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.
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