I'm going to try to do Monte Cook's A+ thing next month, so here's my last chance to be negative. Going for it!
In my e-mail this morning, from My Gym, that place where we leave our kids to be babysat and sometimes have birthday parties, they've revealed their new program:
We are proud to announce Building Blocks, our brand new skill and development tracking and recognition system! My Gym Kids are going to love earning ribbons and medals, and they'll radiate with pride when they participate in exciting Awards Presentation Ceremonies as they master My Gym curriculum milestones.
And my first thought - admittedly, without knowing anything about this program - is yuck.
Remember Jesse Schell's definition of play: play is something you do that you're not obligated to. When you incentivize play, it stops being play. And it can turn people off play - take the study of children being paid to do art vs children who weren't - the children who weren't paid continued to do it, the children who were paid started feeling entitled and didn't want to draw for free anymore.
When my kids go to My Gym, they have all kinds of fun. They are never bored. They need no incentives.
My feeling is that when people 'gamify' - or when they add experience points and levels and achievements and medals and whatnot to a game or to any activity - the motivation is usually from a bad place: "Let's keep our players playing past the point where it stops being fun." It is the Grind.
And I suspect that's where this My Gym initiative has come from.
And a sad thing is it's so effective. It almost breaks my heart when I see my seven year old daughter suckered into these grind economies in her games. She's pretty clearly not having fun (except for those brief moments where she gets the reinforcement) but she grinds along anyway. I assume she'll build up an immunity to their ploys someday, but until then...
Okay, done being negative. There is a positive side to experience points and achievements and scoring systems: they can incentivize players to fully experience the play. Often games have linear arcs, natural stopping points (all the levels completed; all the story revealed) - and players reach the end of these arcs before they've experienced all the play the game has to offer. It can be a guide to play that they've missed.
For example: the Pacifism achievement in Geometry Wars. This not only instantly turned Geometry Wars into two games, it also acted as a teaching tool so players can learn how to experience the regular mode more deeply.
For example: unlocking new races and classes in Desktop Dungeons. These new powers allow the player to experience the game mechanic in new ways, turning it into practically a different game!
For example: scoring systems in general encourage mastery. Attempting to master a skill is a kind of play all by itself. (But if there isn't much skill to the game, if it's Go Fish rather than Bridge, then what's the point?)
Also, 'leveling up' is a somewhat respected method for dynamic difficulty adjustment - I much prefer it to the game switching to easy mode under the hood. If a player is good at challenge type A and terrible at challenge type B, having challenge type A reward the player with buffs that help them get past challenge type B seems like an acceptable crutch to help players get through a game's linear arc. I'm 42. I'm still somewhat sharp but my reflexes are shot. Reward me for solving puzzles with bullet time powerups. Reward Mr. I-Hate-Puzzles with puzzle hints for getting past the hand-eye-coordination bits.
So, yeah, when making a game, ask yourself why you're adding those macro game elements. Just to trick players into coming back? Or something more?
And when playing a game, if you're not having fun, stop. I can't believe I have to say that - it sounds like common sense - but I see it all the time.