I’m listening to Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen (I love it but the kids really hate it!) trying to work out whether gamification can be justified as one of the ’50 big ideas’ in one of my new books. It’s significant, but I think I should dump it and replace it with synthetic biology.

Here’s the page…

Gamification is the application of online gaming techniques, like gaining points or status, to engage the attention or alter the behaviour of individuals or communities. Wearable devices linked to game-like systems, for instance, could induce overweight people to take more exercise or eat healthy foods.

Gamification works on three principles: First, people can be competitive (with themselves and with others). Second, people will share certain kinds of information. Third, people like to be rewarded. That’s why if you regularly buy a coffee at your local coffee shop you might end up with a nice badge courtesy of a company like Foursquare. And perhaps why, if you drink enough coffee at the same place, you might be crowned the coffee shop king – for a day. Or there’s Chore Wars, where people battle the washing up in return for virtual points or avatar energy boosts.

These are mundane examples, but there are better ones. Life Circle is a mobile app that allows blood banks to keep track of where potential blood donors are in real time. Clever, but the really smart bit is that blood donors can synchronise this with social networks to engage in a bit of competitive activity concerning who’s given the most blood or who’s donated most often. Endomondo is another example whereby users can track their workouts, challenge their friends and analyse their fitness training.

Similar techniques might be employed to get people to fill in tax returns, stop smoking, give up drugs, remember to take their drugs, drink less, walk more, vote, sleep, remain married, use contraception, cycle, recycle or revise for exams. Education, for example, especially in the early years, is all about goals, points, scores and prizes, so why not leverage a few online tricks to improve exam results or to switch students into less popular educational courses or institutions? Farmville running kindergarten services? It’s not impossible.

How could anyone possibly have a problem with this? This is surely fairly harmless activity. Making everything fun and social is simply a way to get people, especially younger people, to do things they don’t really want to do or haven’t really thought about doing. Just a way of tapping into the fact that hundreds of millions of people spend billions of hours playing online games and feel pretty good about themselves both during and after. Why not use this desire for competition, recognition and respect to increase participation in new product trials or boost the loyalty of voters towards your particular brand of government?

The answer to this is that turning the world into a game benefits certain interest groups. For example, if you can get people to do things for you for status or feelings of accomplishment, you may not have to pay other people to do it for you. In other words, your harmless game play is actually adding to the unemployment line.

According to Gartner, a research firm, more than 50% of companies will add gamification techniques to their innovation processes by 2015. But getting users to co-create or co-filter products or services or act as data entry clerks by offering virtual rewards or status also means that companies don’t have to put time and effort into improving inferior products or services themselves. Moreover, it seems infantile to treat all customers and citizens as though they are animated superheros on a secret mission to save the planet. Isn’t a virtual badge – or a real one for that matter – a rather superficial substitute for real-life engagement with other human beings?

On one level, gamification is a smart tool to get people to do what is in their best interest over the longer term. On the other hand, it can be seen as a manipulative way of getting individuals to conform to a subjective set of rules or goals or suit short-term commercial interests.

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2 Responses to Gamification

  1. Ellen Forsyth says:

    I think it would be great if you could keep gamification (much as I don’t like the term) or some concept around the importance of games as it is a growth area. I look forward to reading all 50.

  2. Marcus says:

    To be caught between a rock and a hard place.

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