Q&A: Sebastian Deterding

We caught up with Dr. Sebastian Deterding, a designer and researcher working on playful, gameful, and motivational design for “human flourishing”, according to his extensive CV.

He is an Assistant Professor at the Playable Innovative Technologies Lab at Northeastern University (Boston, MA), as well as a fellow of the RMIT Games and Experimental Entertainment Laboratory (Melbourne, Australia), and affiliated researcher at the Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research (Hamburg, Germany).

He is an associate of the international design agency Hubbub and founder and principal designer of the boutique design agency Coding Conduct, working for clients including the BBC, BMW, Deutsche Telekom, Greenpeace, Novartis, Otto Group, and numerous startups. He is founder and organizer of the Gamification Research Network, and co-editor of The Gameful World (MIT Press, 2015), a book about the ludification of culture.

How much of the programmes and products you see out there genuinely impress you and how much is chocolate-covered broccolli?

There are lots of things that don’t impress me that are not chocolate-covered broccoli either, but simply poorly executed. More seriously: Sturgeon’s revelation that ninety per cent of everything is trash also applies to applied gaming, and that should be no surprise given how hard it is to make anything good, let alone games. It should be even less surprising for gamification, given the youth of the field and the trajectory it’s on: We’re in a situation similar to the early history of bicycles, and everyone thinks penny-farthings are the way to go – people are still experimenting with all kinds of applied gaming, and early movers – the ‘gamification platforms’ like Bunchball or Badgeville – have shaped public perception of what gamification can and should be. Let’s all pray for the speedy arrival of the safety bicycle.

There seems to be an ongoing discussion about what true gamification is. How much of what you see fits that definition?

 I don’t know about any debate around ‘true’ gamification. Because gamification and games are human creations, there is no eternal ‘truth’ what they are or aren’t: they are what we make them to be. The ongoing contention I see is whether the current industry mainstream gamification – layering tracking, goal-setting, and progress feedback indicators coupled with incentives onto an activity – actually captures the design features that characterise well-designed games, and whether it hooks into the same motives that drive gameplay, or different ones.

My stance is that mainstream gamification indeed has little in common with well-designed games, both in features and resulting motives. I have suggested the term ‘gameful design’ to describe attempts beyond the mainstream to actually evoke the engaging experiences of gameplay, and have been working on design methods for that.

What’s the most common mistake people make in their approach to providing gamified solutions?

 By definition, gamification providers put the cart before the horse: They assume and sell that gamification is the solution to whatever problem is brought to them. I can’t count the number of clients who approached me for a gamification solution to engage customers with an application and after five minutes of testing it I replied: You don’t have an engagement problem, your application is just difficult to use. So I’m happy to solve your usability problems with you, and after that, if you’re still interested, we can look into improving engagement. But that’s not what most gamification vendors do. A lot of the initial ‘user research’ gamification vendors do – if they do any – is really a fig leaf exercise in categorising your users into ‘Bartle Types’ or similar nonsense, instead of questioning and clarifying the very problem framing the client brings to you – which is what any good design agency will do.

by Ivo NäpflinWhat are your thoughts on how serious games projects are funded currently? Is all that EU funding holding back commercial progress or is it helping to establish the industry?

 I think commercial and EU funding have very little to do with each other. Despite the requirement that businesses are involved in large EU tenders and their explicit goal to grow the industry, EU funding is flowing chiefly toward research institutions, and those usually have little incentive and capacity to turn that funding into something that grows a market. It’s not their fault, either.

As for commercial funding: Ben Sawyer of Digitalmills and Games for Health has been very active in understanding the challenges of growing a market for games for health – his talks are really instructive on the matter. In short, the issue is that serious games are very bespoke – they solve specific learning, training, rehabilitation problems for specific audiences. This lack of scalability – towards ‘web scale’ – makes them unattractive to venture capital. This is what gamification vendors are struggling with as well: Despite their best attempts, there is no vanilla engagement platform (much less serious game) that can be used across contexts and users without massive customisation by experts not clients. It’s a person-intensive content and service business, not a technology platform business.

Second, serious games are chiefly a B2B not B2C market, akin to enterprise not consumer software: While students, patients etc. play serious games and teachers and doctors are supposed to distribute them, the people buying serious games are the school headmaster, the innovation officer in a health insurance provider, the head of digital in a government agency for civic education. They have to deal with things like switching costs of training, integration, and migration; regulatory compliance; intra-organisational accountability. In my opinion, that’s why big game publishers by and large haven’t moved into the serious games market, and small game studios doing serious games struggle: the entertainment game industry is just used to marketing and selling directly to a massive end consumer market. Not that that’s an easy sell, but at least it’s a known problem. Serious games are new on the field, and up against tough incumbents: Educational book publishers have had decades of understanding and influencing regulation and building relations with educational administrations, universities, schools, and teachers to create the largely homogenised and captive “textbook market”.

That’s why I think the easier market to build is B2C: consumers buying games to improve their own well-being, help their kids and themselves learn a language, these kinds of things. But then that’s a business of scale that needs investment and marketing.

There’s a lot of buzz at the moment about serious games, gamification, call it what you will, but how convinced are people that this is a genuine alternative solution to business and training issues?

 For that you have to ask the people :). More seriously: Alternative to what? The ultimate question is whether applied gaming is a more cost-benefit efficient solution to a given problem or need than existing best practice. The likely answer is: in some cases yes, in some cases no. My genuine hope is that we identify those specific application areas where applied gaming just makes sense compared to all alternatives, and make headway in those areas. Learning is an obvious area for me. Are the relevant stakeholders in those areas convinced? They might be convinced that applied games are an alternative, but apparently not that they are an alternative that is safe (let alone obvious) to adopt, else we would see broad adoption.

How does gamification ensure that it doesn’t become just another fad that we cringe about in ten years time, like edutainment?

 Well ‘gamification’ as a word cannot do anything, so the real question is who has what interest in keeping that word from being considered a burned buzz word, and what if anything can they do? Those consultancies and studios and platform providers that self-brand as gamification and wish to sustain their business have an interest, so what they should do is obviously build trust by making good products and services. They face the linguistic tragedy of the commons that the label is also used by consultancies etc. who basically ride the trend wave and milk it for what it’s worth. I am personally concerned that those buzzword freeriders destroy trust among clients in the potential of applied gaming writ large: whether it’s called edutainment or serious games or gamification or woop-de-woodle-woo today is secondary. So maybe it’s like the web: Remember Web 2.0 consultants? Web 2.0 basically resold the same promise of interactivity the original new economy sold. Then Web 2.0 lost steam, and now the very same thing is resold as social media. There are waves of new terms on the surface, with people riding the wave, and underneath – one would hope – a rising tide of maturing design patterns, technology stacks, business models, companies, and client relations.

What business sectors do you currently feel are making the best use of gamified elements?

 I see a good fit between the common gamification feature set and structured user-created content – question and answer platforms, open innovation platforms, your Quora, StackOverflow, Innocentive, the like. Unsurprisingly, it is the early online platforms in this genre – Everything2, Yahoo! Answers, StackOverflow – whose features the early gamification platforms abstracted into a template. The social media researcher Cliff Lampe wrote a really nice chapter about that in The Gameful World.

What’s the most exciting prospect that gamification offers?

Furthering our understanding of how to design for motivation across domains. Entertainment and serious game design has been understandably very focused on how to make games engaging. The promise of gamification or gameful design is to start and understand how individual design aspects can support engagement even outside of a full-fledged game.

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