Over the past couple of years, I’ve been involved in learning about, as well as developing, ways to teach software testing to others. One of the aspects that is appearing in many social interactions, from the trivial to the fairly high stakes, is an aspect called “gameification”. If this term is new to you, it’s the idea that, by adding elements of gaming to the skills we are working on, and sharing those details, we can both inspire ourselves and inspire others by our performance. Also, there’s something that’s just kinda cool about going somewhere, pointing to a screen and saying “see that high score? Yeah, that’s MINE!”

The question that constantly comes back to me, though, is just how much gameification, or gaming itself, actually lends to skill acquisition. To experiment with this, I decided to resurrect an old friend and some old memories. Some background; I played some video games in my youth and teen years. We owned an Atari 2600 console, and had several of the 8 bit games available at the time. I did not, however, follow on to the “Golden Age of Gaming” the way my brother and elder younger sister’s generation did. My own gaming experience wouldn’t be brought out of hibernation again until 2003, when I went to work for Konami. It was a prime time to start looking at video games once again, since my kids were just becoming old enough to be aware of things like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, etc. ). With that, I decided to buy a couple of GameBoy Advanced handheld consoles and start playing along with them. Shortly afterwards, the PlayStation 2 invaded our house, followed by the Nintendo Gamecube, the Nintendo Wii, the Playstation 3, and subsequent updates to the GBA and Nintendo DS formats (I still have my original cobalt blue DS I bought in 2004; it works perfectly). For grins, I plugged in a favorite game that I spent many hours with a decade ago; “Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow”.

One of the things I learned from this game in particular is that there are two types of gamers, when you get right down to it. The first type of gamer is what I call a “finesser”. These are the people that learn the special moves, practice their hand/eye coordination, and their overall speed in moving through games. If I had to use a sports analogy, I would call them “boxers”, a la the Muhammed Ali type. These are the type that, to carry the boxer metaphor forward, would wear out their opponents, and then through grace and yes, finesse, finish off the fight. The second type of gamer is what I call the “statmaster”. These players know what it takes to beat a given level, and they build the stats necessary. When you hear about people who grind through levels to maximize skills, points, equipment, amass money in games to get top notch equipment, it’s the “statmasters” that make up the far end of the spectrum. These are the ones that believe in “victory by overwhelming firepower”. Level up to 15, and taking on a Level 10 boss is almost boring. These people are, to carry on the boxing metaphor, are what I would call “punchers”, a la Mike Tyson in his prime. They don’t have a lot of finesse, they don’t play elegantly, but they are devastating when they hit, and they hit really hard.

So why does it matter if you are a finesser or a statmaster? Personally, I think it matters a lot. Gameification of objectives needs to consider the fact that people are a spectrum, and that, typically, they fall on either far sides of the finesser or the statmaster, or anywhere in between. Elevate the stats aspects, and people will gravitate towards that will grind to meet the stats. Focus on the finesse aspects and those who are most adept at those aspects will learn how to finesse the game. Give an experience that is too heavy one side or another and you will alienate or underwhelm the participants that fall to either side.

My question is, as I consider activities and goals is to see how do we actually balance these two aspects? Why does Aria of Sorrow speak more to me than, say, Metroid Fusion, even though both games share a lot of the same anatomy and approach? It’s because, at least for me, Metroid Fusion rewards the finessers early on; there’s little in the way of grinding to get better. Either you figure out how to win the battles or you do not advance. Aria of Sorrow, on the other hand, lets you level up and build strength if you want to. Granted it can take a lot of time, but by doing so, you can both get the stats you want, as well as develop the moves necessary to win (though frankly, at a high enough level, the moves aren’t even all that important, just hit and hit until the enemy goes down).

Note, the examples I’m using are a bit old now, but I think the dialog still applies. As we think about the skills we want to acquire, and we say to ourselves “make it like a game”, there’s more to that statement than meets the eye. Not only if you like to game, but how you like to game, will determine which model and approach works best for your personality and style. As an admitted statmaster, I realize what works for me won’t necessarily appeal to the finesser, which means I either have to consider two different methods and models, or try to find a happy medium ground between the two. How about you? Do you consider your gaming style when you engage in these types of things? Does the gaming metaphor work for you when you try to learn new things?