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Gamification? Use 20 card game learnings instead

Mark Rosewater, of Magic: The Gathering design fame, provides a one hour talk from GDC 2016 about 20 years of working on the collectible card game. To me they’re the essence of gamification.

Gamification lessons

That’s because the most remarkable thing about the lessons, is that despite some very specific M:TG rules and keywords, the learnings are all directly applicable to any product you want to make. Actually, I’d say these form the essence of many gamification-solutions that are offered. In the end it’s all a matter of user experience design and with it a certain degree of control and challenge you want to provide to your users.

Here’s a list of the learnings in short. For the full reasonings behind them, please watch the video:

Magic: the Gathering: Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons Learned

  1. Fighting against human nature is a losing battle
  2. Aesthetics matter
  3. Resonance is important
  4. Make use of piggybacking
  5. Don’t confuse “interesting” with “fun”
  6. Understand what emotion your game is trying to evoke
  7. Allow the player the ability to make the game personal
  8. The details are where the players fall in love with the game
  9. Allow your players to have a sense of ownership
  10. Leave room for the player to explore
  11. If everyone likes your game, but no one loves it, it will fail
  12. Don’t design to prove you can do something
  13. Make the fun part also the correct strategy to win
  14. Don’t be afraid to be blunt
  15. Design the component for the audience it’s intended for
  16. Be more afraid of boring your players than challenging them
  17. You don’t have to change much to change everything
  18. Restrictions breed creativity
  19. Your audience is good at recognizing problems and bad at solving them
  20. All the lessons connect

Restrictions of gamification

Also of importance is lesson 18. Rosewater is pretty adamant about it how it’s one of the learnings he’s known for, and I’d say it’s the most important one if you want to create. It’s actually the core of a German quote by Goethe:

Wer Grosses will, muss sich zusammenraffen;
In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,
Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben.

Or loosely translated: if you want to create something big, you must pull together, within limitations the master will show itself, and only the law can give us freedom. By putting restrictions on whatever you are creating, you put down a border. If you can then cross that border by using whatever is within the restrictions, you’ll automatically create something grand.

This applies to gamification as well. Don’t just attach badges, scores, and other junk. Work from within the product or service and look for the meaningful parts that can provide a sense of play, mastery, control, and expression to the user.

Even if your product is essentially just a menu, allowing a certain degree of control (scroll speed and direction) and personalisation (ordering, colours, icons) of that menu can do wonders for how people experience it. More so than giving user a reward for activating an item 10 times.

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