Strengthening gamification studies: Current trends and future opportunities of gamification research
Gamification has become a well-established technique in Human Computer Interaction (HCI). It refers to the transformation of systems, services, organizations and activities to afford similar experiences, motivations and skills as good games . Over recent years, practitioners have attempted to exploit the motivational “power” of game design in domains as diverse as work, fitness tracking, health and wellbeing, education, commerce, learning, crowdsourcing, information retrieval, and organization engagement (e.g.,; ; ; ; ; ).
Early scholarship on gamification was driven primarily by the design and evaluation of gamified prototype applications and services. Researchers typically sought to demonstrate that gamified systems produce better outcomes than non-gamified systems. More recently, progress has been made in understanding the mechanisms through which gamification can bring about those outcomes. In particular, research has focused on how individual game mechanics can impact upon individual behavioral outcomes. Such advancements have encouraged commentators to suggest that gamification research has reached maturity. For example, Nacke and Deterding , in the introduction of a recent special issue on gamification published in Computers in Human Behavior, highlighted that gamification research is undergoing a deep transformation moving from fundamental questions of “what?” and “why?,” to questions around “how?,” “when?,” and “how and when not?.”
Despite this progress, research on gamification still faces a variety of empirical and theoretical challenges. Firstly, empirical studies of gamified systems still typically focus narrowly on evaluating and understanding individuals’ short-term interactions with the system, ignoring more difficult to measure outcomes, such as changes in people’s social relationships due to participation, and deleterious effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, very little empirical work has yet examined the impact of contextual factors and individual differences on the effectiveness of gamification. A more nuanced use of theory to define hypotheses and explore novel research questions could help on this point. In 2015, Seaborn and Fels  noticed that a major issue of gamification studies was the disconnection between theoretical and applied work: on the one hand, theoretical work was not empirically validated with respect to applied gamification work; on the other hand, applied work referenced theory but did not explore its validity empirically. After three years, these concerns are even more pressing.
Secondly, academic research on gamification has been slow to improve the techniques and methods through which gamified systems and services are designed. In practice, gamification applications continue to employ a limited set of game elements, such as points, badges and leaderboards. Researchers, in turn, investigate what practitioners have implemented. However, this has also led to criticism that gamification research and practice are missing the full picture and that what is done and researched is awkwardly a simple version of what holistic gamification should look like. Gamification research has typically failed to engage critically and productively with the diverse and rich design practice of game designers (; ). For example, the literature on game design provides evidence of how games can engender playful, thoughtful, transformative and profound experiences (e.g., ; ; ; ;). The full range of game design expertise has not yet been employed in the design of gamified systems . Furthermore, the consideration by gamification researchers of game mechanics as discrete interoperable elements, each with well defined behavioral outcomes, which can be plugged in and out of systems with predictable consequences on the experience of players, contradicts much research on game design . On the contrary, games are complex, dynamic systems, in which even small design changes can have huge impacts on the experience of players .
Third, current gamification research lacks a critical lens capable of exploring unintended consequences of designs as well as of questioning its own successes. Gamification scholars still avoid investigating potential side-effects of the game elements employed in gamified interventions, taking for granted that making a serious context more like a game is a valuable outcome . However, whether game elements are applicable to every domains of human life, and whether their employment is always desirable, are still open questions. A more reflective stance on design matters has spread across the majority of HCI domains in the last twelve years, as a result of the popularity of approaches ascribable to the third-wave HCI , like reflective design , speculative design , slow technology , and critical design . Gamification research appears not to have fully adopted a critical lens to look at the presuppositions, implications and impacts of its designs.
Many research questions related to gamification, therefore, have not yet been addressed by HCI researchers. For example, what kinds of design approaches can create novel, more enjoyable, immersive, and pleasurable gamified systems? How, and to what extent, does gamification produce psychological effects on individuals? What gamification techniques are most effective? Are there fields in which gamification should not be employed? Is gamification affecting users in ways that go beyond its intentions? How can gamification afford spaces and opportunities for reflection and experiential learning regarding our own behavior?
The primary aim of this Special Issue “Strengthening gamification studies: critical challenges and new opportunities” was to provide a focus for people working on these types of research questions, by supporting reflection on how to move gamification studies a step forward. We invited submissions presenting original research in the form of deployed gamified systems embedding novel game elements, as well as rigorous quantitative and qualitative user studies, which may also explore theoretical reflections grounded in empirical results. We also encouraged submissions focusing on alternate reality games and serious games, where recreational and serious aspects are merged together, as they are all symptoms of how gameful aspects are currently seeping into the design of interactive systems.
Strengthening gamification studies: Current trends and future opportunities of gamification research
Citation: Rapp, A., Hopfgartner, F., Hamari, J., Linehan, C., & Cena, F. (2019). Strengthening gamification studies: Current trends and future opportunities of gamification research. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 127, 1-6. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2018.11.007
Gamification is now a well-established technique in Human-Computer Interaction. However, research on gamification still faces a variety of empirical and theoretical challenges. Firstly, studies of gamified systems typically focus narrowly on understanding individuals. short-term interactions with the system, ignoring more difficult to measure outcomes. Secondly, academic research on gamification has been slow to improve the techniques through which gamified applications are designed. Third, current gamification research lacks a critical lens capable of exploring unintended consequences of designs. The 14 articles published in this special issue face these challenges with great methodological rigor. We summarize them by identifying three main themes: the determination to improve the quality and usefulness of theory in the field of gamification, the improvements in design practice, and the adoption of a critical gaze to uncover side-effects of gamification designs. We conclude by providing an overview of the questions that we feel must be addressed by future work in gamification. Gamification studies would benefit from a wider use of theories to account for the complexity of human behavior, a more thorough exploration of the many opportunities coming from the world of games, and an ethical reflection on the use of game design elements in serious domains.
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