Fair Play: More Important than Rules

In gamification, we often talk about rules. They split games from play, fair from foul. However, just because you have rules, does not mean that everyone will feel that the game is fair!

This came to mind when I watched my youngest daughter’s reaction to being told she could not take a teddy bear to the nursery. The reasons / rules were explained, but that was not of consequence. Up until this point she had always brought toys in and more importantly – so had her friends. “It’s not fair” was about all we could understand through the distraught crying!

Once she had calmed down a little, we were able to explain that her friends were also being told the same. After repeating this a few times, she came to terms with it all. Now it was fair, as everyone was in the same situation as her.

When I am designing any gamified solution, I am keen to make sure that it is fair to everyone. Teams should be the same size. If that is not possible, then, at least, scoring should be relative to the size of the teams. Everyone should have access to the information and the “things” they need to complete tasks. Most importantly everyone should feel that they have the same opportunity to “win”.

This last one is key. Not long ago, I was having a chat with An Coppens (check out her blog – now!!!). I was asking her advice on making sure that a solution I was designing was inclusive to women. As a man, it is very easy to create themes and gameplay elements that focus on very male orientated goals. In the back of my mind, I was sure that competition was a big no-no for women. However, this was not quite right. Whilst generally women are most receptive to collaborative and social environments, they are not switched off by competition. An explained that as long as they feel they have just as much chance of winning, or compleating the tasks, that the playing field is level – they will respond just as well as their male counterparts.

The key was fair play. Rules are essential, but they need to ensure that everyone has a level playing field, no matter their levels of skill.

You can enable this in a few ways.

  • Ensure the system offers the correct help to get people to similar skill levels.
    • On-boarding, training, mentoring etc.
  • Make sure that only those of similar levels are compared to each other
    • Think leagues. You don’t have the top paid professionals playing against the Sunday afternoon dads clubs!
  • Create a system that helps those who need it.
    • Games do this in various ways, I am always reminded of “Rubber Band AI” driving games such as Mario Kart. The concept is that the AI drivers are attached to the player via an imaginary rubber band. If the player gets too far ahead, the AI drivers start to drive better or faster. Done well, the challenge increases smoothly with the skill of the player – without ever getting too easy.
    • Look into Negative Feedback Loops as well, the concept of making the game steadily harder for the best players. Mario Kart had the infamous “Blue Shell” that would become available to slower drivers to take out the leader.
  • Consider handicaps
    • Gold does this well, to make the game more inclusive to less skilled players. Players are assigned a handicap based on how well the play. The lower the handicap, the better the player and the few shots they are given to achieve the same as players with a higher handicap.

Balance is key though. Punishing those of a higher skill can lead to a feeling of unfair play! Making it too easy of those with less skill can feel patronising.

Hey, I didn’t say this was easy!

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