Gamification is a big buzzword in the videogame industry nowadays, especially among critics and journalists. Essentially, gamification is the act of turning something people do into a game. Games are fun, and so the process of gamification can turn un-fun activities into fun ones. That is the idea, anyway. Some people claim that gamification has gone overboard, and that any potential positive effects are becoming quickly outweighed by its sneaky, manipulative effects.
I personally don’t have an issue with the concept of gamification, or its implementation into different disciplines. Most of the flak against gamification seems to stem from its frivolously implementation, usually a sign of it being used to buy customers/hits. The examples of such are easy to conjure, and highlight the pervasive nature of gamification today: credit card points systems, web site (including game sites) badges and trophies to highlight time spent on-site, and membership rewards programs. But to decry gamification as evil based on these attempts by big companies to brainwash their base misses the larger effects gamification can have on cognitive behavior. When put in the right hands, gamification can be utilized for a type of good that goes far beyond mere enjoyment.
One way I see gamification being used to its fullest extent is with SPARX. SPARX (an acronym for ‘Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts’ is described on its site as a “self-help computer programme for young people with symptoms of depression.” Developed by Sally Merry at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, it immerses players in a fantasy world that not only empowers them through a sense of exploration and progression, but also weaves in cognitive behavior therapy, along with post-level psychological tips to help players get the most positive change out of their gameplay. More importantly, it seems to be working: in a study published in the psychological magazine BMJ in April 2012, one of the conclusions drawn of the SPARX program was that it was “at least as good as ‘treatment as usual’ in primary healthcare settings.” This means that SPARX can serve as a comparable alternative to traditional treatment, which usually takes the form of one-on-one sessions with psychologists and/or councilors. This isn’t quite the ‘old bearded man listens to subject positioned supine on a couch’ treatment, but still involves the physical (and social) considerations of going to a clinic.
Now, looking at it as a game, SPARX may not look like much. The graphics are reminiscent of the Everquest world if it was invaded by the fashion of Final Fantasy XII. The gameplay is simplistic, primarily mouse-driven, the voice acting is lackluster, and the pedagogical focus takes away from the world and atmosphere of the game. But the important thing is that SPARX’s gameplay serves a higher function: helping young people suffering from depression get better. All of the previously mentioned components take a back seat to the game’s ability to engage the player in the cognitive behavior therapy in an understandable and approachable way. Which means the fact that it is a game is crucial. And the very fact that it is a game improves its chances of helping people immensely.
Why? Because Merry and her team conducted another survey, and found that, among young people suffering depression-type symptoms, most were apprehensive about going out and getting ‘treatment as usual’, including going to clinics and seeing psychologists. Dr. Karolina Stasiak, a member of Sally Merry’s team, used an apt term in an interview where she referred to young people today as “digital natives,” people for whom technology is as natural as long lines at the DMV. For these types of interconnected-yet-disconnected people, the medium of a videogame provides a safe, comfortable environment for them to get treatment, and what’s more, to do so of their own accord. Instead of further having to worry about social machinations (something which is already an issue in young people suffering from depression), they can engage in the game privately, and use the comfort from that to build off of into more social areas.
Furthermore, the implementation of gamification in SPARX frames the whole experience as a progressive one, which reinforces to ‘one-step-at-a-time’ attitude. The mechanics and fun of the game may draw players in, but it is their own insistence to keep playing, to get better (and by extension feel better) that maintains their interest in the game, and its larger therapeutic goal. Though, as mentioned above, it might seem uninspired when judged by mainstream gaming conventions, under the right circumstances SPARX can be a truly engrossing and transformative experience. And isn’t that what we all want in videogames?
In this instance, gamification is being used as an experimental treatment for depression. But gamification can be focused more narrowly. pOnd, a flash game found online, has as its central gameplay conceit the act of using the spacebar as a breathing guide, turning it into a meditative game (until the end, at least). SPARX utilizes a similar technique to get players to breathe, but both can be taken advantage of by different types of players with different needs.
Now, SPARX claims it isn’t a be-all, end-all for treating depression-like symptoms. Neither should it be, nor for that matter any gamification attempt. But what they should do is provide a spark of enthusiasm, and instill a belief that the activities thought of by many to be laborious, tedious, and anxiety-inducing can in fact herald positive, transformative experiences. A big push in the videogame industry today, as evidenced by its inclusion in panels at GDC and other conferences, is the social function of games, how they can serve more than simply entertainment purposes. Perhaps a realization of the power of gamification—thought by many to be a limited tool—can inspire game developers to innovative ways to play, and by extension, help their players.
Images #1 and #3 protected under Creative Commons, #2 from http://sparx.org.nz/