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Gamifying the Gospel

Wreck it Ralph/Disney

Eugene Gan - published on 11/28/13

And while it is much easier and simpler to apply a point-based reward system for achieving those goals, as Christians, the greater challenge is to focus on cultivating a player’s internal motivation, meaning that our goal is to support players in finding meaning in what they’re doing on their spiritual journeys, ultimately in deepening their relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. We want to get to the point where even if the external rewards are taken away, the player will still be motivated to stay the course. Your site might be the Areopagus that connects players with one another, providing mutual support for such a journey.

Additionally, avoid over-concerning yourself with players who are going to try to “game the system”. First – and this is a major stumbling block for many – you’ve got to accept that if there’s any value to be had in the system, there will always (let me repeat – always) be players who will try to game the system to extract value. Do your best to remove from your minds the idea that the system (your website, online social forum) has to be forcefully policed. One good way to get over this controlled kind of thinking is to call to mind that because of the great love that God has for us, He gives us free will and the freedom to choose. This is astounding: we’re even given the freedom to reject Our Father and to choose hell for ourselves. So avoid starting off day one with trying to design your players’ experience of your site around preventing players from gaming the system. Begin, as Jesus did, with the good stuff – the Good News. Be smart about building a means to “roll back” to a previous saved state, a way to pause the game administratively and “redo” so to speak. Encourage self-moderation through social “leveling up” and badges, and use status, access, and virtual goods to attract moderators and sysops from the community. In other words, the players themselves can help moderate the system.

It’s helpful also to think of parenting in this context. Kids, like it or not, are going to test any parent and try to game the growing-up system with an I-want-it-my-way gameplay. As parents, we have choices in how we respond to this behavior. We might police them with an iron rod, or choose to turn a blind eye, or we can find ways that both discipline and teach. As any parent can attest, there are times when it takes a timeout or a repetition of the same thing over and over to get the message through. It works similarly online: sometimes it takes several repetitions of the same thing over and over to get the message through. Other times, it might mean a timeout (in online terms, this might mean a player is banned from posting). The fear of our kids gaming the system doesn’t stop us from striving to be loving parents. Similarly, don’t let a fear of players gaming the system stop you from creating an engaging site experience. Build one step at a time and grow with the site and your players.

All the above is helpful when you have a good number of players who can interact with one another on your site. But what if you’re starting out with insufficient players? One solution is to focus o
n creating a system in which a small, core group of players are competing amongst themselves in the beginning, and then gradually grow this group to include other players as the number of players registering on your site grows. Groupon, whose system depends on large numbers of players to function effectively, began by requiring that a player form a group with other players (by sending out an ‘SOS’ to others) to enjoy a discount (the motivation). The effort rests on the player to get others to join. It proved an effective way to move past the difficulty of getting a large number of players in the first place. Gifting (easily transferable or exchangeable points, status, or virtual goods) is another way to encourage others to join. Recall that both Gmail and Pinterest began by-invitation-only: you got an account when someone else invited you to join.

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