Get On My Level: The Gamification of Things

by Julian Ursell
Published July 01, 2014

'Must keep streak going'. That is the sound of someone on a twenty plus kill streak on Titanfall (probably me). It's also the sound of someone who's on a 20 day streak learning JavaScript on CodeAcademy. Gamification is becoming an increasingly popular concept as a way to structure and make enjoyable the way people engage in the realms of learning, business and even the most routine aspects of lifestyle. Applications are being developed by prominent businesses which apply game mechanics and rules to a variety of different scenarios, building in incentives and rewards for users to strive toward, whether intrinsic or with a practical benefit in the real world. A brilliant example of gamification is Code Academy, which teaches new coders how to learn a programming language through a motivational system of badges and streaks to keep learners hooked and incentivized to continue learning. I’m currently learning Spanish with the language learning app, Duolingo, which uses gamification to measure and motivate learning progression using streaks, experience (xp) points and ‘checkpoints’ to structure the experience and enhance retention. Learners can unlock bonus skills by acquiring hearts, which are achieved by answering all of the questions correctly in lessons. When I’m on a streak, Duolingo will send notifications to my phone to keep it up, and compel me to reinforce my learning by taking refresher (called ‘strengthen’) lessons. It’s extraordinarily effective as a fun, fulfilling educational experience and I can positively say that I am retaining much of what I have learnt.

Gamification has been rolled out among several high profile companies, including Nike, Starbucks and Microsoft (who used gamification for staff appraisals!), and in recent years has increasingly been considered as a solution for a number of important business concerns, whether it’s easing the pain of unpalatable training sessions or to drive customer and community engagement with a product. Nike + is a shining example of gamification on a grand, successful scale. Built on the idea of Nike fuel points, it rewards consistent exercise and activity with trophies and personal benchmarks, offers the option to set individual challenges, as well as compete with friends on a community leaderboard. On the one, cynical, hand, it’s powerful, effective marketing which engages users in Nike’s virtual community and generates revenue through sales of the Fuel Band (a wrist band which tracks wearer movements), as well as running shoes (from 2006-09 Nike increased its share of the running shoe market from 47% to 61% ) and other merchandise, all without rewarding exercisers with anything of physical value (instead they’re treated to celebratory animations). On the other hand, there are obvious benefits to accruing Fuel points as it means undertaking consistent, healthy exercise, with the positive reinforcement of earning trophies, setting new performance goals, and recording statistics about calories burned, distance covered and time spent exercising. All of this is integrated socially, as friends can see exactly what kind of activity you’ve undertaken, creating a socially connected sphere of collective competition. As a statistics junkie, the ability to constantly valorize my exercise and visualize the impact of the hours I’m putting in is even more reason to keep burning down the treads on my Nikes.

What gamified apps bring is a way to accommodate the seemingly natural inclination of humans to structure and conceptualise challenges according to game (like) logic. Regardless of whether gamification is being employed for driving marketing and business, engineering customer and community participation, or for encouraging learning, it has proved a versatile approach (I’m trying to avoid calling it a business methodology) to thinking about how to solve different problems in the real world, via games. Gamification won’t be for everyone, and we would assume that it is in part dependent on a degree of investment from the user (gamer) (we might also ask if the user is engaging with the game or the actual subject at hand?), but the beauty of it is that games are so appealing and intuitive to modern generations that users don’t have to be coerced to engage, and enjoy gamified applications. It may have the charge of ‘mandatory enjoyment’ levelled at it, but I’ve never heard someone adamantly refuse to play a game. If anything, it makes the pill of dull company training much easier to swallow.

Whatever scepticism some may have over the Gamification of Things we should appreciate it as a validation of the value of games, that it says something very positive about the way we can implement game mechanics in the real world, and that businesses are treating it seriously as a strategy for application development. Gamification is being tested and considered as a solution in a huge array of situations, from project management to the actual deployment of applications – for example the cloud deployment platform Engine Yard introduced gamification in order to increase the contribution of users to the community, giving rewards to users for providing help to other customers. There are even gamification startups offering platforms (Gamification-as-a-Service?) for implementing game mechanics into new or existing applications in the enterprise – just imagine a gamified tech startup! It won’t be successful, or suitable for every application or domain, but there has been enough demonstrable success to show that when implemented correctly, gamified applications are hugely productive for both the user and the business which mobilises it. As long as developers are not building in gamification for gamification’s sake, and the mechanics are intelligently thought out with clever incentive systems in place, we may see an even greater incorporation of it in the future. As with any great game, the focus needs to be on the gameplay as much as the outcome, so that applications benefit both the player and the business in equal measure.

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