Die verspielte Gesellschaft: Gamification oder Leben im Zeitalter des Computerspiels

(Society at Play: Gamification, or Life in the Era of the Computer Game)

By Nora S. Stampfl

Hanover: Heise, 2012. ISBN: 978-3936931778

This is an introduction into gamification, the process by which elements from various games, especially computer games, are used in non-game situations. The book starts with an overview of games in general, in particular with the establishment of the academic discipline Ludology in the 1990s. In order to answer the question “What is a game?” posed near the start of the book, Nora Stampfl summarises the work of Johan Huizinga, Bernard Suits, and Roger Caillois, stressing the fact that this work pre-dates the era of computer games. For Stampfl, one of the key aspects of computer games is their potential to bring large numbers of players together in various forms of online interactions. Clearly, the MMOs are one of the best examples of this aspect of gaming, with many people seeing them as an opportunity for players to escape grey reality in favour of various fantasy worlds. However, Stampfl’s focus is very much on the reverse direction, namely the numerous ways in which elements from online gaming are being used in real life, through a process of gamification. Her goal is to explore how these features are able to influence people’s behaviour in various areas of their own lives.

Citing Will Wright, the designer of SimCity, she locates these developments as being in the very earliest stages of what will become a much more widespread penetration of gamification into nearly every aspect of modern life. Although the commercial sector has much to gain from appropriating and modifying game elements for its own success, Stampfl’s survey is much broader, encompassing – for example – health (dieting, quitting smoking) and education. She explains how game features such as collecting points and items, gaining awards and achievements, attaining new levels of skill or status, can all be used to make onerous everyday chores or obligations seems much more attractive. Stampfl uses the app EpicWin as an example to illustrate how this can work in practice. EpicWin’s subtitle is “RPG style to-do list”, and it allows the user to set up everyday tasks, such as shopping or ironing, as game-style quests or missions that will award progress towards awards or achievements. Stampfl sees one of the keys to the success of such apps as residing in the user’s ability to share their awards with friends and fellow users via social media. A ranking list that allows users to compete with others is also seen as vital. The connectivity of the “internet of things” makes it possible to incorporate an even wider range of activities. For example, sensors in Nike shoes allow races to take place between competitors who are spread right across the globe.

Stampfl does also introduce a warning note by pointing out that this extensive gathering of data through these various apps could be used as the foundation for attempts at social manipulation. Similarly, there is also disappointment in that instead of genuine gamification, there is – according to an increasingly large body of evidence – a regrettable trend towards “pointsification”, where genuine gameplay elements or intrinsic motivation are replaced by the simple awarding of points for the completion of tasks. For those readers primarily interested in games and gaming, the sections devoted to these numerous commercial applications, crowdsourcing, collective intelligence, and social media may seem a little off-topic. Nevertheless, the review of Jane McGonigal’s endeavours with community initiatives affords an insight into an unashamedly optimistic vision of how to use games and game theory to “make us better” and to “change the world”.

Overall, this is an excellent introduction for the lay reader into the phenomenon of gamification. It is theory-light, with short chapters and a lively style throughout. Peppered with numerous examples, it is also suitable for dipping into at random. An academic readership may be put off by its introductory nature, but anyone seeking preliminary inspiration may well appreciate having such a broad selection of good examples drawn together in one handy volume.

Chris Jones