One of my main gripes with the online poker industry has been the decreasing respect shown to the game as a game. I’ve seen this from the inside. I hate that the game in the eyes of many decision makers have been reduced to nothing but an addictive and somewhat skill-based click-fest perfect for marketing the get-rich dream. Even representatives of those who like PKR have gone off on their own with valiant ambitions have stated that in all essence they regard online poker as a game of marketing. One power player I used to work with and otherwise respect deeply had the unpleasant view that online poker was merely a commodity and hence needed to be sold and marketed like petrol.

That is little different from saying that first person shooter games are commodities and need to be sold and marketed like petrol i.e. it’s all about pricing, loyalty programs, security, availability, branding etc.
Fun, apparently, has nothing to do with it.

Last night on Quadjacks Radio, Dutch Boyd, who I’ve pinned down as a guy with respectable industry instincts, mulled over the fact that poker is ”negative sum game”.  I, and others with me, have been mulling over that for five years. Somehow the glorious lifestyles, the millions and millions in prize money, the sick stack games and the fairy tale Moneymaker stories still prevent people from facing reality:

Players in general don’t make money playing online poker. A vast majority can’t ever make money playing online poker. They’d probably stand a better chance at making money in World of Warcraft if they just had a lot of time on their hands and a sick trigger finger. The fact that the ability to make money is the predominant message in almost all marketing of online RMG (real money gaming) poker doesn’t change the fact that roughly nine out of ten players lose. I discussed this half a year ago in an opinion piece in Inside Poker Business.

The simple fact is that we’ve abandoned the intrinsic motivations for playing this great game in exchange for exploiting extrinsic motivation easily applied to the game. Mostly in the form of real money prizes. And in doing so, we’ve discarded one of the greatest opportunities to grow the game’s popularity and status in society. Until we come to peace with the fact that poker is a negative sum game (something basically any non-freebie games must – including most gambling games) by exploring the awesome game mechanics of poker to maximize intrinsic rewards, we’re stuck with building and selling an illusion based on extrinsic rewards.

What I mean by this can be explained by tapping into a current war of understanding of what gamification is and how it should be applied between self-proclaimed gamification expert Gabe Zichermann and renowned UXD researcher Sebastian Deterding. Gave has written a book that essentially tries to hijack the term “gamification” and apply it to the concept of making games out of things that are not games. As such he’s a useful frame of reference for the attitude held by many decision makers within poker about poker. Mr Deterding, in his criticism of the book which hails extrinsic rewards (like prize money) as enormously powerful forces of motivation that can be applied to anything, represents my point of view.

The funnest game ever invented if you are a follower of the Zicherman school of thought (my comment). Borrowed from the Sebastian Deterding and inspired by  Jakob Stjerning’s Progress Wars.

Here are some quotes from Sebastian Deterding’s review of Gabe Zichermann’s book:

“Intrinsic/extrinsic has nothing to do with “inside of me” versus “outside of me”. Rather, it refers to whether the motivation to do something is inherent in the activity itself, or whether we do something for a reason outside the activity. Intrinsically motivated are those activities we do for their own sake – dancing, cooking, playing, satisfying work, etc., whereas extrinsically motivated activities are those that we do for something else – to get paid, to avoid punishment or social pressure, to gain status, etc.”

”Hopscotch, Minesweeper, Scrabble, Sudoku, Risk, whatever – none of them feature nor require any rewards. Indeed, playing is one of the quintessential behaviors that got psychology to realise in the second half of the 20th century that there are things we enjoy doing for their own sake, without any reward or punishment attached – things that are intrinsically motivating.”

“…global surveys done by Monster.com, the Kelly Global Workforce Index and others show time and again that interesting, satisfying work and the personal aspiration to do a good job are the most important motivators at work, more important than salary or promotions (i.e. status in the organizational hierarchy). Sufficient and fair pay and promotions are ‘hygiene factors’ – we are greatly demotivated if they are missing. But they do little to actively motivate us beyond that.”

“We habitually overemphasize the importance of extrinsic incentives for other people (like salaries or promotions), since we can readily observe these incentives, but cannot ‘look inside the head’ of people to see what else drives them ‘inside’.”

So this is my first challenge to the online poker industry:

Make the game fun to play even if it is impossible for players to ever withdraw any money, feature on a leaderboard, win a badge or earn virtual points.

There. Now you’re working under the same conditions many game developers work under. And have succeeded under. If you don’t think you can, if you think the game mechanics (an important terminology discussed in a later post in the series) of online poker are less entertaining, less intricately exciting than those of Sudoku, Risk or Minesweeper, please leave the industry.

If you think online poker as en entertaining and fun game stripped of extrinsic incentives has already been optimized in terms of user engagement, interactivity, audiovisual stimulation, useability and accessibility to name a couple of variables, please leave the industry.

If not, you earn five points and an invitation to read the next entry in the series. Clues on where to find it will be revealed on my twitter, facebook and as a geocash treasure outside my garage…..