our in person meeting was everything I had hoped it might be. Bernie combines a childlike wonder and respect for play with a deep knowledge and seemingly effortless command of the myriads of way we can play and connect though the tool of games. Let’s just say, I enjoyed his company.

Bernie held two sessions at AIN 2012; one an exploration of play, culminating in a glorious game of the “pointless game” Prui, and the other an interview about his history and involvement in the New Games movement. During the latter, Bernie mentioned chess.

Turning win-lose into win-win in one minute

Chess?! A win-lose game, the very anti-epitome of the New Games movement?! Chess?!

Bernie said: “We used to have a chess board with a game going on it. With a note on the board: ‘white to move.’ Anyone could play a move and update the note.”

And just like that, Bernie shattered my life-long perspective of chess.

One way to turn win-lose into win-win

Anyone could play! Chess wasn’t a two-person game any more! Anyone could play!

When we open up a two-person game to multiple players who can take any side, the concept of win-lose disappears.

Another way of turning win-lose into win-win

And then Bernie added: “We also had this idea for rotating chess boards. If one side was ‘winning’ either player could rotate the board to swap the side you were playing.”

Wow! Chess could stay a two-player game, and yet—with one small change—not be win-lose any more.

When we allow “sides” to be flipped at will, a win-lose game turns into something else.

Thank you Bernie!

With a few sentences, Bernie helped me realize I could play chess again. Chess will no longer be a sink-or-swim experience for me. I can have fun with it!

I like having my beliefs flipped like that. Thank you Bernie!

What win-lose mindsets do you have? Could you flip them too?

Photo attribution: Flickr user government_press_office