What Inanimate Alice Teaches Us About Gamification

Gamification is the use of gaming elements in non-game environments. It’s a big trend not only in education, but in business as well.

There are a lot of resources out there that give you tips on how to gamify to engage your students. But, very little that explains what actually makes gamification work. As a result, attempts to gamify frequently end in failure.

Today, I’m going to talk about the elements that need to be present to make gamification successful. And Inanimate Alice is an example of what’s good in gamification.

Inanimate Alice is the brain child of award-winning author Kate Pullinger and digital artist Chris Joseph. It mixes digital narrative with movie and gaming elements. It’s a masterpiece of transmedia storytelling, It was named the 2012 Best Web Site for Teaching and Learning by the American Association of School Librarians.

The story follows the international journey of Alice as she grows up to become a game designer at the world’s largest gaming company. In episode 1, Alice is 8 years old. By episode 4, Alice is 14 years old. 10 episodes are planned, with episode 5 currently in production (hopefully coming out soon).

Five characteristics make gamification a success in Inanimate Alice:

  1. Endogenous value. In Inanimate Alice, the games are part of the story. Alice wants to be a game designer when she grows up. You play the games that she has created. By episodes 3 and 4, the outcome is dependent upon the game. Playing the games helps you authentically experience the story.
  2. Narrative. Narrative gets you emotionally involved. The narrative in Inanimate Alice is a motivating factor in playing the games. But, the narrative differs from the type of narrative you find in your favorite novel. There is less depth to the story, which is typical in transmedia storytelling. Interactivity replaces depth, and the lack of depth motivates you to fill in the details. Think fan fiction. Inanimate Alice has inspired people of all ages to continue the adventures of Alice through their own digital creations.
  3. Role play. Role play is an imaginative gaming element that also triggers emotion. In Inanimate Alice, you never see Alice. But, you do see the world through Alice’s eyes. Essentially, you take on the role of Alice. By episode 4, you can easily imagine yourself as the character. Episode 4 has the most complex game (a labyrinth), and the emotional involvement you get from imagining yourself as Alice is a strong motivator for trying to successfully find your way out of the labyrinth.
  4. Virtual assistant. Do you remember Clippy, Microsoft’s obnoxious animated paper clip assistant? Well, as obnoxious as that was, having a virtual assistant in game play is essential. A virtual assistant provides just enough help (i.e. clues) in the game to prevent you from completely giving up. In education, that’s called scaffolding. And in serious games, virtual assistants are called pedagogical agents. In Inanimate Alice, Alice’s imaginary friend Brad is your virtual assistant.
  5. Choice. In reality, there are people who just don’t like games. Sometimes they are not game literate. Sometimes they just don’t want to play. Participating in gaming elements should always be optional. Otherwise, gamification will backfire. In Inanimate Alice, you are given the choice to ‘read only’ or ‘read and play the game.’

Gamification done well can be wildly successful. But to be successful, I think you need to develop a certain level of game literacy first. Inanimate Alice will help you get your feet wet.


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