In 1967 Milton Bradley (since bought by Hasbro) introduced the game Battleship. It was a very simple concept based on a old paper and pencil game, but it was easy to learn, quick to play and had the novelty that players only saw half the board. The ships didn’t move and there was only one kind of weapon, but you got to put plastic pegs into holes and pretend you were a lot cleverer than you really were.
Like most successful games it survived new technologies rather than being made obsolete by them. There was an electronic version and a digital version. And now of course there is a 200 million dollar movie.
Believe it or not, once there was a time when films looked to people like Dickens and Tennessee Williams for inspiration. Now Hollywood looks to comic books, Disney rides and board games for its source material. I don’t know why they haven’t made Candy Land yet, as it would be 90 minutes of product placement for theatrical concessions. (Not being someone to overestimate the sophistication of popular taste, I decided after writing that last sentence to check that indeed there was not a Candy Land movie, and learned Adam Sandler has signed on to do it.)
But much as I’d like to rant about the film business, I’ll keep to the subject of gamification. The enterprise side of gamification rests on the premise that game elements can increase customer or employee engagement and therefore increase profits in the former case and reduce costs in the latter. But however it’s pitched, the bottom line is the bottom line. Gamification is good for business.
Critics, notably game developers and enthusiasts, see these corporations as aliens, to borrow one of their favorite metaphors, unfamiliar with the pristine craft of game design. They are simply money-hungry entities eager to use whatever methods they can find to exploit the masses. But strangely, in all the blogs and articles and videos I’ve digested on the subject, I haven’t come across a single acknowledgement that movie studios are also huge corporations.
On the contrary, the dramatization of games is viewed by game developers and companies as the God Level. The movie version inherits a core market of Battleship devotees, if there is such a thing, and the game company gets a pile of cash and a two-hour advertisement to sell the game to a new generation.
My question is: How is the dramatization of a game any different from gamification? My answer is, I don’t think there is a difference. The worst kind of gamification is simply awarding points to pointless acts, failing to connect rewards to genuine achievements. But is the bastardization of gaming any different from the scene in Battleship when our heroes search for the enemy on a computer screen deliberately meant to reference the plastic grid of the Milton Bradley game?
What’s the point of that tedious sequence? Or the fact that this is a first encounter story with aliens, when the board game had no aliens? Exploitation of one creative product to make money for another can be done well or poorly. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, based on a ride that at least has a trace of a narrative, is an example of it being done well. But exploitation in itself shouldn’t be a valid subject of criticism. It’s a feature of the natural world. It’s an unrepentant part of our culture.
At the conclusion of Battleship the movie Lieutenant Hopper receives the Silver Star for saving the world. A medal for a great achievement. Now that’s gamification done right.