Meaningful games

Few days ago I talked about the need to overcome the idea of gamification as an evolved behaviourist system. I think the way to get to this change is to enhance purpose within games. When players perceives meaningful play, cognitive processes like commitment, motivation and others become ingrained in their brain.

The following logical question is "What is meaning?". In Spanish, meaning could be a synonym of definition. I’m not talking about that. By meaning, I seek the ability of a game or gamified process to reinforce new ways of thinking, new approach to old ideas, increased understanding of a complex situation ... In short, I mean the game's potential to open ways to innovative thinking strategies, avoiding in the process certain psychological barriers that sometimes prevent us from a clear understanding of what is happening.

It is true that behavioral gamification (or those actions based primarily on external rewards) also generate changes. But they’re usually reactive, shallow changes to would surely change again when circumstances do (the pattern of rewards and punishments estimulus). In this sense, again, all lasting change comes from within oneself.

The problem is that, when it comes to change, we are quite impregnable to the opinions of others. When we perceive any comment as threatening to our selfimage as a smart, beautiful and honest person (And believe me, we are quite sensitive to these potential threats, real or imagined), we assemble so great protection barriers all around us that you would love to have them when playing Tower Defense games.

Recibir críticas, un Tower Defense

How to deal with these defenses? Could we find a backdoor? Think for a moment what you get when reading a fiction book or watching a part of the trilogy of Star Wars (Please do not ask me WHAT trilogy ...). Do you check scientific sources to see if lasers would really make sound in space vacuum? Do you analyze Rancor’s body structure to be sure that it is anatomically correct? No. You accept naturally certain world rules as part of the narrative (even if the don’t apply in the “real world”).

It’s the same in games... When we willingly enter the "magic circle" to play, rules become fuzzy and more acceptable. But only to some extent: This does not mean that we suspend our critical thinking and became unable to discern fact from fiction and be more susceptible to persuasion (if someone propose us something that goes against our inner values, it will rarely convince us), but we are more open to receive new information .

How to generate meaning in a game? There are several ways. In my opinion one the most effective methods to generate meaning is provocation. By reinforce the difference between what I see and what I feel, what I think and what I do. The process of discovery of internal inconsistencies between our expectations and what we perceive (also called cognitive dissonance) is one of the biggest levers to reframe our ideas and enhance our need for searching new meanings for adaptation.

Bejeweled, pure fun

To give a practical example, perhaps you've played Tetris-like games. Columns or Bejeweled  They are well designed games, with the potential to engage users for hours, creating combinations of pieces of the same color. Undeniably fun and casual but, in terms of meaning, these games have little to contribute.

However, keeping all the mechanics and elements, I give you a "plot twist" to those product. This time we will devote ourselves to match trios of similar people. And, instead of disappearing, they will be fired from the company, symbolized by the screen GUI. Will you play for the same time as Bejeweled? Would the game awaken the same emotions? The same thoughts? This is the premise of Mary Flanagan’s Layoff game, by Tiltfactor Lab. I discovered the game thanks to Ian Bogost’s blog (if you're not following it, do it NOW!)

Layoff (

Layoff uses Bejeweled mechanics as an excuse to put you into the mind of a killer cost professional that identifies triplets of workers to send them to the unemployment line. The game also provides information about the context and dreams of each piece-worker selected to lay off (Curiously, this information is at first just dismissed by players, as good cost killers) and as we progress anonymous men suits (bankers) appear on the board and brag about their huge salary and gross stock options. Didn’t I tell you that you cannot fire them?.

The game works so well because it puts the purely playful pleasurable experience of the mechanics of Bejeweled against the context of massive layoffs and occupation of the company by "men in suits". Is it possible to have fun playing a game whose background is, at least, politically incorrect? Dissonance between what I experience and what I perceive?. Meaning?.

Toying with this idea, imagine that this people were, instead of an employment line, into a gas chamber? Would you play a game just a second as well? Think of Gonzalo Frasca’s Kabul Kaboom, a game where you play as a picassian Afghan civilian trying to collect humanitarian aid launched by U.S. aircraft (ironically, in the shape of burgers) while dodging the bombs… also American. What layers of meaning are behind this game? It's like peeling an onion!.

Kabuk Kaboom (

In line with the aesthetics of Kabul Kaboom, Picasso once said that painting is not just a decorative function, is an "instrument of war". It's the same with games: The popularization of authoring tools for game design makes this form of expression available to everyone. Social events generate games in protest, to help reflection. Nobody can deny the inspirational value of games and their potential as a source of knowledge creation.

Is Gamification able to generate similar processes on its users? That's the gamification I would like to see in the future.

Happy gaming!

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