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The Gamification Revolution is Already Here



Eugene Gan - published on 08/01/13

No longer just for young males, gaming has spread to all sectors of society. While gaming techniques can be used for good, like helping to find a cure fore AIDS, there can also be a darker side. Are you becoming gamified?

Think video games are all about kids? Wrong. The average age of a video gamer is now 37, and consumers spent $20.77 billion on video games, hardware, and accessories in 2012. 77% of American households own video games. And just in case you’re misled into believing that this is a phenomenon only in the US, here are a couple more interesting numbers: China has the largest number of gamers, and 66% of the population of Germany are active gamers. You can be sure businesses across the board are paying attention.

Think video games are all about boys? Wrong. According to the latest report from the Entertainment Software Association, it’s not just about boys as forty-five percent of all game players are in fact women, with women over the age of 18 representing a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (31 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (19 percent).

Think you can avoid video games in your day-to-day life? You can try, but it’s just going to get increasingly difficult to avoid. What’s more, video game-like thinking is increasingly the underlying philosophy that online social media is built on. It’s called “gamification” and it’s set to permeate our media, our entertainment, our education system, and the work place, not to mention potentially change the way we interact with life itself. In fact, you’ve likely already encountered it, perhaps without even realizing it. It’s precisely because video games are now so ubiquitous in our culture that it’s created the perfect setting for gamification to take hold and bloom. Gamification is the new social media. It’s the zeitgeist of our age. It’s in the air. You’re breathing it (or choking on it). It’s surreal, scary, and exciting all at the same time.

Gamification is not about creating video games per se. It is, by popular definition, the application of video game thinking and practices (i.e., game design, mechanics, theory, and techniques) to non-gaming activities and processes, with the aim of finding new and creative ways to solve problems and engage audiences. In other words, it’s taking the best principles and practices of games like Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, and The Sims and putting these to use in creating everything from websites that’ll keep you coming back, to Frequent Flyer mileage programs that keep you “leveling up,” to diet and exercise plans that get you excited about leading a healthy life, to that infernal timer that counts down the number of seconds you have left to purchase that as-seen-on-tv, once-in-a-lifetime, lowest-price-ever item that entices you to reach for the phone (or click “Buy now!”).

How might gamification achieve all this? There’s a whole host of gamification design principles going around, each vying for prominence in the marketplace because there are as many ways to gamify as there are ideas for how to make something fun and engaging. One of my favorite examples involves playing an online puzzle game called Foldit that has players worldwide collaborating to fold protein molecules in three dimensions. The goal? Find optimal patterns or states in the protein structures (seriously, this can be really fun for people who enjoy puzzles). But that’s not all; the real clincher is that it’s in fact a multiplayer crowd-sourcing experiment in which players are solving actual scientific research problems. In particular, scientists spent 15 years trying to unlock the structure of an AIDS-related protein that, if solved, would represent a significant step forward in curing retroviral diseases. When Foldit went online (or viral, you might say – pardon the pun), players solved the puzzle in 10 days. That’s 15 years versus 10 days, folks. Gamification wins.

And here’s another nifty example that doesn’t directly involve playing a video game. Volkswagen ran a competition for gamification ideas as part of their marketing campaign, One winner came up with the idea that speed cameras can actually be fun. Instead of the boring old high-speed cameras that can take snapshots of drivers who exceed the speed limit and then penalize them with traffic fines, why not call it “Speed Camera Lottery” and have the cameras take your picture too? (I mean, you were obeying the speed limit, right?) Then enter you and all the other obedient drivers into a lottery to win some of the money from the fines that the speeders pay. The result of this gamified speed trap? The average speed before the experiment was 32 km/h, but the average speed during the experiment dropped to a mere 25 km/h. That’s a 22% reduction in driving speed. Talk about a simple paradigm shift: drive legally and win extra cash. Check out the other winners at

If you do a search online, you’ll find plenty more examples of gamification in action. New generation websites and online social media are chock-full of gamification in the form of badges, leaderboards, achievements, and points (the so-called BLAP principle that’s floating around) to keep you coming back to visit, build your status, interact with others, write feedback, post your comments, share your purchases on Facebook, or whatever other behavior the organization wants from you. When an online forum rewards you with access to additional parts of their website or grants you exclusive virtual gifts to download because you’ve attained a particular status with them by making a specified number of posts, comments, or contributions, that’s gamification in action. When you earn points that are redeemable for discounts and gift cards because you’ve signed up for a website’s referral program that has you “liking” their products, and then has you reviewing or sharing information about them with your friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter, that’s gamification in action.

And if you pay close attention to your daily activities, it’s likely that you’ll find yourself already a player in our gamified culture. Look around you: supermarkets, gas stations, stores you visit, online merchants, the coffee shop around the corner, the lessons at school, job training… the moment you see the world as a series of quests, challenges, and levels, you’re on the road to gamification.

But be alert: if you’re a player, then it also means that you’re being “gamed,” which means that you’ll need to expend more effort to think clearly, resist addiction, and make wise, healthy choices in your daily decisions amidst all the gamified activity around you. It also means that you’ll be wise to help your loved ones be alert to their being “gamed” too, and teach the kids to be aware of the diverse distractions that follow them wherever they are. Amidst this gamified environment, it’s all the more important to appreciate the preciousness of time and to learn to prioritize. We certainly wouldn’t want to be so addicted that we experience an incessant need to earn points and level up. Neither would we want to be so altered in our gamified thinking that we begin to gamify the practices in our faith and expect the Mass to be entertainment (for example), or practice our faith solely for the sake of a reward. Yes, we certainly hope for the reward of heaven, but it’s not so much about the gift as it is about the Giver. We want to be very near to Jesus, the love of our life. It’s about being in the family of God, not gaming God.

As I was writing this column, my nine-year-old came up to me and with a big smile on his face, pointed to the back of the cereal box where a colorful, high-contrast logo clearly attracted his attention. “Collect 6 codes” to earn a “movie ticket,” it read. Reading the fine print, it advertised the incentive: you get to download an e-movie. This, right here, is gamification on multiple levels: it’s the collection of codes, and you, the player, are expected to spend real money on additional boxes, hopefully finding six unique codes to send in to obtain access to a virtual product, one that the game creators need spend no additional money on to replicate and distribute. I suspect my nine-year-old got more than he bargained for because he got an impassioned mini-lecture on gamification:

There’s a saying you’ve likely heard: the house always wins. The creators of the game always win in the long term. If they’re the creators, it means that you’re the player, and though you might win from time to time (think rats getting their sugar pellets in a lab that’s experimenting with behaviorism), the cereal company wins in the end. Why? Simply because you’re the means by which the game creators make money. They made the rules so that they’ll win in the long run. They win so that the game can be continued. Without them winning, there wouldn’t be a game.

Another lesson my nine-year-old learned: don’t come near daddy when he’s writing about gamification.

Eugene Gan is Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

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