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Leveling Up: Is the Music Industry Ripe for Gamification?

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Guest post by Richard Pulvino (@rpulvino) for sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank. 

I've become addicted to thinking about gamification thanks to a class I took about the topic via Coursera, an online education platform. It's impossible not to. The course gamed my mind to think about game elements all of the time. I started to search for examples of “gamifying" music, but they often left me wanting more.

For those that may be unfamiliar with the term, gamification is — as defined by Professor Kevin Werbach in the class — “the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts." Foursquare is an often-cited example of gamification that uses points, badges, and leaderboards to encourage people to check in at various locations using the app. These game elements aren't the main purpose of their service, but they are used to spark a behavior from members.

With all of the new online music services, communities, bands, record labels, and live events, there has to be a lot of gaming potential in the music industry, right? The best answer I can come up with is “perhaps." There have certainly been some attempts made that can be classified as gamification, but whether or not the game elements are having a direct effect on behavior is another story.

Turntable.fm is a perfect example of a gamified music service. In addition to DJing in a chat room circa the late-90s AOL days, the site allows players to collect points when people rate their song as “awesome," and by earning more points a player can change their DJ avatar. Certain avatars represent frequent users or as high as super-users, so other players can recognize your status.

Another gamification example is the music community Phantasy Tour, which consists of fans of jam bands such as Phish, moe., Umphrey's McGee, The Disco Biscuits, and a few more of their brethren. This is a better example of using game elements to enhance the experience of the community and even strength the relationships and conversations of the people involved.

Fans of jam bands love tracking set lists from show to show for a band because it changes every night. Phantasy Tour lets fans pick which songs they think will be played each night, what the first and second set openers and closers will be, and what will be the more frequently played song on tour, etc. Players receive points based on the number of correct answers with winners being named at the end of the tour. No tangible or intangible rewards, just passionate fans having some fun.

The beauty of Phantasy Tour's point system and game elements is that they don't drive community engagement, but enhance an experience members are already enthusiastic about. The game itself should never be the primary focus of a gamified system. For example, the points and avatars in Turntable.fm hardly do the site justice and are mere tactics thrown into a service that was unique and exciting to begin with. In his course, Werbach taught that gamified elements need to be purposive, analytical, creative, and human centered. Turntable.fm is human centered, but the rest hardly qualify when points are accumulated from a single button click. The fun lies in playing songs with friends and chatting in real-time. The button clicks and intangible avatars add nothing to the quality of the service.

With these examples in mind, it becomes hard to gauge gamification's place in the musical realm, if there is one. Do game elements tarnish an experience that can be so personal and emotional? Does a band creating a point system to track its top fans spoil the band-audience relationship? It's certainly a possibility, which is why those who integrate game elements into their company's strategy need to be very mindful of their purpose and the potential downside it presents.

In the end, it's about dumbing down the experience versus employing smart strategies and execution. The dumbing down comes in the form of what Margaret Robinson of Hide&Seek calls “pointsification." She says that by using items such as points, badges, and leaderboards as the main features of products that users interact with, it becomes “the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games representing it as the core of the experience."

Turntable.fm has fallen victim to the pointsification trend. Music sharing service Thesixtyone is a bit more detailed with its game elements, but still contains the points, badges, and leaderboards that have riddled so many gamification efforts. Because of the strong focus on these three elements, additional terms have been coined that seek to expose gamification for being deceptive in nature. The full-blown game approach by TastemakerX is one that more people in the music industry should consider. This is because as gamification grows in popularity, it becomes clear that many companies are using it in a more exploitive manner.

Ian Bogost, a video game designer, uses the term “exploitationware" — an intentional con companies employ to elicit a certain action people wouldn't normally do. I don't think any online music services have ventured into this territory, but as gamification continues its ascension and adoption, it is destined that some will come along using tricks in an effort to make money. People say the major labels are dying, so it seems likely that they will latch onto the next big thing. To explain Bogost's exploitationware theory further, it becomes necessary to consider how gamification undermines the nature of economic and social exchange between the two parties involved — the creator and the player. Quoting Bogost:
“In particular, gamification proposes to replace real incentives with fictional ones. Real incentives come at a cost but provide value for both parties based on a relationship of trust. By contrast, pretend incentives reduce or eliminate costs, but in so doing they away both value and trust."
Listening to and absorbing music is an activity that humans need. We rely on it to support or alter our emotions. That's an intense action, and the idea of bringing points, badges, and avatars to the mix trivializes the entire experience. I want to listen to music that I enjoy without having to worry about my point accumulation. Perhaps gamification isn't a strategy that artists and online music services should rely on, because when it comes to music, people want two things: 1) They want it to be good; and 2) they want it to be accessible. Game elements need not apply.

Labels may be more appropriate because they are businesses. There is a monetary exchange between customers and labels, and frequent customers of labels should be rewarded since they are purchasing directly from the source as opposed to an iTunes or Amazon. A couple of simple and reasonable game elements would be if labels used reward programs and point accumulation to attract and retain customers. It's simple, and the activities could strengthen the bond between the two entities by increasing the number of interactions and exchanges between them. Drip.fm is built similarly to this. The service allows people to connect with specific labels for a monthly fee and then receive perks designated by each label. It's not really a gamified setup, but it's a positive step towards connecting fans with the music that they care about.

The main thing that I've learned is that anything can be gamified, but it's a risky venture. Smart gamification has shown signs of success in businesses and organizations around the world, but gamifying an art, or how people experience art, walks a dangerously thin line between appropriate and offensive. People who implement gamification strategies often focus on the outcome they seek for their business and forget the premise that games should be fun. Music is already fun without the presence of game design and game elements, but perhaps there are other organizations that are tied to music where it can lend a helping hand.


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This story appears courtesy of HypeBot.
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