Gamification is taking over our lives, and it all came from video games

Originally published by The Independent.

Supermarket chain Sainsbury’s was recently caught red faced with a poster encouraging its staff to get customers to spend more on their shopping.

It caused an irate yet strange response on Twitter with many outraged by why a supermarket would want customers to spend more. Surely that is the whole point of shops: try every trick in the book to get us to part with our money?

What their posters did reveal is the increasingly popular trend of ‘gamification’— of rewarding, incentivising and motivating people to achieve a goal. In this case it was aimed at their staff.

While there is nothing new with rewarding people when they do something good, today, many of these ideas are being fed from an altogether different realm: the gaming industry.

Ever since Sony launched its PlayStation games console that helped popularise gaming, adults and children alike now spend millions of pounds and thousands of hours each year playing games. With so many people playing so many games, it is no wonder that psychologists, policy makers and businesses have taken a keen interest in what makes playing games so compelling.

Notwithstanding their immersive quality, people of all ages through playing games can be very adept at attaining goals, gaining rewards and in the case of some games, players actively cooperate with one another for altruistic ends, such as to explore and build new virtual cities. Gaming — especially played on mobile phones — is also generating huge revenues for game producers through in app purchases too.

For a business or a politician who struggle not only to connect with their constituents but also to enthuse them in their agendas, gaming offers a compelling glimpse of how to rectify their problem through incentivising people with goal setting and rewards.

Take the popular mobile social media app Foursquare. It helped popularise how to encourage its many millions of worldwide users to achieve goals by competing with one another by collecting ‘badges’ each time they visited a place with their mobile phone. Since its launch, Foursquare has spawned many other apps and businesses who have copied its ideas for themselves.

For example, the coffee chain Starbucks saw an opportunity of how to incentivise their customers by rewarding them with free coffee each time they checked in at one of their cafes using Foursquare.

Gamification can work in other ways too. For example, when writing, I sometimes use a little program installed on my computer called Focus Booster to keep me from being distracted. Its idea is very simple. After pressing a button, it alerts me when twenty five minute have passed, letting me know I can take a break.

In academia too, encouraging competition between researchers is well founded and often used to try to push better outcomes. By setting teams against one another, they can push themselves harder, because of the risk of not wanting to be beaten by their opponents.

While marketers and customers have forever engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse — each trying to outwit the other — the prevalence of gamification techniques today suggests something entirely different is going on. In particular it is being used to explicitly reward people for exhibiting good behaviour when up until now, such attempts have historically failed.

For example car manufacturers and insurers are beginning to work together to offer young drivers lower insurance premiums if they keep within the speed limits, don’t speed away from traffic lights, and use their gears more economically.

By using tracking devices attached to their cars that monitor engine performance combined with GPS satelite data, each driver can get immediate feedback via their car dashboards or mobile phones (and is sent back to their insurers), all to help them save more fuel economy, be kinder to the environment and be a safer driver.

All of this, as Kam Star, chief play officer at games and behaviour consultancy PlayGen told me, means being able to measure and respond via an interface ‘has made it possible to frame and reward actions in a way that was not possible before.’

Another area where gamification techniques are being used is in education. Many teachers and university lecturers openly admit they struggle to keep their students engaged. Some use digital tools such as duolingo that help pupils learn languages by being rewarding them with points on how good they are at memorising words.

But the case for gamification in education isn’t so clear cut. A recent study conducted with 10,000 pupils on whether parents could incentivise their children to study for their GCSEs with either a cash reward or with the promise of a school trip found that neither had a positive effect on their academic attainment. Dr Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation behind the research said in an interview, while incentives can increase “effort”, the overall impact on learning was “low.”

Dr Shirley Dent, a communications specialist and founder of Spark Mobile and as someone who is critical of gamification told me, the problem with it is that it is less about having a ‘head-on argument’ and is more about ‘seeking to change behaviour with a few gamer’s tricks.’

Are techniques like gamification becoming popular at a time when there is little consensus of the right way to teach children, where teachers increasingly rely on tools to keep their pupils interested? Tellingly, Collins conclusion from his research was that the “most powerful driver of achievement in schools is great teaching”.

While gamification techniques do get people to change their behavior, perhaps the real question is whether offering up incentives is a technical way of avoiding the need for a forthright debate. Or as Dent went on to tell me, ‘let gamers get on with gaming and politicians get on with convincing us through a proper rational argument.’

Air miles, shopping loyalty cards, playing the lottery, to collecting money for charity by competing to take the most steps or walk the furthest, are all examples of how play is an everyday part of our lives. At work, training sessions that involve playing games or being rewarded for good behaviour or attendance, are commonplace practice.

Playing games — whether for fun or otherwise — do show that people of all ages are more than able to attain rewards, solve problems, and work towards a higher goal. But whether play is the best way to experience the world remains to be seen.