Random Acts of Architecture

Tales of an architect trying to bring order to the chaos that is modern information technology.

Tag Archives: Gamification

Treating Enterprise Software like Game Design

Mechanics, Dynamics and AestheticsIn 2005, Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek wrote an academic paper titled “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research“. It was and is an influential attempt at quantifying game design and theory.

The “MDA” acronym stands for “Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics”. Mechanics refers to the algorithms and data structures that drive the game, such as how running characters animate or the arc of a character’s jump. Dynamics refers to the run-time interaction between the mechanics and the player, such as the pressing this button to jump or showing the character’s health as a bar at the top left of the screen. Aesthetics refers to how the player enjoys the game and what the player gets out of the game.

Aesthetics is often the hardest to describe to non-gamers. Some games may offer multiplayer where players enjoy the social and competitive aspects, like the an online game of “Call of Duty” or “Doom”. Other games offer an easy way to pass the time, like “Angry Birds” or “Candy Crush”. Others provide intense challenge, like Chess. Most games focus on a few core aesthetics and this is reflected by the difference audiences for each game.

As the paper points out, game designers and developers approach games from the mechanics side then dynamics, which hopefully impart the desired aesthetics. Game players, however, experience the aesthetics through the dynamics. Outside of statistic-heavy role-playing games and sports simulations, players rarely encounter the mechanics. Game designers should always keep aesthetics in mind, if possible.

Recognizing different layers and viewpoints gives game designers a nomenclature for understanding games’ inner workings and highlighting shortcomings. For example, a game aimed at a social aesthetic needs some form of multiplayer or social network integration. A game aimed at competition needs a visible score or ranking and consistent, well communicated rules.

How does this relate to enterprise software? The MDA framework layers have equivalents. Mechanics refers to the code and database queries software developers create along with business processes. Dynamics is unchanged, referring to user experience and interaction with the software. Aesthetics refers to the business value.

Also like game design, enterprise software customers and users approach the benefits the opposite way to software developers. Like game designers, software developers tend to start with the mechanics and work up to dynamics. Management aims for the aesthetics and, for those that directly use the software, the dynamics. While some software developers may enjoy the technical challenges of enterprise software, they must not lose focus of the business value.

As with any classification or taxonomy, the MDA framework provides a way of dissecting and comparing different applications. For example, two applications can aim for the same aesthetic (business benefit) but use different dynamics (user experiences). One might be a touch-heavy mobile application. One might be a web site storing its data in the cloud.

The MDA framework can point out where a business need (aesthetic) is not supported through user experience (dynamics) or a user experience does not relate to any of the defined business needs. Software developers and architects could also create a reusable mapping of dynamics to aesthetics or mechanics to aesthetics, like linking tactics to quality attributes.

Software developers have traditionally split systems into different layers or components. The aim was to improve maintainability by localizing the effects of changes. However, the MDA framework reminds us that changes in one layer can and do affect other layers. For example, a database query change (mechanics) may affect the results shown in the UI (dynamics) and the business value (aesthetics). Conversely, new or different aesthetics may require changes to both dynamics and mechanics.

The MDA framework also reminds us of requirement compartmentalization. For example, problems occur when management or business users specify dynamics (user experience) instead of aesthetics (business requirements). Management and business users should have opinions and input but user experience designers are experts.

With the increasing popularity of IT consumerization and gamification, game design has already encroached on enterprise software. The MDA framework goes deeper by identifying things important to the target audience (whether they be games or management) and a structured way of providing them. The fact that a closely related field has also produced something similar to existing software architecture and design best practices reinforces them.

Indeed, despite the fact that games are also created with limited time and resource constraints, enterprise software has a poor record of user experience design. There is probably a lot more game designers can teach software developers about improving enterprise software, considering games succeed or fail purely on their ability to satisfy users.

A Glimpse at Stack Overflow

As any software developer that has searched for anything on the Internet probably knows, the Stack Exchange web sites contain an increasingly large body of useful knowledge. This initially included sites like stackoverflow.com for programming issues but has expanded into diverse areas like cooking, poker and lego. There is even a Stack Exchange site for questions about Stack Exchange.

This popularity is largely fuelled by gamification, where game design and theory is applied to ordinary tasks to make them more engaging. Stack Exchange does this primarily through reputation, similar to the XBox’s Gamerscore. Participants gain reputation primarily for asking or answering popular (up voted) questions. As participants gain reputation, they gain access to more privileges, eventually being able to effectively moderate the site.

There are also badges, akin to Xbox achievements. A bronze badge is given for simple things like completing your user profile or answering your first question. Silver and gold badges are awarded for harder things like asking or answering questions with many up votes.

Interestingly, Stack Overflow has reportedly been used by some to demonstrate competency when applying for jobs and Stack Overflow now has a careers site that requires a minimum reputation to enter. This made me wonder how difficult it would be to gain Stack Overflow reputation, say 1000, by genuinely trying to help others and participate in the intended spirit.

I registered on stackoverflow.com at 2:39pm on Thursday 30th August 2012 (Sydney, Australia time) and exceeded 1000 reputation at 10:44am on Wednesday 5th September with 850 reputation (tracked separately) on programmers.stackexchange.com, a site dedicated to software engineering and architecture rather than low-level programming issues. Indeed, Stack Exchange makes this “flair” available showing my very modest reputation and badges:


Although it was only six days, it was a significant time sink. Many hours were spent each day looking for questions to answer and formulating responses. Reputation (in the form of up votes) and answers often go to the first to answer so people learn quickly to provide a simple response then add more detail (and preferably sample code) later. Another strategy is seeking older, unanswered questions but the easy ones are probably already answered and such answers are unlikely to receive many up votes.

Answering questions on Stack Overflow is a lesson in humility. People often give better answers more quickly than you can type them, even in areas you consider yourself an expert, or radically different solutions. A diligently researched and prepared answer may be ignored or a negative comment may incite down votes. This can be frustrating but it can make Stack Overflow a great learning experience because the penalties for being incorrect are minor compared to the rewards of success. It is worth having a guess and let the more knowledgeable correct any mistakes.

Indeed, the reputation system provides surprisingly few opportunities for abuse. For example, someone could up vote a question they have answered (to put it back near the top of the list, looking for other’s up votes) and down vote others’ answers but up votes and reputation from up votes are capped per day. (Please note I didn’t try it. As I said above, the intention was to participate in the intended spirit.)

However, Stack Exchange is far from perfect. It does not guarantee high quality questions. Many are answered by a simple Internet search or are poorly expressed but they usually disappear quickly as the good questions are up voted. Questions on niche technologies may also languish unanswered and, when they are, lack a critical or interested population to up vote them. Like any Internet community, it is also cliquey with long established members.

Overall, I was impressed at the depth and breadth of the community and the site’s reward system. I doubt I will have the patience and dedication to reach the 400,000+ reputation some have earned but the temptation to refresh the page to see if there’s one more question you can answer is there. Answers marked correct by the question author are usually (but not always) thorough and correct and other answers or comments often contain good supporting information.

Many years ago, a potential employer could only verify one’s expertise by contacting old employers or limited technical questioning. Although not a substitute for these, Stack Exchange is one opportunity to demonstrate ability outside previous employment or education. The most telling aspect is the career’s page lets you link your best answers and highlights technologies you have participated in rather than list reputation and badges. My modest stack overflow reputation will not be appearing on my CV but maybe I’ll try to get to the next level, err, get more reputation on the stack overflow MMORPG.

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