Thank You, But It’s Still Not a Game

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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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I think we lose something by calling everything a game. Will Wright has described the things he makes as “software toys,” which I think would be a much more accurate designation for titles such as Terraria or Minecraft. All wonderful digital toys with which I’ve spent countless hours making up fun and interesting games to play.

Earned coupons, repetitive tasks, and levels-up are incentives, but they’re not games.

Calling these things toys is good because it gives a lot of credit to the player. Things like Garry’s Mod or Day Z encourage the player to make their own games, yet those titles themselves impose no will on the player. They say “go out and play, I’ll be here if you need anything.”

At Boston’s Games for Health conference, McGonigal said some things made me want to protect the word “game” even more. She discussed studies that showed gamers fail in the games they play on average 80% of the time, adding “people would give up at that level of failure in real life.”

Showing the prototype of her iPhone app, SuperBetter, McGonigal talked about how she wanted the game she had created – a series of tasks and challenges designed to aid others in overcoming injuries and other mental/physical issues – to help people in the same way a similar activity she put together for herself had helped her when she had a concussion that didn’t heal correctly.

McGonigal told the crowd, “I want games to be a force for good in the world.”

As a serious/educational games designer, I couldn’t agree more. Growing up on games like Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, I know how important games can be to learning and growing as a person. I owe my humor to LucasArts, my driving skills to GTA and my love of the opera to Final Fantasy VI.

But the things that help us grow must be games. Real games.

Earned coupons, repetitive tasks, and levels-up are incentives, but they’re not games.

As McGonigal told the crowd during last year’s Gamification Summit keynote, “When you’re playing a game, you know you’re playing a game.”

When I click Oprah’s Thank You button, I don’t feel as if I’m playing a game. I feel like I’ve clicked a button. Maybe the person I thanked feels better, maybe the 258 other people that somehow receive that trickle of gratitude feel better, but none of us has played a game. And we all know it.

So let’s try and uncover the world of games from the smog of the non-game.

The majority of the freemium games on Facebook and the various app stores are not games. They are little playsets where players can go to occupy themselves on lunch breaks. When they get tired of the free toys, they’re encouraged to buy new shiny new ones with shiny real money.

Just because something has an incentive structure, social media integration, or maintains some type of metric, it is not a game. Fitocracy is a great motivator. I am level 6. But it is not a game.

A game needs some direction, something to make it immersive and sticky. I can jog all day and log it in Fitocracy for all the points in the world, but all I’m doing is earning points. However, if I played Run, Zombies!, I could learn the truth about the zombie apocalypse and earn supplies to rebuild civilization. Both exciting and educational.

The goal of a true game shouldn’t be to sell you something. It shouldn’t be to make something palatable. The goal, first and foremost, should be to craft an experience that the target player will find enjoyable. Players shouldn’t be coerced by social media pressures or tricked into desiring something that can only be unlocked by playing. They should want to play because playing is an enjoyable experience.

I think the definition of games should be this: A game is a session of play with rules and goals that is designed to entertain and delight a perspective player or players.

So go play a game, enjoy it as best you can, and thank the designer. Even if it’s you.

Then go click Oprah’s button. It might not be a game, but it’s still nice.

Jeremy Monken is a writer, game developer and co-founder of GP4CP, an annual Child’s Play fundraiser in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @ZenMonken.

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