Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Papers,Please: The Future of Gamification

There is a game that I played during the summer as a demo called Papers, Please. It is by far one of the most interesting games I played in a long time. Now that the game is out it is getting rave reviews. The game is seemingly a perfect poster-child for gamification. It is a game that makes desk work fun!

The purpose of gamification is usually to create engagement amongst its users. All gamification efforts try to make mundane and routine tasks fun; and Papers, Please does an excellent job of creating engagement. However, its implementation also shows precisely why gamification as we know it is in trouble.

The premise of the game is that you are a citizen of a fictional Eastern European country in the 80's called Arstotzka who has been chosen as a border agent. Your job is to check passports and various other documents to ensure that the right people are let into wonderful Arstotzka and the bad guys are left out. That's it. Oh also you have to gain enough money to feed your family by processing enough people during the work day. If you do not make enough money then your family will end up being cold, starving, without a home, or dead. As the game progresses the government adds more rules and documents for entering the country. This of course means that there are more chances for you to have the wrong person enter the country. If you let the wrong person through you are fined a certain amount of money.

So let's start with why this game, at first, seems like a justification for gamification.

1) It makes boring work fun.
The game has taken meticulous, routine work and presented it in such a way that people are willing to pay money for the privilege of doing that work. Players continue to do the work, no matter how frustrating it may get and they are willing to learn how to increase their performance. All without any external incentive to do so. If it can work for a fictional border control office then why can it not work for other types of jobs?

2) The game has very little abstraction
This is work that happens/happened in real life. As a player you must check a person's passport photo against the person's face, you must ensure that the issuing city for the passport is from the correct country, you must ensure that a person has the correct visa for the stated reason for visiting the country and so on. Real people get paid real money to do the exact same activities every day. Other games abstract the actions that occur in their worlds. For instance, hacking a turret in Bioshock has no connection to hacking in the real world.

 3) Work = Winning
 The routine and mundane work is how you win and survive in the game. If you do everything correctly and efficiently then you make enough money to move into a nicer apartment and your family does not starve. Do not do the job correctly and you lose money instead of making it and may even be thrown in prison (the Astrokhazan government isn't exactly friendly).

So Papers, Please is directly related to the work of a border agent but this does not explain why it is considered fun. The dirty little secret is that even though the game play is about boring desk work it is the narrative that really makes the game interesting. The tedious work is just a way to create stories and bring the world to life. Sometimes a character will show up at the border crossing who is a disgraced athlete, or a shady nightclub owner,  or part of some rebel group. They may be trying to get into the country or they may just show up to give you a warning. These encounters create moral choices for the player and leave the player reflecting on their actions. It is up to you whether you will simply do your job or whether you will try to beat the "system".

This makes Papers, Please a perfect indictment of  the current point of view for gamification derisively called, "pointsification". According to this view Papers, Please would be a good game even without the story. All you need to do is reward good behaviour with points and punish bad behaviour by taking away points. The game does have an "Endless Mode" where the player can continue the game once the story is completed. However the game sessions are set to end fairly quickly and it seems that endless mode tests whether the tediousness and boredom of the game gets to you rather than prove how fun it is to process people through a border.

So the game proves that to create a good gamification platform you need people who can weave a good story, music, aesthetic, and interface design into a compelling piece of art. This is a tougher sell than sending a "gamification consultant" into a company to advise that they add points to their annual performance reviews but it really is the only way to go. It means that rather than being a cure-all, gamification efforts are difficult, involve risk, and are dependent on the work of dedicated and talented people. Just like all other business processes.

No comments:

Post a Comment