Games, Gaming, and Gamification – Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts about Games, Gamification, and Libraries.

There’s a certain stubborn snobbery that associates gaming with children, which therefore assumes that adults who engage in meaningful play-based activities must be in some way juvenile too. It’s a huge generalisation, but there’s a pervasive unpleasantness demonstrated by a certain, narrow-minded breed of professionals that ‘objectively’ rules out games and gamification in a completely arbitrary way that doesn’t need to be explained, defended, or evaluated.

And that’s hugely frustrating!

To derail from the broader discussion for a moment, I’d just like to contextualise my soap boxing a little. I’m pretty savvy when it comes to games and gaming—in fact, if Gladwell’s litmus test of ’10 000 hours of an activity make you an expert’ then I’ve certainly covered the requirements a few times over.  Just this past week I participated in the Indie Speed Run 48 hour game jam—an excellent idea in the middle of a solid block of university assessment. This game jam tasked my team and me with the complete design and development of a game in just 48 hours with a random set of elements to include and adhere to.

GameJam

Immersing myself in a rapid-fire development environment for a whole weekend left me asking some of the high-level, design questions that are fundamental to all sorts of manifestations of ‘games’.

These core principals of play design—whether they in a 2D side-scroller or a library catalogue—ask the same sorts of questions about attention, motivation, and engagement. In taking on the mantle of a game designer I had to ask myself these questions in order to find meaningful verbs to describe play-based activities beyond the mundane tasks being performed.

Take Trove’s text correction initiative for example. Here we have a dull set of actions such as laborious information parsing and data entry. But, it’s packaged in such a way that we see it as exploration, discovery, and competition. Checking and correcting OCR’d articles becomes a quixotic race-to-the-top of who can demonstrate the highest level of commitment. Sure, it’s a highly insular community. But, within the space provided by Trove an entire currency of reputation has grown up around the dubious honour of correcting the most articles.

This isn’t profoundly high-level game design; but it works. The layers of progression and incentives give a positive feedback loop that rewards commitment and engagement. But, bootstrapping game systems onto existing mechanics is always going to be inherently flawed.

This is no ‘ground-up’ design. It’s simply re-contextualising something that already works and trying to make it fun and engaging. It’s really just expressing an existing system through new mechanics.

Play shouldn’t feel like work, and there is a wealth of work that needs to be contributed to libraries. Social data that enriches a catalogue such as tagging, reviewing, recommending, relating, and classifying records enriches a library in an amazing way. Slapping the veneer of a game onto the catalogue to ‘trick’ people into doing this work feels disingenuous, and smacks of exploitation.

Really, it’s a fundamental question of putting content into a game, rather than bootstrapping a game onto content.

Serious games have an element of mastery: your engagement and fun come from a progressive, skill-based unlocking of content. Gamification without meaningful mechanics might as well be a workplace KPI that just tracks your threshold for filling arbitrary quotas to achieve recognition.

 

The Age of Agnostic Applications

So many features of the social-web rely on the idea of an ‘always on’ or interconnected set of experiences. Location data, check-ins, running commentaries on social media, and ‘smart’ data is all dependent on making things universally accessible and always providing what is needed when it’s needed.

The monolithic power of a service like Facebook is only so successful because it is ubiquitous. Having Facebook locked to a single proprietary ‘Facebook’ device would fragment users at a device level in addition to divisions at the level of the platform or ecosystem they’re tapping into. Fragmentation and interoperability are already among the chief problems online, and dividing already fractured user-bases ultimately benefits nobody.

Device agnostic platforms–such as Amazon’s Kindle reading application–demonstrate not only the value of cross-platform interoperability, but the amazing potential for apps that transcend the narrow boundaries of single-function devices. Amazon realised earlier than most that tying content to their platform–rather than a device–not only extended their potential user-base, but retained that user-base despite their migrations to the newest technologies and gadgets. These users could confidently build their content libraries through Amazon without feeling ‘locked-in’ or trapped by a certain hardware provider. Furthermore, Amazon intelligently leveraged the multi-function nature of many of the devices that Kindle content appears on to create experiences that exceed the capabilities of any device on its own. Amazon’s Audible recorded audio-books synchronise seamlessly with progress in the text of an eBook, and regardless of which device you have with you be it an Android phone, an iPad, or a Amazon eReader your reading progress will always be matched by the Kindle app across platforms and media formats. Allowing users to freely move between listening to an audiobook during their commute to a dedicated reading devices at home provides the sort of everyday, user-focused experience that separates the merely functional devices from those that make our hearts sing.

There’s plenty of scope to see how this sort of interoperability is truly transformative. So long as portable content adheres to some sort of extensible, flexible standard that can be interpreted and parsed by a variety of devices, any number of asymmetrical interactions could be possible.

As the ubiquity of smart devices grows, creating mature workflows for harmonising content between devices permits not just portability, but enables hitherto unimaginable levels of potential that we are only just scratching the surface of.

Piqued QRiosity

I’m a big fan of QR codes!

Fellow students may remember my Information Retrieval assignment from Semester 1 (A copy of which is available here) that incorporated a QR code to keep the design aesthetic of my poster consistent, and provide a permanent way of tying the poster to my separate reference submission. poster

In the interest of exploring the uses for QR codes, I’ve also mocked-up a ‘calling card’ QR code that could potentially be embedded on business cards, or incorporated as a signature on my work.

I think there’s great potential for using QR codes in public spaces such as galleries to tie pertinent metadata or information to a piece of work without overwhelming the space. A subtle QR code next to a painting or sculpture could have embedded audio-tour information, history, and provenance of a piece without requiring cumbersome text bloating the area.

I’m less convinced of the uses of QR codes in my own professional contexts, as I’ve worked hard to streamline my online identities and contact details into a unified and easily transmittable form of using the moniker ‘mjjfeeney’ across networks, email address, and web presences.

Ultimately, I’d probably just hardlink a business card QR code to this blog. But, in the interest of playing with the medium I’ve mocked up a ‘mini-site’ that can be accessed by scanning the code below.

  About Me

qrcode.17141422

Camera Obscura

My reticence to jump on the filter bandwagon has finally crumbled.

Rejoice readers! After a brief struggle with the arcane vagaries of WordPress shortcode and some bootstrapped php I managed to wrangle together an effective way to pull my Instagram feed into this blog (and only broke everything completely once). There’s a lesson in here somewhere about keeping your plugins up to date and remembering to switch from visual layouts to manual text entry…but who has time for these things?

My wacky japes and capers surviving post-graduate study are now available in a full-colour (well, sepia mostly).

I’ve since removed the gallery from the core of this blog, but I’m still out there on Instagram!

You Probably Would Download a Car

The issues of copyright and ownership of media is one of the most widely disseminated issues on the Internet. A proliferation of free and pilfered material on the Internet has opened to floodgates to an epidemic where digital is synonymous with free and theft is no longer perceived as a crime. The entrenched indifference of today’s youth to copyright has created a grim situation for content creators and distributors alike.

Clearly, consumers love free. Personal preferences fades away at zero-cost. The psychology of free makes perfect sense because of the certainty that free affords There is no risk to free. But, if the collective trend of opinions dictates that digital goods are too cheap to matter, then no cost equates to no value; and no one can be expected to do quality work if it is simply going to be devalued, stolen, remixed, and re-purposed by others.

However, it’s not all so bleak! Grassroots movements like the Creative Commons License are affording producers of content some measure of control over the proliferation of the worthwhile work that they are doing.

Equitable access to media has never been more prolific, and libraries are able to assess and include vast amounts of new media every day under the umbrella of their collections thanks to the robust flexibility of CC. But, there’s a ticking time-bomb lurking beneath this unchecked exuberance.

3D printing and open-source fabrication–sometimes referred to as ‘making’ or ‘maker’ pursuits–are  already paving the way to profoundly transformative uses for technology. Thinigverse is a hub for capturing the raw creations of users from around the globe, and feeding the blueprints back into a community of amateur and professional printers, tinkers, and makers. Content is posted, traded, and printed under a shared understanding of the terms of use that allow users to distribute their work under Creative Commons licensing.

This could have an amazing effect on libraries and other information-repositories that choose to build the necessary infrastructure for physically realising the potential of making. Artwork could be download and fabricated at the press of a button. Replacement or custom parts for repairing devices would become universally accessible. Physical trinkets, ephemera, and minatures could become as commonly shared and distributed online as songs, stories, and paintings.

And then somebody has to go and ruin it for everyone by uploading the blueprints for copyrighted materials such as Disney action figures or Matchbox cars.

Taken one step further, there a printable models for complex machines available online including fully-functional automobiles and guns. This isn’t a pipe dream either. A cursory trip to Google will pull up more stories than I’d care to link here about open source firearms, 3D-printed cars, and the unfortunate precedents they’ve set.

And there’s the rub: the robust flexibility of Creative Commons to encapsulate all sorts of content means it has to include those that can be weaponised. What library is going to risk allowing a minor access to amazing technology that can be used to print a firearm?

And so the powerful tool that is CC–when applied to physical fabrication–has been placed in the firing line. Government intervention and regulation of content is anathema to what CC represents, but it’s the only solution currently on the table for stemming the tide of objectionable objects. Regulating CC would impose rigidity on a fundamentally fluid system, and erode the pillars on which the Internet’s maturing approach to copyright has been built.

But what other choice is there?

Facing the Facts

Google+ failed to dislodge Facebook in any meaningful way. Google is fully integrated into my workflow, I make use of a wide variety of Google online services, I manage multiple accounts, and use Google’s MX records to manage my domain’s email.

I use Google for a huge portion of my online activities, but I don’t use Google+.

The service is amazingly slick. It’s attractive and engaging. It’s more logically laid out than Facebook and harness the tremendous power of Google’s backend to do amazing, magical things like recognising, identifying, and tagging images automatically and offering best-in-class features like realtime video chat via Hangouts.

Sure, it doesn’t do quite as many things as Facebook does, but what it does do it does well. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to pick any single category where Facebook offers a superior experience.

So, why is Google+ a ghost town?

Because social networks are intrinsically valueless. The entire purpose of these networks is generated and propped up by the connections you have within the system—and nobody I interact with is invested in the Google+ ecosystem.

Being the best at something doesn’t matter if the audience is entrenched elsewhere. Everyone would probably prefer to use Google+, it’s one less account you need to juggle, it’s better integrated into your devices, and the forthcoming Google Glass will hook it directly to your face. We’d be crazy to move to Google+ on our own if none of the people in our lives moved too.

But, in a Heller-esque case of circular logic, everybody likes Google+, everybody agrees it’s great, and nobody moves.

The Map Defines the Territory

Information architecture (IA) is a fascinating and compelling part of information organisation. Search is not a solved problem. Indeed, searchability and findability are among the most nagging problems facing information professionals. Findability—or lack thereof—is one of the defining elements of user experience. Unfortunately, it is also a source of endless frustration. It has the worst usability problem on the web. User needs and goals are obstructed by systemic failures in findability, and a website that is not easy to navigate is functionally useless.

My own experiences with technology have taught me that developers do not necessarily have the perspective to design usable systems. What they may think is an effective system is designed to only support an aspirational, best-case-scenario for navigation. What looks elegant from a coders perspective may not provide an optimal—or acceptable—experience.

Examining the council websites of the cities of Melbourne, Hobart, and Perth highlighted some of these elements. Melbourne and Hobart both demonstrated integrate, sensible designs that kept the same standard layout for the overall navigation of the website, and loaded pertinent content into a dynamically updated frame. Perth, however, insisted on having new subsets of menus and navigations for different sections, many of which had no visible ties to overall structure and obfuscated access to content. Intuitive architecture should provide universal navigation with no ‘orphaned’ avenues of browsing. Every page of the website should be able to function as a landing page with a completely accessible hierarchy of menus demonstrating where the user is, how they got there, and where they can go. As with physical architecture, information architecture relies on firm foundations to build anything stable. Logically relevant parent categories, proper meta-tagging, and a well-represented taxonomies form the bedrock on which any information-rich website should be built.

It is unforgivable for large entities such as a city council to build sloppy websites. All websites—especially those in the public sector—should be doing the right thing by default. Ease-of-use should be rigorously tested through prototyping and wire-framing, and consistency of style and standards should be paramount. Coders hate redundancy, but having logical replication of data facilitates how users really make use of websites—often in a meandering, scattershot approach.

The core thing I have taken away from information architecture is that it has to be—like a building—designed from the ground up. Every element must have a strong foundation of accessibility and functionality that relates to how people are actually using something, rather than designing with your own plan in mind then instructing people how to use it. IA relies wholly on taking an objective approach to design that Isn’t self interested. Developing good IA habits demands stepping outside your own perspective and engaging with that subjective, user experience of using a website.