The gamification of society: time to grow up?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Barbican, London

Co-producer & debate chair. Is gamification just the latest marketing gimmick, or can it offer genuine benefits to how we work and interact with each other?

Video games are growing up: the average age of a gamer is now over 30 in the US and UK. Now, a new breed of socially conscious games developers is keen to prove that gaming could be good for society. ‘Gamification’ – the use of gaming techniques in real-world settings – has become a major force in recent years, first in marketing but increasingly in other areas, too. Whether it’s inspiring reluctant runners by getting them to share their progress with friends online with the Nike+ app or helping AIDS researchers solve long-running problems in cell classification by turning the problem into a crowd-sourced game, games are increasingly seen as a revolutionary and disruptive tool for social interaction. Some charities have offered the opportunity to ‘play’ as a homeless person or African farmer to better educate young people about the problems that people in need face.

Yet some speculate that gamification could have a bigger role to play than simply improving interactions with users. Business consultants have increasingly begun to explore how gaming systems could help boost productivity by motivating workers to view their jobs more as an extension of leisure time (‘play’). Some see a similar use for games in education, engaging students through the familiar tropes of gaming and social media rather than the more ‘passive’ experience of classroom learning.

Others are more suspicious of using techniques pioneered in the marketing and entertainment industries as a method of building serious engagement in other parts of life. There are ethical concerns, too, about the willingness to blur the boundaries between work and leisure, as suggested by the negative reactions to the news that Facebook has allowed academic researchers to manipulate users’ news feeds to monitor their emotional reactions.

Is gamification just the latest marketing gimmick, or can it offer genuine benefits to how we work and interact with each other? What are the ethical and practical challenges posed by implementing game mechanics to non-game scenarios in the workplace or classroom? Are such methods simply a fun way of engaging a generation raised on video games, or is there a risk that such approaches trivialise important and difficult issues? Does all play and no work make Jack a more superficial boy?