Thoughtful, reflective, and measured. These were the words that first sprung to mind when I spoke to Gustavo Fortes Tondello. The GamFed Research Lead (Canada) and Ambassador (Research) who is also a Ph.D candidate at the University of Waterloo, Canada, a sessional lecturer in the same university, and co-founder of MotiviUX, a gamification consultancy. Over a 30 minute interview, Gustavo spoke about his research into personalised gameful design, the state of gamification research in general, what we can look forward to, and the role GamFed can play in furthering gamification.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and coherence.
Rakshith: How did you get introduced to gamification and what has your journey been like so far?
Gustavo: I got into gamification as a researcher looking for a topic to begin my Ph.D. It was about the same time I found out about gamification and it seemed like it would be a very interesting solution for a number of things involving user engagement. So I decided to study gamification for my Ph.D. Then I got involved with studying how to better understand the users in gamification and how to design more personalised gameful solutions. That’s what I’ve been doing recently.
Rakshith: Along with being a researcher and a teacher, you are also co-founder of a start-up. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Gustavo: MotivatUX is a company my co-founder and I started mainly for doing consulting projects. So when companies approach us seeking help specifically related to gamification or user experience we help them. Sometimes companies also approach us for undertaking research to develop a gamified project or something like that, then these sorts of consulting gigs are done under the aegis of the company.
Rakshith: What were your top 3 projects and learning in the last 12 months?
Gustavo: In the last few months, I’ve actually been working on one large project which is my Ph.D. Thesis on personalised gamification. I have published some papers already talking about user models for personalised gameful design and now I’m working on a large project to test this method for personalised gameful design that I’m suggesting, and a practical application I’m developing which allows users to personalise their gameful experience. I’m testing how well it works and that’s going to be an important part of my thesis. I’m near completion now, my Ph.D. and it’s going to be published this year.
Rakshith: That’s wonderful. All the very best!
Gustavo: Thank you.
Rakshith: Gustavo, since you’ve published a number of papers, is there a way for us to read and learn from them?
Gustavo: Yes. I share all of them on my blog Gameful Bits. I have a convenient link on my blog where you can access all of them. All of them have pdf versions that you can directly download from this link. Also here, I have summaries of some of these papers which people can refer to before they decide whether they need to read the whole paper.
Rakshith: Thanks Gustavo. Speaking a little more about your research, do you have any key insight that has emerged about personalising gameful experiences which you can share?
Gustavo: I think the biggest insight is actually not going to sound new to the gamification community. But it is that people have different preferences. I didn’t find this myself. Even before I started working in gamification, some other people were already talking about that. For example, the work of Andrzej Marczewski, with the Hexad user types model. I collaborated a lot with him during my Ph.D. Mostly what I brought is a rigour to validate this model that people were already using. So testing this model in a scientific manner and saying that, yes, this model that Andrzej created from his experience working with gamification and from his understanding of the theory, it actually does work when tested scientifically. So my primary contributions are bringing validity to the model and confirming that it actually holds true when tested.
The other thing that is not published yet and it’s going to come out as part of my PhD. is how you put all this knowledge that there are different user types, there are different things that people like, and then combining these different parameters into a system. So my general suggestion is that you try to create a system that doesn’t offer just one type of experience. For example, if you create a system that is centred only on competition, then that’s going to be great for people that like competition, but no so great for other people. So my general suggestion is that you create systems that have a few different options, a few different types of experiences that people can choose from and my thesis will also talk about how you can check if your design is catering to these different types of users, and how you can present these choices to users in a way that they will choose the experiences that they will enjoy most.
Rakshith: Do you see a greater focus now on designing personalised experiences and if so are you aware of any cases that have done so very well?
Gustavo: I’m not familiar with many such studies in the research community… I have seen some research papers on the subject, yes. My own results are not published yet. At least in the research community, people are focusing on personalised experiences in gameful design and experiment, and testing things now. I’m sure the focus is greater in the gamification consultant community but they may not be able to share their insights due to non-disclosure agreements and such. So you don’t know for sure what the results are. So it’s a good time to be in research now.
Rakshith: Being a researcher and gamification being a fairly new discipline, what do you think are going to be the priority topics for researchers going forward, in gamification?
Gustavo: Right. There are people doing research that is focused on gamification itself, like how it works and how to design better solutions. But there is also research on how to apply gamification to specific fields, for example, how to apply gamification in health.
When you’re examining gamification in general, the first few years at least from 2011 to a few years ago, were more about defining exactly what gamification is and whether it works in general. That phase has passed, I would say for now. We have a definition that is generally agreed on and several studies have shown that it works most of the time; sometimes it doesn’t work as well as you want it to, but now that the research field is maturing a bit more, the researchers are wanting to conduct studies that are a bit more detailed and nuanced. For example, now that we know it works, let’s see how it works. If I put 3 game elements into an application, let me try to study them a bit more in detail, let me experiment with them to better understand how each one of these elements are contributing to the experience. That allows us to have a better understanding of when gamification works, and not just why it works and why not.
There is also a need to understand what the side-effects can be of gameful systems that are not well designed. We know that there is a lot of potential for doing good things with gamification, but if you don’t design things very well, you can also end up demotivating people instead of motivating them, or making them feel pressured to achieve goals etc.
These are all examples of gamification research from the point of view of design of gamification. But as I said, there are also a lot of people applying gamification in specific fields and coming up with creative solutions to solve problems, to help students in a classroom or to help with enterprise training, or to help people improve their health. If you go to this side of applied gamification, it’s more about coming up with new innovative ways to use the same basic ideas to help people achieve specific goals that add value.
Rakshith: What is a path for gamification enthusiasts or students to follow, in your opinion, if they are to study and establish themselves in the field of gamification? I ask because there doesn’t seem to be a defined path like for example if you want to be a doctor.
Gustavo: Gamification more and more in the future will be integrated into other activities. For example, maybe people want to use gamification as a tool to improve the user experience when they are creating new digital applications. So if someone wants to go down this path, they will need to know not just about gamification but also user experience design. So they should look for education in the field of user experience design and then as part of a broader education also look at a course on gamification. Other people might approach gamification from the technological side. So they might look for a degree in computer science and then also learn about gamification so they can build applications that have elements of games within them. I can give a lot of examples like this – business, education – but my main point is that career education that is solely focused on gamification is not the way. I think you need to look for a broader education in the field you would like to work in and then look for a quick course on gamification, even online on Coursera or Udemy or platforms like that. So think about where you will apply gamification before gamification will not be seen in isolation but integrated into a broader field.
Rakshith: In this kind of a scenario, what do you see as GamFed role? What can we do to further the industry?
Gustavo: First, I think an organization like GamFed helps gamification professionals and researchers to find each other and know about each other, to keep in contact and exchange ideas. That is interesting and important because we are all still learning the best ways of doing things. This industry is so new, nobody knows everything about how to do things. So we are all the time doing things, testing, and learning from experience. Everybody has experience to share with others and so contact with each other is important.
Also, helping to talk to the world about gamification, explain what gamification is, explain what it’s good for and how it is to be applied is an important function because not everybody knows the term and even people who have heard it don’t know exactly what it is and confuse it.