If you find yourself slightly stumped over the ever-growing buzz around gamification, and unsure whether there is any overlap between a career in games and a career in gamification - then this is the guide for you. We’ll take a look at the psychology behind gamification, examples of where the practise is successfully applied, and ways to use your own gaming background for the purpose of gamification.
What is gamification?
Gamification is centered on making a typically mundane task more enjoyable through the incorporation of game elements. The practise has been adopted by businesses wanting to strengthen customer interest and retention, educational institutes looking to improve learning, and even governmental bodies hoping to encourage citizens to take certain action. Gamification is therefore diversely applied, and has been demonstrated in many cases to be highly effective through the engagement it attracts with its promise of progression, competition and rewards.
Gamification is commonly used in education, particularly in the realm of e-learning where sites like Duolingo and Coursera have captivated users with their progressive levels and rewards. On the language-learning app Duolingo, ‘lingots’ are earned through completing levels of learning. These lingots can then be used to unlock additional bonus levels or by buying other features at the ‘lingot store’. Completing a level means earning a ‘badge’ - a visual sign of achievement that can be shared on social media. The learner can also decide how they earn these ‘lingots’, by for example choosing between a ‘seven-day streak’ challenge, or a ‘timed test’ challenge.
By giving the course a social aspect, whereby you can add friends and compare progress, Duolingo also encourages a competitive spirit. The idea of using games in teaching is nothing new - on the contrary, games have been a method utilized by teachers for centuries. Learning through play, after all, has long proven to help certain learners retain more information. But only recently has there been the availability of addictively fun learning apps which one can play whenever they like - thereby enabling users to make time for interactive learning during commutes, long queues or other dull and otherwise wasted moments of the day.
Environment & Social
Governments and social initiatives in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden have been using gamification for years. Recycling, for example, has been made into a competitive game by Recyclebank EcoSystem, thereby giving participants a further incentive to take care of the environment. Recyclebank partner with waste haulers or entire cities, which qualifies respective citizens to track their recycling activity and earn points. To start with, eligible participants can earn their first points by watching a short video on the importance of recycling. Leaderboards are visible to all, meaning you can check what your recycling score is in comparison to other locals. Points can be used in the form of gift vouchers at partner stores like iTunes or Barnes & Nobles.
Another example of gamification used for social good can be found In Sweden, where there exist ‘lottery’ speed cameras. These cameras, while fining those who drive too fast, award a lottery ticket to everyone driving within the speed limit. The lottery jackpot is funded with the money raised through speeding fines. According to Swedish police, the average speed limit dropped by 7kmp/h on roads observed by the lottery speed cameras.
Coupons date back as early as 1887, when Coca-Cola distributed what is thought to be the first example of a coupon promotion; a card that entitled pharmacy shoppers to ‘one free glass of coke’. In other words, the idea of offering discounts and freebies as a marketing technique is nothing new - but more recently, consumers are being given the option of personalizing their own shopping rewards. Certain supermarkets offer loyalty cards which, whilst previously simply collected points which amounted to eventual discounts, now automatically enter shoppers into competitions, or qualify them for discounts on the specific items of which they buy the most.
Cafes like Starbucks have also started giving customers the option to personalize their rewards. When using the Starbucks app, a customer receives ‘stars’ for purchases made at one of the franchise’s cafes. Reaching 300 stars within a 12-month period qualifies the customer for highest reward level, through which they’ll receive extra freebies, perks and special offers of their choice. The effect is often that Starbucks app users who are close to unlocking the top rewards might spend a little extra in ensuring that they do eventually benefit from the advantages of progressing to the next level.
Whilst gamification is typically applied to non-game contexts, you’ll see successful examples of gamification within game settings themselves. Steam, the highly popular PC game distribution platform developed by Valve, uses gamification to boost game sales and encourage users to spend more time on the platform. Certain games are part of a promotion, whereby playing them earns a user Steam cards. Cards are part of ‘series’ and can be exchanged between players to make a complete series, thereby encouraging social interaction between users. Once a player has a full series, they are awarded medals, skins, in-game goods, and discounts.
Another example can be found in iGaming. Slot games are often the same across online casino sites, thus gamification is needed to ensure player loyalty to one particular online casino. The online casino PlayFrank, for example, uses gamification in giving players the chance to progress through ‘Tracks’, a system unique to their brand, which rewards users for playing certain games in certain combinations. The completion of a Track gives a player the option to choose between new Tracks, each with their own reward, such as deposit bonuses or free spins.
MyFitnessPal changed the game with their online-based food and exercise log, but recent years have seen a number of apps take fitness and health tracking to new heights with gamification elements that gives the user satisfaction through results besides the number on the scales. FitBit, for example, measures progress in ‘milestones’, the completion of which awards ‘badges’ and unlocks encouraging, celebratory messages. Users can also partake in ‘adventure races’, whereby they race against friends in virtual locations like Yosemite Park.
Lose It, meanwhile, is a similar record-keeping app focused on health and diet. The user sets their own goals in terms of their desired nutritional intake, water consumption, weight loss and exercise. The app’s motivational push notifications and nifty progress charts give users a sense of satisfaction in seeing how far they’ve progressed over time, but it is the ability to customize and monitor personal goals which has seen Lose It become a highly popular tool.
The defining characteristics
For gamification to fulfill its intended purpose, there are some defining features that need to be present. One is that the player or participant feels like they are at the centre of the game; a protagonist of their own player journey. This can be achieved through letting the player choose their own means of progression and rewards.
Secondly, the rules need to be clear and make sense, which can be achieved through following the traditional gamification format. Instant feedback is typically awarded in the form ‘points’. A certain number of points then presents itself in the form of a reward, like a badge or a ‘trophy’. Many users are attracted to the fun of collecting badges or trophies just for collections’ sake. Studies have shown that once someone possesses just two of something in a series, they are considerably more likely to start deriving a sense of satisfaction from extending their collection.
Visual representations of progress and rewards is also important, either through a chart or graph, or an inventory collection of ‘badges’. Having the option of sharing one’s progress with friends and family has also proven an important component - such as being able to post a record of one’s weight loss or improved language proficiency to social media.
Finally, the gamification needs to be the right amount of challenging for its target market. Too easy, and the rewards don’t offer the same degree of satisfaction. Too difficult, and the user might feel demotivated. Getting the balance just right is the key to ensuring the gamification fulfills its purpose - increase engagement, encourage compliance and influence consumer behaviour through its promise of fun.
A brief history
The earliest uses of gamification can be seen in classic loyalty and points programs offered by car rentals, hotel chains, supermarket and other businesses that date back to the early 1900s. In 1973, a man named Charles Coonradt started a firm which specialized in introducing sports and game elements into the workplace for increased productivity and employee welfare. Seven years later in 1980, Thomas Malone publishes ‘What Makes Things Fun to Learn: A Study of Intrinsically Motivating Computer Games’. The first frequent flyer program was introduced by American Airlines that following year.
In 1996, a book by Richard Bartle discusses the psychology of gaming, categorising gamers into four distinct groups; the killers, achievers, socializers, and explorers. By 2002, numerous businesses within health and education put the gamification theory to test and start implementing game elements into a number of everyday procedures, even though it was until the following year that the term ‘gamification’ was coined by Nick Pelling. Fast-forward to 2010, and San Francisco hosts the first ever gamification summit, while 45,000 people sign up to an online gamification course. In 2012, Gartner report that around 70% of Global 2000 will develop at least one gamified app within the next two years. In 2014, 9 out 10 companies report that their gamification efforts have been successful. That brings us to today, when gamification is a $5.5 billion industry and a marketing method respected by businesses across the world.
What careers exist within gamification?
The use of gamification in a broad range of industries means those knowledgeable, educated and interested in games have an opportunity to apply their knowledge in numerous fields. These days, Software Engineers, UX Developers and Product Owners are often expected to have a good grasp of the practise, but there are also jobs centered entirely on developing and applying gamification. You’ll find these at larger marketing and software agencies, some of which are even specialized in offering gamification solutions to clients.
What background is needed to work within gamification?
A mere interest in game design, game mechanics, game theory, marketing, business technology and behavioural psychology is a good start, but on top of that you would benefit from having an educational or professional background in game development or business marketing. Since gamification is also commonly used internally in companies to influence and motivate employees, a background in employee welfare and staff retention can also be useful.
There are also plenty of gamification courses that you can take online, both in-depth and at introductory level, on sites like Udemy. Some popular books on the subject matter include ‘Gamification by Design: Implementing Game and Web Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps’, by Gabe Zichermann and Joseline Linder, ‘For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business’ by Dan Hunter and Kevin Werbach, and ‘The Gamification of Learning and Instruction’ by Karl M. Kapp, Lucas Blair, and Rich Mesch.
The most important qualities of a gamification specialist should come naturally - creativity, innovativeness, and a passion for driving user engagement. Though the gamification business is booming, gamification concepts are still relatively new and there’s a lot of room for new ideas on how to maximise the value of gamification and - pun intended - change the game.