In the aftermath of Nintendo’s latest investors meeting, there was a huge announcement that has been since mostly shoved under the rug. While the gaming media exhausts itself talking about what Nintendo should do, to the point of talking about other people talking about what Nintendo should do, the greatest announcement that Nintendo has made since the release of the NES has remained largely ignored.
What am I making such a big fuss about? Gamification. Nintendo’s Quality of Life (QOL) platform is most likely a gamification machine for your life.
Gamification is, per the lazy definition I lazily got from a Google search, “the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.”
Gamification has a dubious reputation for pretending to assign a quantitative value to the actions of people, and mostly because, as it is detailed in the definition above, gamification has been related to marketing techniques. But let’s not forget to make a distinction between a tool, as gamification is, and those that use the tool; for a hammer can be used not just to destroy, but to create.
In reality, the mainstream has seen mostly very weak and vain attempts at gamification, such as point systems, as well as badges, leaderboards, and achievements. These are as extraneous to a core game experience as the Xbox 360’s achievement system is completely extraneous to every game it is tied to. There is simply no comparison in terms of fun and engagement between getting a punny achievement and actually achieving a difficult and rewarding task in-game; when beating the dragon Kalameet in Dark Souls, for example, there is an intrinsic sense of accomplishment that vastly outweighs the tiny endorphin rush of seeing the achievement notice pop up. Likewise, the reward intrinsic in killing a group of tough human opponents in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is much greater than could be achieved by a bunch of “+100″s and “headshot” announcements popping up on screen.
Good gamification taps into the powerful intrinsic rewards behind good gameplay, not into the weak endorphin boosts of achievements and point systems. If poor gamification is like adding salt and pepper to a meat stew, good gamification would be the equivalent of marinating and preparing the meat beforehand.
But how am I so sure that Nintendo is truly attempting to get into the gamification industry? To be perfectly honest, much of it comes from the familiarity I have with the jargon of gamification, as I have read about it in books such as Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, Michael Hugos’s Enterprise Games, and Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter’s For the Win. Having read these books, I felt a very familiar sensation hearing Iwata speak about how their “strength as an entertainment company to keep [their] consumers engaged and entertained comes into play” with helping people stay focused in taking efforts to improve their health. He sounds no different than the three above-mentioned book authors speaking about changing people’s behavior through gamification.
Beyond that, the too-quick-to-become-infamous botched launch of the Wii U suggests that it was pushed out the door by Nintendo, which would be consistent with them rushing into the research and development necessary to have their QOL platform ready to release during the fiscal year that begins on April 2015. The only reason they would be so eager to push out a platform such as this is if they truly thought they were in a race to get to a blue ocean – and if the gamification industry is not the largest blue ocean there is right now, I don’t know what is.
Though gamification has been largely the focus of tech startups and web development teams, such as Badgeville, looking to sell applications for websites and smartphones, gamification has also been used in large scale businesses such as Nike, Samsung, and Microsoft, to the end of getting customers to buy more running shoes, or engaging customers more deeply to foster brand loyalty, or even motivating employees to do work too tedious to be productively done otherwise; this besides the obvious ways in which gamification already forms part of aspects of our daily routines, such as the ways Facebook allows users to connect and interact with one another. Even the 2012 United States presidential election counted many instances of gamification in its ranks. Clearly this is an industry with a bright future.
But how does this affect you and I, Nintendo’s traditional customers?
First of all, it’s probably already affecting us. If my speculation is correct and Nintendo did indeed push out the Wii U early so they could focus on the QOL platform, then that clearly affected the lineup of games we saw at launch; and since Nintendo then had to try and fill the droughts left by third party developers, then games released recently could have also been affected. However, even if this was true, it did not stop Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country Returns from being the fantastic games they ended up being.
As for the future? It’s hard to tell. It is easy to make the argument that Nintendo will have to move talent from working on Wii U and 3DS to working on the QOL platform, but it’s likely that Nintendo will mostly use the talent already making the sort of games that would be a good fit for it, such as Brain Age and Wii Fit U. There is a reason why it’s likely that the same people will be able to work at the same time for the QOL platform and the Wii U and 3DS versions of games like Brain Age future Wii Fit games, and that is Nintendo’s intent to unify the operating systems used in their platforms, the way that Apple or Android devices do. In fact, I would say we should be looking more carefully at how this OS unification will affect the flow of development at Nintendo, because this is bound to be far more impactful to traditional gamers than the QOL platform could ever be.
So why do I say that this announcement is Nintendo’s most important announcement in decades?
As mentioned above, good gamification can tap into the very powerful intrinsic rewards that games offer us so much more frequently than life. Successfully transferring these powerful systems of fun and engagement to real life applications can have great results. Imagine having as much fun doing your taxes as you do when you play Super Mario Galaxy. Imagine if students had that much fun when learning Science, Literature, and History in school. The average level of education in any given society could skyrocket, and we would inevitably reap the rewards in time. But again, the challenge is to make such activities fun and engaging in the first place, and indeed this is an enormously difficult game design challenge. But anyone that has followed Nintendo for some time knows that they remain the unchallenged champions of fun and engaging game design. If there is anyone that is up for the challenge of effectively gamifying many aspects of our life (and still profit from it), it’s Nintendo.
This is why Nintendo is so eager to create a “blue ocean” in the gamification industry: they have the knowledge and the talent to pick up the gamification industry and take it where no other games company could. They have an entire space of possibilities in front of them, ready to be seized, and seizing it is exactly what they are doing.
As for us? We will benefit from Nintendo’s products in ways we never thought we could. Iwata mentions “health, learning, and lifestyle”: We will suddenly find it easier to fulfill personal goals like exercising consistently, learning subjects and languages we always wanted to, and getting into hobbies we always found too demanding, such as playing a musical instrument perhaps. And after that? It’s anyone’s guess. But as long as the result is an improvement to our quality of life, any guess will do just fine.