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Thank You, But It's Still Not a Game

Jeremy Monken | 17 Jul 2012 09:00
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Thank you for clicking on the link that took you to this article.

With that sentence, I am doing quite well in a "game" presented by media mogul Oprah Winfrey. It is called the Thank You Game. You can read more about it here.

The Thank You Game is easily a new low in the realm of non-game games.

When you thank someone, you click a button. End of game.

You might be thinking, "Oprah, this is not a game. This is hardly an activity. This is a button."

I would tend to agree with you.

I know there isn't a hard definition of the word "game." Lately, the meaning has been beaten down to little more than "a thing you do that is intended to be entertaining," but there has to be a line somewhere. Don't games need rules? Win/Loss conditions? Objectives?

The Thank You Game's designer and superstar games academic, Jane McGonigal, defines games by the thinking of games philosopher Bernard Suits: "Games are unnecessary obstacles that we volunteer to tackle."

McGonigal, who spreads her message of "epic wins" and "superpowers" through her many keynote speeches (including one of the most-viewed TED talks), claims to have adopted this thinking for herself.

I have an issue with this philosophy. It says nothing about the obstacles being enjoyable. It implies that simulating a hardship you choose to engage in makes something a game. By that definition, not getting my oil changed so I can deal with car repairs in the future is a game. Maybe that is a game, but it certainly doesn't sound very enjoyable.

Over the last few years, gamification initiatives have been calling anything and everything a game. Rudimentary economies in the form of tickets, challenges and achievements that earn you additional points ... systems like these have been put in place in schools and businesses all over the world to make something boring seem fun.

The Thank You Game is easily a new low in the realm of these non-game games.

Our most sacred of words is being used by productivity-boosters to hoodwink, bamboozle and otherwise flim-flam optimistic folks that believe anything can be made fun if it's a "game."

If you "play" the Thank You Game, you might experience warmth in your heart and a feeling of satisfaction, but you're not being entertained. There is no engagement, just a button push that unceremoniously adds 258 to a counter (McGonigal has calculated that posting a thank you to your wall creates a cascade of gratitude that flows through your social network like an emotional pyramid scheme).

As of this writing, the counter currently shows 11,936,628 after roughly 6 weeks of activity. The ultimate goal is to reach 500,000,000. This means about 46,000 out of a target 1,900,000 people from all over the world have clicked on Oprah's magic button. And I am one of them.

As I used to be a game reviewer, let me see if I can give this title a proper write-up.


I clicked a button. 0/10

Is there anything wrong with playing pretend? Playing with toys? No, of course not. Things can be fun, wonderful, and useful without being a game.

I am glad this social network activity exists. It makes people happy in a world where more folks could use a smile or two. People should be thanked more. Thank you, Jane and Oprah, for creating this initiative to encourage gratitude.

I just clicked the button again, still not a game.

I guess that's my underlying concern with this whole movement. To make something gamey, to gamify something, to cause a thing to be gamerific ... these are not efforts to create games. These are efforts to rub society's love of gaming all over things and hope they can hide the harsh realities of the world through game-tinted glasses.

If you assign an activity and reward completion of said activity with some type of quantifiable measure of success like points, gold coins, raffle tickets, etc. that can be exchanged for something, that is not a game. That is an economy. It is an aspect of many amazing games, but is rarely lauded as a game mechanic that excites anyone.

I remember working at Pizza Hut in high school. They had this "C.H.A.M.P.S." thing where you earned points that you could use to get hats and free pizzas for doing your job well. I thought, "Isn't my reward for doing my job the money you pay me? How 'bout you give me some more of that?"

I stopped playing when they were less than responsive to my suggestion.

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