Technological Developments

The Science of Games: Why the Game Layer is the (Present and) Future of the Web

The basic tenets of play enable us to explore new and innovative solutions in safe spaces, to experiment in ways perhaps not possible in “real” life, and to motivate one another (and ourselves) to take much-needed and desired actions.

photo courtesy of neal.@flickr

We love to play. As children, we are actively encouraged to learn, engage, explore our universe and reach our goals through playing.  In fact, play is so important to child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a basic right of every child.1

And yet.

As we reach adulthood, play becomes less of a priority. Those same forces that drove us – that helped us grow, that are defined as a human right — siphon away, diminish in importance, and are often looked upon as frivolous or, worse, a waste of time. In the words of a well-known quote: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”2

But in the past few years, a renaissance has occurred. It seems that everyone – from soccer moms to teen punks – have started to game. We are beginning to understand that some of the things we learned as children actually have value across many ages, and that in fact, perhaps the basic tenets of play – and in particular, of gaming – have strong value. They enable us to explore new and innovative solutions in safe spaces, to experiment in ways perhaps not possible in “real” life, and to motivate one another (and ourselves) to take much-needed and desired actions.

And maybe they’re just a teensy-weensy bit of fun, too.

The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth

Let’s be honest, the stereotype of a “gamer” has been pervasive for years: socially awkward, a geek, usually white, male, teen, holed up in a basement somewhere and whose main contact with the world is either through his computer terminal or with other like-minded geek gamers who gather to play other, obscure and vaguely threatening role-playing or board games as their main social interaction.

But with the broad adoption of home computers, smart phones and tablets, and mobile devices of many kinds, gaming has become far broader and more wide-spread. Consider:

  • 72 percent of American households play computer or video games.1
  • Approximately 64 million U.S. kids ages 2-17 are gaming2, including  97 percent of 12- to 17-year olds.1
  • The average U.S. 21 year old has spent 3,000 hours reading books …  and 10,000-plus hours playing games.1
  • 350 million gamers worldwide play a combined 3 billion hours a week.2
  • The average game player is 35 years old and has been playing games for 13 years; 45 percent of gamers are women.1

Given those numbers, it’s safe to say that gaming is not just for geeks anymore.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to share that I personally self-identify as both a geek AND a gamer (Yes, I know this is shocking. Try and hold in your gasps.). And as a Web professional, I’ve become fascinated with the rising volume of conversation about “gamification” and “game theory” as applied to marketing strategy. I rather see  “gamification” as an overused term these days. I believe that it makes all of this “game stuff” sound simple – very much along the lines of the idea of building a Web page circa 2005. In essence, it’s “Gamify it and they will come.”  And that’s a big lie. It’s not simple, but it is compelling.

And there are reasons that games are compelling, that they work to move us through thinking patterns and situations to reach an end goal.  There are reasons that people check in to Foursquare compulsively, that they jump at the chance to complete challenges in SCVNGR, that they are so willing to spend hours on end playing (humph) Farmville.

And those reasons are called game mechanics.

photo courtesy of mat.teo@flickr

Mechanical Aptitude

Game mechanics are the scientific, complex rules and devices that work together to produce a positive game experience. Several types of game mechanics take into account the various gaming personality types and “boosts,” or gaming benefits. When looked at together, these are the core components of game design that allow us to enact a game layer over tasks – both mundane and extraordinary – to increase engagement, influence, loyalty and virality.

OK, look. This is complex stuff. I mean, who knew that something as simple as TicTacToe had a whole scientific rationale behind it? People write books about this stuff. They get degrees in game design and theory. They form think tanks.  We don’t have enough time or bandwidth here today to really dive into everything we need to know about game mechanics to enact them in incredibly robust ways on our websites.

But here’s what I can tell you. There are some game mechanics that are worth considering as we plan for the immediate future of higher education webs, and that can be implemented sooner rather than later to good effect. They may not add a full-scale game layer to your site right away, but they put you on the path to play indeed:

  • Social layer: First came the Web. Then came the social layer — a foundation for community building and status updates. The game layer builds upon this by encouraging players to use those relationships in both collaboration and in competition, and helps spread your message virally. How many times have you posted to Twitter about stealing a Foursquare mayorship from someone, I wonder?  And how do you get your students to share how they’re interacting with your college?
  • Progression & Challenges: Every good game is a journey with levels of problems to solve and an ultimate goal to reach. Consider how this could be relevant to a prospective student and the many tasks he/she must complete to move toward enrollment. How can we make each discrete task build upon the last, allowing a prospective student to see his/her progress toward that ultimate goal of being an accepted student?
  • Appointment Setting:  If there’s one thing higher ed knows, it’s that time – and deadline — matters. That feeling of having set time parameters to achieve a task fits nicely within our many calendars and timelines; make it goal accomplishment-oriented (“Do XYZ  by Monday & win!”) rather than punitive (“Pay your bill by Monday or we drop you.”) and see what results.
  • Discovery and Exploration:  One of the things games do really well is allow for rampant exploration, no matter how successful. And if you fail? Reload, and start again on a different tactic. Make it ok to fail and define what it means to win.  Have key pages and areas – student catalog, handbook, student life pages —  you want new students to visit during the course of an online orientation? Hide icons across those pages, have students discover and “earn” them, and then put the icons together to solve an even bigger puzzle that leads to …
  • Achievements, rewards and status:  And this is why we play. Points, badges, tangible items – this stuff makes the world go ’round. Everyone likes to get a pat on the back for something they’ve done, and everyone likes to be top dog; establish leaderboards or levels of membership to spread the word. For example, if students answered five questions on your accepted student forum, reward them with a badge that proclaims their new elevated membership status  – from “Newbie” to “Frosh” to “<InsertMascotNameHERE>”, which not only acknowledges their success but builds loyalty AND helps spread the word about you virally when they post it proudly for the world to see.
photo courtesy of Great Beyond @flickr


I believe that we’re only at the beginning of seeing the emergence of the game layer, on the web and in many facets of our lives. It’s everywhere, whether we know it or not: we rack up loyalty program bonus points for eating at fast food joints, have seen our job searches get gamified5, and even have had internal business platforms and intranets get their play on sup>6. In the end, gaming is powerful because it’s more than just a hobby, more than a lark. It “produces positive emotion, stronger social relationships, a sense of  accomplishment and … a chance to build a sense of purpose.” 7 And isn’t this what we want for visitors to our sites? For all of us, really?

Referenced Sources:

  1. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Convention on the Rights of the Child. General Assembly Resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989. 
  2. New Oxford Annotated Bible. 1 Corinthians 13:11.New York: Oxford UP, 2011.
  3. Entertainment Software Association – 2011 Report
  4. NPD Group – 2011 Report
  5. “ gamifies job searches for 4 million young people.”  
  6. “Jive Builds A Better Intranet, Bolsters Gamification.” 
  7. McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

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One reply on “The Science of Games: Why the Game Layer is the (Present and) Future of the Web”

I’m intrigued by this concept. I think it aligns to another I’ve been thinking about, how the web can flatten higher ed.

Premise: The web is changing the unit of consumption, reducing it to the lowest possible.

Evidence: Music: album to track. News: newspaper to article.

Prediction: Higher education: degree to course

The assessment culture currently swirling around higher education itself has a premise, that you can assess qualitative work and generate a quantitative data, and derive enough from its aggregation to make good decisions based on it. Assessments in education should swirl around learning outcomes. We’ve defined them for all our programs, for general education. Those disciplines further along the assessment track have these outcomes mapped to courses and assignments, and the assignments (which generate learning artifacts) are assessed with a rubric to generate a number (or series of them) that relate to the outcome.

If we in higher education are going to survive our flattening, we will need to explore ways to exist and thrive in this new reality. I believe the path to this is via the learning outcomes. Instead of proscribing specific courses, the curriculum at every level is redefined in terms of learning outcomes. It falls to students to demonstrate competence in all the learning outcomes assigned to their selected plan of study, and they should be able to get those outcomes anywhere: work experience, courses at the home institution, courses at specialty institutions, courses online. The home institution then takes the work a student has submitted and applies the institution-defined rubric to it.

Gamification comes in when it comes to helping students understand their requirements in these terms. General Education defines a set of outcomes (instead of courses) that everyone at the institution satisfies. A major shares a common core set of outcomes, and perhaps dives down in to a “hierarchy” of sub-specialty outcomes (tracks) or higher-level competence on certain outcomes most closely related to the student’s intended career (think of beginner, intermediate, advanced courses, with beginner courses in the core of a major and advance courses as electives or part of the track). It’s perhaps a lot easier for students to understand course sequencing if their requirements are presented to them as if they were spec-ing up an in-game avatar.

We have a lot of this today when it comes to student e-portfolios. In some ways, I think we have to trust the rubrics and give students a lot more flexibility than they have today, and make it easy to learn the higher education game in this brave new world.

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