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On the Edge: Gaming the User Experience

What can games do for commercial and enterprise applications?

Game design often seems to turn usability principles upside down: traditional, information-oriented design values the standards of usability, usefulness, and appeal, but game developers start from the other direction and work back. Although there must be classically usable control panels, status indicators, navigation paths, menus of objects and actions, and personas, the primary focus is on providing the right amount of mystery, confusion, distraction, challenge, and reward to keep people attracted—if not addicted.

Non-gamers want to find out more about gaming design philosophy and the gamification of many other kinds of applications. For example, a recent query at the AnthroDesign web-based discussion group (  asked for advice about the ethnography of games. The writings of Jane McGonigal and Gabe Zichermann are good places to start. Both are gamification thought leaders who practice what they preach. At a “secret location,” McGonigal proposes nominating a game designer for a Nobel Peace Prize. Also check out the writings of Bernie deKoven (a.k.a. Major Fun) over the past several decades.

A competition organized by Mario Herger and William Gardella at SAP in Palo Alto, California was devoted to the gamification of enterprise applications ( Just consider: how might management of human resources, purchasing, training, sales and marketing, and other “industrial strength” software applications benefit by the infusion of such aspects as 3D maze-like environments, bird’s-eye views of processes, mysterious visitors or actors in the application environment, information sharing, competitions,  score keeping, team organization, and other game-like features?

Coincidentally, a separate project for SAP around sustainability in enterprise software provides some initial guidelines for what they put into practice (see the paper by Marcus, Dumpert, and Wigham in the HCII/DUXU 2011 Conference Proceedings). The paper suggests motivating users to act through “carrots” and “sticks.”

Carrots include the following:

  • Easier actions through onscreen widgets and controls
  • Competition and earning “cool” or status points within a group
  • Some kind of financial benefit, including prizes, cash, or credits
  • Benefit for others who are emotionally important to users, such
    as donations to worthy causes

Sticks include gentle prods that encourage people to act, within the boundaries of acceptable force. Examples: take away junk food to encourage good eating habits, or remove bottled water to encourage the use of permanent, reusable containers.

Future gamifying design documents will include extensive guidelines, patterns, and templates available to all developers. Companies are already moving into the field. See, for example,, which helps “companies to achieve world class performance through their operations and their people” through social media to create fast and scalable workforce engagement.

Game theory and model making are serious pursuits in corporate board rooms and among managers, employees, and consumers in ever greater complexity. Don’t we all want to be executives, playing what-ifs with our own futures?

GPS devices have become our sympathetic narrators through the games of map reading and traffic. Location-based games are already well established in Asia, but just coming to the USA. The largest social gaming platform in Japan, DeNA’s Mobagetown, was released in early 2006. China’s Tencent launched its mobile QQ with a gaming platform at the end of 2006. Look for increased use of GPS awareness mixed with messaging, videos, and voice mail. We’re not talking just videos from well-traveled family, friends, and gurus tied to where you are, where you have just been, or where you are going. Valuable information and marketing await us every moment wherever we are.

Some user-experience developers must be ready to handle the changing content and adjustments to traditional information architecture and to the look-and-feel of user interfaces. Others may need cross-disciplinary assistance from the world of games.

Are the usability professions, with their focus on usability first, then usefulness, and then (if there’s time), appeal or fun, ready to take on the objectives, content, tools, personas, and scenarios of this changed world? Who else should be helping to develop products and services? Marketing experts? Anthropologists? Game experts? We shall see new user experience designers and evaluators emerging from the gaming world and drifting into the orbit of traditional usability and user experience professionals. The clash of cultures should be challenging, and also promote a vigorous and influential area for professional change

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