Games and Why We Play Them

Playing is a personal choice. We play because we don’t have to. We play because we want to. And that is why gamification has such big potential.

To have a definition of play and games, you just have to open a dictionary. Or an Internet page. So why do we try to do it here? Because it seems obvious that when you want to talk about gamification, you need to inquire about the nature of play and games.

An essential step before the real question:
What makes game mechanisms so enjoyable? Or in other words: why does gamification work so well?

The French sociologist Roger Caillois, in his book Man, Play and Games proposes:
There is also no doubt that play must be defined as a free and voluntary activity, a source of joy and amusement.


Are games ‘pure waste’?

According to Caillois, “play is an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money”, an activity “without consequence for real life”.

Regarding the latter point, it should be noted that the first edition of this book appeared in 1958. Video games didn’t exist. Neither did e-sports.  There were no professional gamers, other than gamblers, for whom games were a source of livelihood.

However, even in 1958, there were already professional football or poker players who were “paid to play”.
In the opinion of Johan Huizinga, a historian who studied games from a cultural and anthropological perspective, if there is financial remuneration, it’s not a game anymore.

If you don’t speak Dutch, the title of his book is : Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play-Element In Culture. (He develops the idea of the “Paying-Man”, Homo Ludens, in reference to Homo Sapiens)


So let’s try a more modern definition of games with Wikipedia, which acknowledges that work and play may overlap:

Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more often an expression of aesthetic or ideological elements. However, the distinction is not clear-cut, and many games are also considered to be work (such as professional players of spectator sports or games) or art (such as jigsaw puzzles or games involving an artistic layout such as Mahjong, solitaire, or some video games).
Yet games remain inherently distinct from work.


Doing something useless so we have the impression of not working

We seem to have embraced the fact that play is without consequence, frivolous and, thus, completely separate from work.

So when a website wants us to share a publication on social networks, or click on a button, just to win badges or points, are we doing it simply because it’s “not work”? It’s useless, so it’s a game, so I do it, even if it’s not really fun.

Sounds stupid, right? Well, not that much if we look at it from the perspective of our motivations.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a job that you love and a nice boss. Maybe you’re even your own boss. You work because you like it, not because you need a salary. Maybe you have a very good salary. And a jacuzzi.

(Looking for jacuzzi pictures, I found Al Bundy. I felt obliged.)


But everyone is not as lucky as you are.

On the one hand, most of us work for extrinsic motivations, or even negative motivations:
To have an income, not to lose our social status and affiliation, not to be considered as an idle pauper on welfare that you don’t even deserve. (That last example obviously does not reflect the opinion of the author.)

But on the other hand, we play for intrinsic and positive motivations – considered to be much more effective than the former ones:
To express our creativity, to let off steam, to challenge ourselves (or others), to dive in a universe in which we are feared or respected.

And not because it is an obligation imposed on us.

Play is good because it is ‘useless’. We like it because we are the ones who choose to play. It only reflects our own will. Which makes us all the more willing to do it. That is why gamification has such great potential!

Yet by the same token we’re touching on the Achilles’ heel of it.

Nice try, almost there!

Because if it’s done in the wrong way, if it’s pushy, if it’s too obvious that we are offered game mechanisms to make us click on a button, if we feel forced… Well, the fun aspect will disappear as fast as a rogue level 100 about to make a backstab.

As Caillois says, “a game which one would be forced to play would at once cease being play. It would become constraint, drudgery from which one would strive to be freed.

The perfectly comfy outfit to make backstabs, acrobatics and pick pockets… According to WoW’s art designers…


So let’s accept the uselessness of games and enjoy the fun. And let’s make gamification a way to offer a fun experience, not just a trick to get a click or two!

And let’s conclude with Oscar Wilde in the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray:

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.”

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