Game Over and Gamification

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Author: Jordi Moretón Galí >> @jordimgali

Revision: Flavio Escribano >> @ludictador

Spanish Version / Versión en Castellano: Descarga

A few months ago and during a game design session we got to the point where we should define what would happen if the player did not solve the proposed challenge. The responses were diverse, among them we would highlight a resounding “Die!”.

The Game Over term (or rather, the situation) in video games has been part of their structure, especially as a component of monetization: if you do not have enough skills or experience, then you’ll have to insert another coin.

Unfortunately death accompanies us day in, day out, and the creation of mechanisms of transcendence (genetic, historic, monuments, etc.) has been a question of human concern through the annals of history. Translating this mundane concern of our selfish gene to a transcendental reward versus death (game over) we came to the question: how can the player leave his mark and how that relates to our game design / gamification process itself? Thinking about some very basic mechanic, it came to us a popular component usually present in almost any competitive gamification design: the leaderboard.

Leaderboard. Source:

Beyond using leaderboards for competition dynamics, we might venture to say that those also generate a dynamic of game personalization and emotional bond. Because, in the end, using a historic recording mechanism for the player to write down his name along his score, we are allowing the player to change the game, leaving his imprint, making his co-authorship status tangible or, now abusing the language, modifying the genetic code in an act of quasi-biological significance.

Leaderboards or rankings depend on high scores to justify the listing of the best, ie, the game assesses those specimens who were more apt to save their code and place it on a list.

What was the first video game system to use a permanent high-score? Apparently it was Space Invaders. Although it didn’t go as far as allowing name initials, the score itself was saved. You can play a classic version by clicking on the image below. In this version (unlike the original one) however there is a leaderboard with names :)

Space Invaders

With Space Invaders’ hi-score system the defeated player transcended the gameplay itself for the first time, permanently changing the coin-op machine thus adding a new challenge to the main gameplay. For the first time in a videogame, the game over (death) was “rewarding”, something like eternal legacy. This way the player, already defeated and transformed into a war hero, was kept in the memory of the virtual world where alien hordes continued invading Earth.

The concept of “death” in videogames –beyond discussions about the difficulty of the currents games vs classic ones, or the tolerance to frustration of the players or the fact that developers want the players to experience all the game content– also raises questions that make sense in Gamification initiatives, such as: How to manage the end of the gameplay? Or How to get the player to emotionally and functionally partake in said transition?

Let think in a successful gamification initiative where we generated an through the player identification with an alter-ego or avatar that has been emotionally linked through, among others, his progress, experiences and belongings. After finishing his participation in our gamified experience it’s natural to think that our player might feel this ending as a sharp transition to the “welcome back to the real world”.

We believe in lasting experiences, and we believe gamification also has to give meaning to the end of the experience, thus helping the player to transcend it. Let’s consider usual gamification components with which the player can leave his mark in a symbolic way so he can keep himself linked to the experience in the long term:

  • Leaderboard: already mentioned, it’s a ranking where one can write his initials and a valid way for the player to leave his mark, whether he’s in the #1 position or in the 850th.
  • Character sheet: the jewel of the crown of RPGs, it’s the anatomy and evolutionary biography of a player embodied in a paper sheet that lingers in the folder of the master or player even if the character dies in-game. The player character sheet allows the player to visualize all the skills and resources obtained through the participation in the gamified experience.
RPG character sheet
RPG character sheet. Source:
  • Awards and unique or exclusive privileges: creating exclusive or unique content in gamification is complex and risky because it is easy to leave out a huge segment of the player base. But it is a legitimate mechanic provided that all players have the same probability of experiencing such content, even if ultimately only one can succeed. It can be a virtual prize (an exclusive badge) or a real one (the pen and the certificate they give you when you have been for 40 years in the organization) or exclusive privileges like advantages of participation in a future gamified event.
  • Acts or public gestures to communicate the end of the experience, be it an individual or collective awards ceremony, the public display of epic moments, etc.

We talked about how to make the player transcend the endgame but … Is it his individual ending or is it the end of the overall experience? In a factional war, the end is for everyone, although with a different outcome for each faction, but the end in an individual quest (with all its emotional, intellectual, etc. load) is a personal event, private, intimate (such as death).

Can we design a gamification experience where a player can “die” at any moment or stage? Of course yes, but does it make sense?

The loss (or the fear of loss), as a motivator, is one of the more powerful ways to modify behaviors. As in an RPG the Game Master doesn’t seek the destruction of the players (although that can happen), but to accompany them through an epic adventure in which risk and skill goes hand by hand, we believe that in gamification processes doesn’t make much sense to take the player to a state of permanent death -and throw him out the experience- before achieving the desired behavior changes. We can play with aesthetics such as fear of loss but without reaching the game over because player failures or because the player gives up out of frustration. Remember that while a game is intended to entertain (for now let’s obviate serious games, edutainment, etc.), gamification aims to create or modify behaviors, i.e. for business processes optimization. We must ensure the shot, try to achieve the goal as far as possible, keep the player alive, engaged. This is a trend we see specially in contemporary games.

Therefore, the user must reach the end of the experience, the game over by definition, whether he overcomes the challenges with excellence or not: the leaderboard will place him where he belongs, and will be assessed to check if the desired behavior has been achieved or not.

In conclusion, the game over (in both videogames and gamification processes) should not be a backdrop in black, but as we have said, it should allow the player to leave some kind of mark, linking him emotionally to the experience and the process lived as well as allowing him to assess the experience and become aware of their own progress. It is not just a form of courtesy, but a way to create a playful spirit, an avatar, a story that can be told, going way beyond organization campaigns where expressly asked to play for a business objective.