What's in a game?

Monday saw inkle's first public outing at the Futurebook conference, where I spoke as part of a panel on the subject of gamification under the watchful eye of Penguin Digital's MD Anna Rafferty. Harvey Elliott, previously of EA, spoke about the barriers to entry between players and games, as well as the power of games and gamification to define people's identities. My own talk was about the structure of games and game-like experiences: what does a designer need to make sure a game's got for it to work?

The two complemented each other quite nicely, with one talk focusing on the gamification of reading, and the other the gamification of stories.

There was a lot of enthusiasm in the audience for the topic, which was great to see. "Gamification" often gets a bad rap: the term sounds parasitic, like it involves adding something unnecessary or invasive to an otherwise perfectly-formed thing. Surely we don't need to gamify unless what we've got is kinda lame to start with? Isn't gamification a mechanism for adding value to slightly worthless stuff?

Well, I don't think so, unless you choose to use it that way.

Gamification is really about adding interactivity to things - and I mean real interactivity, not decorative, inconsequential toying, but consequential, cause-and-effect interactivity. One phrase from my talk which I which I'd put on a slide of its own now is: A game is system for creating narratives. Because that's exactly what a game is, whether it's a football match, a Scrabble game, or children playing "house".

I like this definition partly because it lets me answer a question someone asked at Futurebook, which was: "Is Frankenstein a game?" At the time, the question stumped me. No, it's not a game. No, it's not linear fiction. Er... Yes, the player will make decisions. No, there isn't a score. (Well, except that all books have scores, right?) No, you won't win, or lose, but yes, better or worse things might happen. Yes, you can replay it and things will be different. But other things will stay the same.

But: a game is a system for creating narratives. So, yes, Frankenstein for iOS is a game.

Only games don't sound quite so bad any more, do they? Games put you in the moment - and that's all they do. After that, it's up the author or designer to craft a moment that's as good as it can be.

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