CAMD professor writes “The Gameful World”

April 16, 2015 – The Huntington News

The word “gamification,” the use of game design in contexts other than entertainment games, started popping up in the world of academia in 2011. However, Assistant Professor of game design Sebastian Deterding, who recently joined Northeastern’s faculty, was ahead of the curve.

Deterding has studied games and playful behavior for years and recently published “The Gameful World,” a book he co-edited with Steffen Walz, a professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.

Walz and Deterding met at a conference in their native country of Germany, and, as their friendship developed, they realized they had similar ideas for books they were interested in publishing.

The pair realized that marketers, who evangelized gamification, and critics, who dismissed it, were the only people whose opinions on games were ever heard. Additionally, no one was asking what gamification meant for society or individuals. “The Gameful World” is an anthology that compiles the ideas of the many thinkers and doers in the field of game design.

The debate over whether the  integration of games into everyday life was positive or negative began  when it became clear that games were no longer just an activity confined to leisure time but were being used as marketing tools to influence people’s behaviors.

“What we wanted to do is to basically bring the different voices of the debate together in one place and to bring together what we do know at this point in time about gamification,” Deterding said. “The book is basically the whole debate compressed between two covers.”

Deterding’s goal in this project was not to sway the reader one way or the other, but to inform them of the many perspectives in the gamification debate.

“I think the overarching takeaway is that we live in a time where games and play are becoming more and more commonplace and pervasive in life,” Deterding said. “More people play, different audiences play … elements of games are used for all kinds of purposes besides entertainment, and because these uses and audiences change, what games themselves are change. Now, as they are becoming pervasive, they are becoming socially relevant and that means that all kinds of people and organizations want to influence them.”

The co-editors approached the overwhelmingly broad topic on a whiteboard, listing the many different perspectives so they could look at the big picture of the debate. Then, they worked to pinpoint authors they knew of who would be well-suited to tackle each different topic.

With 40 different pieces and over 50 authors, “The Gameful World” covers a wide variety of issues related to game design and gamification, which it details in three sections:  approaches, such as neoclassical economics or behavioral economics; issues, such as data protection and privacy; and applications, such as education, art or business.

According to Deterding, a great deal of “invisible work” went into compiling the pieces, getting authors to meet their deadlines and editing. The whole process took about three years from when the pair came up with the idea for the book to its publication.

Deterding joined the Northeastern faculty as an assistant professor of game design in the College of Arts, Media and Design (CAMD) last September and taught his first classes this semester.

“My research focus is gameful and playful design,” Deterding said. “How can you apply learning from games and toys in other areas to motivate and engage people? Also the other way around: what can we take from motivational psychology to make games more fun and engaging? So, that is what the seminars I develop here are about, playful design [and] motivational design.”

With its wide variety of topics, Deterding thinks that “The Gameful World” will work well in the classroom setting and plans to use passages from it in his own classes.

Now that his book is finally published, Deterding is working on a project with Gillian Smith, an assistant professor of game design, and Seth Cooper, an assistant professor of computer science.

The team is developing ways to improve citizen science games, in which volunteers contribute to scientific discovery in a gamified way. For example, “Fold It” challenges users to determine the structure of complex proteins, and “Galaxy Zoo” is a tool to classify galaxies – the goal is ultimately to benefit science, but users enjoy the experience along the way.

“In an entertainment game, it is usually pretty easy to add a difficulty curve, so things get progressively more difficult as your skill level improves; it is one of the cornerstones of good design,” Deterding said. “But with citizen science games, you can’t do that … We are working on finding a way of detecting how easy or difficult a task is and organizing them in a way that they match the current skill of the different players to make that more enjoyable.”

Although “The Gameful World” was just published, Deterding is already working on his next book, a significantly shorter work called “Creating Gameful Experiences.”

“This book is way overdue since [“The Gameful World”] took so long, so I am looking forward to it,” he said.