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This article about gamers solving a thorny protein folding problem important in AIDS research is being touted as a triumph of "gamification," the application of game mechanics to other problem domains. But there's an important lesson here. Much of what is written about gamification (including some books published by my own company) focuses mainly on what I might call "the shallow end of gamification," namely extrinsic motivators like points, leaderboards, and scoring. But game experts concur that the heart of most games is the intrinsic motivation of challenge and learning. And it is precisely that deep end of gamification that was on display here.

Yes, "winning" matters, but it's winning at hard things - intrinsic motivation - that really matters. People aren't stupid. Pasting scoring on trivial activities doesn't make them less trivial. As Rilke said in his poem The Man Watching, "What we fight with is so small, and when we win, it makes us small." We want to be challenged by vast, hard things.

The appeal of Foldit is that the problems it presents in spatial reasoning are challenging puzzles that force people to exercise their abilities. The fact that those abilities are put to work in a meaningful cause makes it even sweeter.

Any company thinking about gamification should think hard. Jumping in the shallow end of the pool is a great way to break your neck. The right place to jump is in the deep end.
Ziyuan Yao's profile photoKeni Arts's profile photoBen Watson's profile photoAmritanshu Sinha's profile photo
Well said. Why not make something that adds value and empowers the human race instead of being part of the noise that distracts people from doing amazing things.
I really like what you wrote here - we should be thinking about the tough hard to solve problems that make people think and engage.
However the majority of stuff on gamification we see right now is pretty shallow and designed to get a quick solution.
This is one of the mødt interesting posts I have read abt.gamification
There's a deep end of gamification. Who knew.
I always enjoy your posts on Gamification. Easy games are dull, and the current trivial applications of gamification (e.g. huffington post style badge collecting) often strike me as both demeaning and glib.
Perfect. "Gaming" isn't just tallying points, it's overcoming challenges.
Playing a game with a deeper purpose...I don't even know what to say, but that this is incredible. Games providing breakthroughs in healthcare.
This isn't just about gamification, but also regular games. Way too many games nowadays are simplified, trivial and feel empty and meaningless to me, yet they are popular with some people. Seems like if the shallow end of gaming works so well, so should the shallow end of gamification.

But it's the deep end of both that interests me.
I think this Foldit victory is the exception rather than the rule.
It would be great to host foldit on Amazon EC2 that already offers HPC/GPU computing as a IAAS. This would yield even more and better discoveries.
The other games they have coming are equally exciting!
To Linda; what are the other games. Do you have a link.
We waste so much human potential. I'd also suggest attaching a sufficiently large cash payment to a 'win' so that people could actually do this type of 'gaming' for a living. Maybe even run it out of the X-Prize foundation.
Could you make a useful game such as Fold-It and sell it to users like a regular game? Would they buy it? If so, that might be good way to help fund that part of the useful projects rather than relying solely on government grants, up front business investments, and the like.
i would like to shake hands with the person who came up with this idea. cracking protein thingys is cool, but that idea of involving milions of uneducated (in field) competitive minds is just brilliant. it may have been blind shot, but luckilly wasnt. congrats.
+Ben Watson That's the sad part and why all the noise on gamification is so frustrating. Many people working in game design seem to feel that way and it is a shame because so many of the very people with the talent and skills to apply the principle to changing the world for the better are fighting the concept as if it is snake oil.

I got so excited at the possibilities of gamification when I first heard +Jane McGonigal speak at TED. I immediately saw the opportunity she was talking about, to take the essence of games and turn it on to solving huge problems in the world.

I'd already used those principles to some success in my own life for years to give me extra motivation to stick to activities I knew were good for me but that I wasn't that enthusiastic about. Almost 20 years ago to motivate myself to run I drew out a physical map of New Zealand with distances on all the coast lines. As I ran and clocked up km's I plotted my progress around the coast of the country adding the km's of each run to the total distance traveled. It tipped the scales and inspired me to get out of bed and run. It inspired me to sneak a second run in sometimes because I wasn't just running, I was running around the entire country! I had an epic goal, a feedback loop, and small simple steps and objectives that added up to my big epic win at the end.

If we can just help even a small percentage of people focus their actions on some of the big problems we face as a species we stand a better chance of solving them. If millions of people are willing to tend virtual farms daily with no real world impact except to make them feel a sense of accomplishment (not a bad thing true but what a lost opportunity to do so much more), to generate wealth at Zygna, and to burn power cycles, imagine what we could accomplish if all those people were working on something just as engaging and addictive that had a higher purpose like Foldit.

But unless the people with the talent to make that happen embrace the concept and come on board, you're going to see world changing gamification type games designed by passionate people like me who are learning the field of game design from scratch. We'll still kick butt but it's going to take longer and I'm sure we'll produce some rubbish on the way.

Ironically the talented people will be hired by companies who can afford their talents to use gamification techniques to add even more noise to the landscape. When the powerful engagement of games is applied to shopping, then shopping becomes an enticing game and we all just spend so much more time shopping instead of spending that time on ourselves and our fellow man and living up to our individual potentials.
Protein structure prediction is a field where you don't even know how to tell whether a structure candidate is "the right one" (i.e. you don't have a perfect "target function"). This is unlike cracking a password-protected Zip file by brute force, as a password candidate can at least be tested to see if it works. In protein structure prediction, there is currently no way to tell whether your predicted structure is the real structure.
The entire field might just need some better PR. "Gamification" just sounds dumb. Anyone have a better idea? Incentivization is getting at the same idea, but isn't specific enough.
I humbly recommend reading +Ziyuan Yao 's comments ... again and again, before buying into this New Age marketing strategy of 'gamifiction'.

Neither do always the smartest people give TED talks these days, IMHO.

I also remember a Wired 'comic' many years ago, children playing supposedly a 'virtual game', while they actually controlled predator drones for real. Fiction and reality have their ways, indeed.
+Ben McIlwain It's a field of applied game mechanics. I like gamification because that's what you're doing. You are gamifying something that wasn't a game but is at least in part an engaging game when you are done.

But then I come from a country where doing the luxing is using an electrolux vaccuum cleaner to clean your carpet, twinking is using a type of white out called twink to correct the mistakes you make in pen, and a cellular phone is called a mobile because you take it with you.

So I may be nationally biased towards calling something for what it does or is.
wow, thank you for post! i have long been trying to articulate how i felt very similarly... that points or badges or even "fame" does not motivate play. challenge and problem-solving and flexing the brain muscle, if you will, are bigger motivators. as is just plain fun and challenging randomness. otherwise, how could you explain so many people playing solitaire with no log of the results, or doing crossword puzzles, etc.
+Tim O'Reilly I think that the real discussion should not be about "gamification" of non-game-orientated applications, but rather about "real-world-problem-solvification" of actual proper games...
We were working with "gamification" principles at DEC Ed Services in the early 80s, and I was talking to @seriosity on Twitter about this, and he/they (shared account) was saying, "Yup, same stuff, old wine in new skins."

Educational games have been working the same principles for a long time, and business has the motivation to throw money to refine this now, and social games and the Internet spread them around wider. It's fun to watch, but it does have that tulip frenzy thing going on.

Gamification is something you want to be careful of, if you're buying a consultant. It's easy to slap badges on (the shallow end) and hard to understand human motivations and (gasp) fun. I'd look for real psych/soc/edu background and some serious game expertise.

Yes, "serious game" is a field of game development, not an oxymoron! It's part of what we in educational gaming and games-for-health and sales motivational systems -- pre-"gamification" gaming -- have done for 30 years or so. Apparently we needed rebranding. Moo-ooo. Cow-click me, baby!
I've been struggling with this for years. The problem with "educational" games is mainly that they're neither instructive nor fun. People try too hard to make the objective of the game seem educational to non-players (Math Blasters) or they wedge their lesson plan into some existing game structure (Let's play pre-med vocabulary Jeopardy!) and the whole thing ends up being nether fun nor educational.

My current favorite educational game? Lego Star Wars. It teaches problem solving and cooperation, and players can be almost any age without needing any reading skills. It's not marketed as an educational game because we've already learned that educational games aren't fun.
I installed FoldIt yesterday to evaluate its "gamification" features. Three observations:

The FoldIt UI does not support non-scientific users in any "deep end" understanding of the importance of what they are working on. While the game controls do let non-scientific users "play at the shallow end," this is really a redesigned research tool for the social generation.

It may be mis-characterized as a "game." It's more a collaboration environment. What makes it a serious research tool are the (game-like) 3D visualization tools and the collaborative IM chat that's built into the platform. While there is a chance non-scientists may arbitrarily help achieve results by splashing around at the shallow end, I believe most of the success will still come from enabling serious scientists to work together more productively.

This was no Zynga game. Foldit was created by computer scientists at the Center for Game Science in collaboration with the UW's Baker Laboratory, and supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Czech Ministry of Education, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Microsoft Corp.
One of my favorite educational games is Carnegie Mellon's Alice. To the user it appears to be a simple animation tool, allowing people to quickly start making little movies. At the same time, though, they're learning the concepts intrinsic to object oriented programming. You won't leave Alice knowing C++, but you will learn the concepts of objects, methods, properties, variables, flow control, etc.
+Tim O'Reilly Brilliant commentary on how gamification is being pitched. Among the most perceptive things I've read all month.
The best post I've ever seen
If predicting structures this way is cheap, then this would be a worthwhile exercise even if predictions had a low expected value. I've been following this a lot less closely than I should have, but didn't researchers say that the HIV enzyme was a valuable find? Isn't that why this is suddenly big news?

I would imagine (not having read the paper or studied the problem yet) that the trick is to take each prediction and figure out what it will look like in spectroscopy (presumably an automatable process) and compare the result to empirical data. If you get a direct hit, that should be the right structure, and if you get a near miss, you've probably gleaned some useful information.
Tim thinks deeply and posts succinct commentary. That's why he's always at the top of my reading list.
Props to the gamers. Breakthroughs are usually built on the foundations others laid. Possibly every modern medical breakthrough is being built on the immortal HeLa cells. The contribution Henrietta Lacks continues to make medical science is a miracle.
X-ray crystallography and NMR spectroscopy stand to be THE way to get authentic protein structures and are continuously improved.
À vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire.
+Tim O'Reilly , I think another aspect of gamification is when simulations are modified and presented in the form of games or with enriched interactions where the players have a role in driving the course of the game. These are part simulations, and part games. Think of a game where a flight simulator is also teaching a pilot interesting manoeuvres, or a simulation presented in the form of a game that teaches medical students decision making skills under complex situations. Not the ER drama type thing, but real life situations made into the context of games. As +Stephen Gilbert mentioned up in this thread, Alice is a good example. I was not aware of the term gamification till reading your posts in Google plus, but having been involved in a project myself where we are designing games for medical doctors in training, one of the dilemma we are facing is how to evaluate that their learning really happened? It's more than fun or engagement aspect of it, and as you alluded to, it's not so much about getting tokens or leaderboards (although they need to be there), but more subtle internal issues that we need to deal with here.
+Tim O'Reilly Very well put. Solving the hard problems, as was done here, is a huge internal boost. the fact that the people, who normally work on problems like this, couldn't yet solve this problem makes it that much sweeter. I suspect they have already decided to add this to their toolbox.
Having been a fan of SETI at Home, I love what's happening to this niche of tech.
excellent analysis & advice -- I think the industry is maturing right before our eyes...
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