THE BLOG
05/01/2013 02:23 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2013

Gamification: An Introduction to Its Potential

Our ancestors have been playing games in various ways since we first came down from the trees, and in our modern society technology has dramatically changed the type of games we spend our time playing. The gaming industry has become one of the most profitable industries worldwide, and thanks to the internet gaming products are accessible on an increasing array of devices and with an immediacy that previous generations could never have imagined. The recent trend towards gamification shows gaming elements creeping in to applications and activities that may not normally be considered as "playing a game."

Like probably many people, I initially wasn't familiar with the phrase "Gamification" despite it being one of the industry buzz words of the past few years. Applied in industries as diverse as marketing, business, health, education and government, this concept is at essence a simple one: make serious tasks more fun to engage people in doing them. There can be a negative aspect to this movement when applied to subversive marketing strategies designed to increase profits for businesses, however where this movement can take us in terms of positive social consequences is something worth considering. In this post I explore what gamification is, how it works, and the great potential for this movement.

What is Gamification and who is it for?

At its basic level, gamification is the concept of incorporating game based elements into everyday tasks and activities to teach, persuade and motivate. The reason why this works is that gamification can motivate attitude and behaviour change which is able to be carried through to real-world actions.

Given our perception that Generation Y have short attention spans and low motivation for anything that isn't 'fun,' the temptation is there to believe that gamification emerged as a strategy to engage this fickle age group in serious tasks. And it's true that in our current economy, Gen Y makes up 25 percent of the workforce. However gamification isn't applicable only to younger workers, it has been shown to positively motivate and engage people of all ages and in a variety of settings.

Gamification has been used in diverse industries such as in business, to improve customer engagement, loyalty, and provide incentives for employees and partners to perform at high levels. It can help promote health & wellness with the goal of reducing healthcare cost through fitness and obesity programs, smoking cessation. It has been used in education & training by using e-learning, corporate and vocational training, online testing, etc. Gamification has even been used within public policy & government through promoting education reform, climate change, and welfare reform amongst other things. Gamification has also been applied to social issues such as the promotion of sustainability, improved social interactions. Gamification can be implemented as loyalty programs, business branded games, work-based activities, advertising, positive psychology and social improvement.

The fundamentals of gamification design are game mechanics and game dynamics. Common game mechanics used in gamification include:

• achievements
• badges
• levels
• leaderboards
• progress bars
• activity feeds
• avatars
• real-time feedback
• virtual currency or goods
• gifting and charity
• challenges and quests
• trophy cases
• embedding small mini games within other activities

Game mechanics work because they tap into fundamental human desires, and allow us access to these from the simple ability to interact with our computers. People have fundamental needs and desires, such as the desire for reward, status, achievement, self-expression, competition, and altruism among others. These needs are universal, and not limited to individual variables such as demographics, cultures, and genders. Effective gamification works because the game designers identify the relevant needs for the user and implement game mechanics in the website, application, or community to create an experience that drives behaviour. There are some great examples of organisations whose aim is to drive positive health behaviour in young people, using games and connected devices to create motivational methods to fighting chronic illnesses like cancer, obesity, and depression.

Where gamification has the potential for harm

Not everyone believes that gamification is the next best thing. There are those who criticise the movement's commercial aspects, saying that by using a re-branded pre-existing concept of gaming as a business tool is an "overtly cheap attempt to sell" (Doust, 2011). When used in a business context, gamification integrates game dynamics and game mechanics into websites, marketing campaigns, business services, or online communities to drive consumer participation and engagement in the product or service. For example consider the implications of cross-promoted games on children's junk food websites which creates associations of fun and enjoyment with food that is essentially unhealthy. When applied in a profit-driven business model in this way, the desired outcome is increased brand awareness and therefore (they hope!) increased profits but the positive consequences for the user/ player are questionable. For gamification designers to use mechanisms that are known to influence and change people's behaviour in this way appears to be manipulative of its customers.

Quite often, the intention of making a profit has also prevented designers from delivering an application that effectively engages the user. Applications that deliver rewards such as points, badges and levels fail to see that virtual rewards like this may be an extrinsic motivator (goal-driven behaviour) which only motivates people to a limited extent. However research shows intrinsic gaming (games played for the enjoyment of the process) is more motivating and more effective than extrinsic gaming (Habgood, 2009). Therefore intrinsically motivated games are more likely to result in continued behaviour because it makes people feel good about what they are doing, for example by tapping into feelings of mastery, competence and self-efficacy. Where the gamified process is no longer fun for the user it therefore fails to be motivating or engaging, and games can only be fun if they're well designed, with a clear process of imagining what users will enjoy interacting with which includes gender, age and social variables.

It is also important that game designers effectively test their gamified elements to ensure that the behavioural effect is the one intended. Some games have unintentionally produced effects that increased the level of risk people take in various situations, thereby causing themselves or others harm, for example driving simulation games which actually resulted in increased number of road accidents (Deterding, 2010).

What is the potential of this movement?

Despite the cautions about the misuse of games, gamification as a concept has great potential for making significant improvements on an individual, social and global scale. Compared to traditional video gaming where players engage in virtual worlds, gamification has the potential for real-world change.

Games have been used to engage the attention of young people in learning and education, and help teach important lessons about working with others, playing by the rules and understanding other people. (Homrek & Ruffey, 2009) These skills or interactional elements are also present in games or gamified applications that can be used by adults. The dynamics of games that promote positive feedback and a supportive environment are also those factors which promote change and learning in users of any age group, therefore effectively shaping behaviour through positive motivation. The game environment provides optimism for the user/ player to believe that success is not only possible, but likely, if they participate fully which therefore empowers people to work hard and achieve their goals (McGonigal, 2011). Games also encourage users to think creatively, which promotes problem solving and "thinking outside the square" which is useful for developing innovative and novel solutions to problems which results in increased positive outcomes. All of these aspects make game elements very useful for encouraging both children and adults to apply themselves to a task.

Research has shown that people who play a game based on a highly believable narrative, for example an oil shortage that would affect the way they drive their car, buy food, etc, actually produced a change in their daily habits which endured beyond the time spent playing the game (McGonigal, 2011). Tapping into the human desire for purpose, games that provide meaningful engagement are likely to increase people's sense of happiness or satisfaction and increase the likelihood that they will continue these behaviours. By increasing people's motivation for action, gamified applications and games can support people to meet personal or social goals and increase learning and skill building which improves confidence and competence. Also, by increasing awareness for issues such as social interaction, social responsibility, and community-building for example, the movement can reduce social isolation and contribute to wider social change.

Over the past few years the concept of gamification has polarised opinions but also contributed to important discussion about what we want to achieve by using games - and there are clearly two sides to the argument. On one hand, there are risks involved in using knowledge about psychological effects of gaming to support commercial aims, but on the other hand if gamification can promote positive effects for both the individual and for society then this is a fantastic opportunity for making significant improvements in how people behave in a range of areas. As technology changes, and people's interaction with technology increases, this could be a valuable way of harnessing technology to improve the world that we live in for ourselves and for future generations.

*this post was originally written as a resource for the website at Network for Internet Investigation and Research Australia (NiIRA)

References

Deterding, S. (2010) Pawned: Gamification and It's Discontents. Presentation given at Playful 2010. [Accessed April, 2012 at http://www.slideshare.net/dings/pawned-gamification-and-its-discontents]

Doust, S. (2011). 'Gamification' is as stupid as it sounds. The Drum. [Accessed February 2012 from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-03-18/why-gamification-is-as-stupid-as-it-sounds/2652370 ]

Gamification Wiki [Accessed January, 2012 at http://gamification.org/wiki/Gamification]

Habgood, J (2009). Sumo Digital presents the concept and development of the Outnumbered game for the Nintendo Wii. [Video presentation. Accessed April 2012 at: http://newlearning.blip.tv]

Homrek, R & Roffey, S. (2009) Promoting Social and Emotional Learning with Games. Simulation and Gaming Vol. X.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Penguin Press.