Gamification – Play the game, change the world

Gamification, broadly speaking, is using game design techniques, thinking and mechanics to enhance a non-game situation or scenario. Why would you want to gamify something? Well, to make something that is traditionally difficult or isolating, fun or more engaging – in short it’s a way of making our lives easier. Companies such as Nike have tapped into this recently with their initiative to turn life into a sport – they use competitions, leaderboards and apps to encourage people not only to run, but also to buy their equipment. To the seasoned gamer, the idea of competing against your friends is a common one, but apply that to an exercise scenario and you instantly have a way of making something seem like less of a chore, simply by making it seem more like a game. Similarly, in 2009, Volkswagen’s ‘The Fun Theory’ looked at a way of encouraging people to take the stairs instead of the escalators – they painted the stairs to look like piano keys. ‘Take the stairs and feel better’, a piece of health advice, was made more appealing when the message or objective was transformed into ‘take the stairs and have fun’. Gamify a situation – make it doable, make it better, make it fun.

Gamification is becoming about much more than making something more bearable, or making something more entertaining. There is research into how the concept can be used in non-gaming contexts to improve the human experience and some fascinating ideas are emerging from it.

sarnabOne of those ideas is advocated by the Serious Games Institute. Dr Sylvester Arnab of the Institute recently delivered a talk entitled ‘Games, Learning and Beyond’ where he covered gamification in education and how games and their design principles can be used to better engage learners and enhance the learning experience: ‘We recognise that the advances in technology can serve the evolution of our needs and our requirements in all sorts of different domains, and in teaching and learning as well. Technology is disrupting our traditional way of doing things… I believe if we can learn from the different benefits used in game design we can redesign the way we look at things, the way we design things, the way we support our students.’

As part of the Serious Games Institute, Dr Arnab is very much involved in taking some of the concepts behind the creation and structure of games and applying those principles and benefits to find new ways to engage learners: ‘Engagement is an issue and finding ways to sustain engagement in learners is a challenge. How can we enhance and optimise learning experiences by using such technologies?’ in other words, what can be taken from the gaming experience to make the learning experience better, more rewarding? We all certainly have memories of sitting there being bored to death while a teacher droned on at the front – anything that looks at improving that scenario for future learners makes me both jealous and relieved.

Dr Arnab started off by describing what ‘serious games’ actually are – games that attempt to address a serious, ‘real-world’ issue. One example he used was of a game designed to help doctors in training in TRIAGE principles, quickly assessing a patient’s injury and prioritising care based on severity. Not quite Trauma Centre or Surgeon Simulator, although of course you wouldn’t want someone using those games to train actual doctors. But the idea is that a simulation is a kind of ‘serious game’, it’s taking a scenario and using that to engage someone towards meeting a certain objective, wrapping up something quite difficult in something approachable and safe.

A simulation is a kind of ‘serious game’, it’s taking a scenario and using that to engage someone towards meeting a certain objective, wrapping up something quite difficult in something approachable and safe.

Much of the work of the Serious Games Institute revolves around working with schools and other organisations to create such games. One of the institute’s most successful examples is PR:EPARe which was created to be used as part of sex education in schools. It takes the format of a game show, with role play scenarios where students are presented with situations revolving around the issue of coercion in relationships, in which ‘players’ are asked what they would do. Something like this doesn’t work in isolation – any person playing this ‘game’ alone will disengage quite easily from the experience – they’ll find it boring and just switch off. However, when used as a learning tool and as part of a classroom exercise, the scenarios can be used to spark discussion and the game show framing device makes it feel less like something you’re doing at school and more like a challenge, something to think about. It uses familiar mechanics to make something more approachable, as a way in to a topic that has traditionally been difficult to teach and talk about.

What is impressive is the amount of work and research that has gone into creating such a thing – the Institute is proud of the way it consults with designers and educators to carefully map out and plan something that will achieve a certain objective, and then carefully conduct research and measurements as the game is being used to determine its scientific validity and success, as well as aid further improvement. It’s very much a careful, studied process.

But of course it is possible to use ordinary, non-serious games within educational contexts. Angry Birds has been used to teach Physics and Minecraft has been successfully used to teach geography, physics and language as well as acting as a creative distance-learning tool. These are particularly good examples not just because of their content and makeup but because of their non-threatening, entertaining and exploratory nature. Minecraft in particular is a good game to use in an educational context because it encourages exploration and creativity with its minimal interface, easy controls but limitless potential. A simple game can be used not only for fun but for real purpose.


It’s not just computer games but board games that can also be used in the same way. American company Academy Games has as their company slogan, ‘Developing minds through play’. They specialise in historical board games which seek to give the players a sense of historical context by including maps and documents which describe how the situation occurred, how they progressed and their historical repercussions. Freedom: The Underground Railroad asks players to co-operate and smuggle slaves out of the Southern states during the Civil War, its difficulty perhaps a testament to the real historical situation the game is based on. One interview with the owner-founder Uwe Eickert shows the degree of careful thought and sensitivity that goes into making such a game, striking the correct balance between being educational, historically accurate and yet something fun to play. Whether games can or should be allowed to tackle such issues is probably a debate we’re all familiar with, but as the tabloids and the like denounce the use of violence and so on in the name of entertainment, Academy Games and other recent titles such as Gone Home and Papers Please revel in challenging expectations for the sake of driving home an important lesson and delivering unique and worthwhile gaming and learning experiences. These are experiences that invite us to spend time playing and learning in order to reach a realisation, to discover a story and provoke a reaction within us that can even spark a change in the world.

realitybrokenIn ‘Reality is Broken’, Jane McGonigal looks at how the ideas behind video games – the ones that make us sink hours and hours into them and the ones that make us so happy when we play, the ones that gamers are all familiar with – can be applied to the real world to make life better. Games are ‘a real solution to problems and a real source of happiness’. McGonigal puts forward a series of very convincing arguments as to how game concepts and principles can be used to change the world. How is it that people can dedicate hours and hours to grinding in World of Warcraft or accomplishing a massive log of achievements in the Halo-verse? Because these games are created with principles that unite players behind common causes, inspiring ‘extreme effort’ and rewarding ‘hard work’ which feeds into the very way that we feel good about ourselves and inspires personal development. Find a way to do the same offline and away from the console, in ordinary life and you have the potential to make life fun, the world a better place and gain the sense of personal achievement and satisfaction that so many of us are turning to games for in the first place, as a means of fulfilling a need that our ordinary offline lives do not.

Games are also being used to do something of concrete scientific benefit. A recent trend has been to use games as a way of crowdsourcing scientific research. The Guardian reported earlier this year on how online gamers are solving science’s biggest problems by doing what they do best – playing – but by doing so, they are helping to identify patterns in scientific data and providing useful research data. Games like Foldit and Phylo rely on the player to find patterns in seemingly random sequences. The raw data has been framed in such a way that it feels like playing a traditional match-3 game, or Tetris. Meanwhile, the strategy game Ora will help feed into real-life strategies for taking care of the rainforest.

It’s crowdsourcing, it’s casual gaming and it’s very clever.

In addition, a big storm has recently been made about Cancer Research UK’s game ‘Play to Cure: Genes in Space’, the ‘world’s first free mobile game that uses the collective force of players to analyse real genetic data and help beat cancer sooner’. It’s crowdsourcing, it’s casual gaming and it’s very clever. The game is a spaceship fly-and-collect scenario driven by gene data – traversing the landscape provides an analysis of variations in gene data which will feed into gene research and a cure for cancer. The thought of helping to rid the world of such a disease through a few minutes a day of casual gameplay is one that boggles the mind. It’s a very literal example of games being used to change the world.

Play to Cure: Genes in Space
Play to Cure: Genes in Space

The above examples of gamification at work are a combination of a scientific, measured approach balanced with creativity and innovation in order to address a specific need. These games were not created ‘just because’; they were created to fulfil a certain purpose and were designed with careful involvement and consultation. They are specifically created to take advantage of good games design and are intended to hook people into playing, to becoming engaged with something that they may ordinarily not be a part of.

Behind all of this has been some serious thought and even now there is still research into the ‘science’ of games, and how games can be used in these kind of contexts. The science-related games above have been designed to be addictive – with rewards, positive feedback and the possibility of flexible play sessions to suit both quick fixes and longer hauls. The ‘serious games’ have been designed to be engaging – by considering previous familiar contexts such as the simulator or the gameshow and using those to their advantage. A quick glance at the British Journal of Educational Technology shows studies around topics such as ‘constructing the effective design of soft skills and leadership skills in multiplayer game environments’, ‘what fantasy role-playing games can teach your children (or you)’ or ‘how gaming develops critical thinking’. All of these are big topics, but they’re all ways of saying what we gamers probably already knew – that games are more than just something you play.


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