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An Introduction to Gamification

Updated on April 25, 2011

Gamification involves the application of gaming mechanics to everyday activities such as chores, safe driving, and volunteering.

Gamification has become a major buzzword in the past several months due to the recent explosion in apps, devices, and other technologies that enable people to more easily track and log real-world activity.


Historical Background

The term saw its first spike in Internet search traffic and media attention in October 2010- perhaps with a San Jose Mercury News article.

The practice of applying gaming mechanics to everyday activities is by no means new. As game designer Jane McGonigal points out in her book Reality is Broken (as well as her February 2010 TED talk which you can watch below), the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the Lidians turning to dice games to contend with an 18-year hundreds of years before the Common Era.

Since then, games have made their way into many serious activities, and one could easily argue that many people have turned serious activities into games.

We have seen huge advances in game design and dynamics.  These aspects can now be applied to the real world.
We have seen huge advances in game design and dynamics. These aspects can now be applied to the real world. | Source

A Modern Tipping Point

What makes gamification different now involves two important factors: the rise of the videogame industry over the past 20 years, and the development of complex tracking systems, smartphones, and other inexpensive, mobile technology that enables people to track and log all sorts of data on the go.

Video games have taught us to become wonderfully adept problem solvers; to develop heightened reflexes, work through puzzles and problems more efficiently, and even organize, collaborate, and take actions as groups more effectively.  The rise of the video game industry has also led to wonderfully advanced game design, which makes both working within virtual spaces- and tracking our work- both engaging and rewarding (not to mention addictive).

Modern technology in turn has made it possible to log an immense amount of data tracking our everyday activity.  Tech to track everything from the food we by to the calories we consume and burn to the flights we take and hotels in which we stay, not to mention the places we visit, the people we see, and even the objects we pick up and move around already exists and is readily available (and in many cases, frequently used) by everyday residents in developed countries.

Things get interesting when we take video game design and mechanics (and the skills we have developed as virtuoso players) and introduce them to the personal data about ourselves we have begun to track.  This basic combination is the essence of gamification.

One could easily point out that these elements have been combined already- that gamificaiton is by no means a new concept.  This in part is true.  After all, the act of shopping has been gamified for years.  Think of all of the rewards programs in which you are enrolled.  If you have United miles, or accrue Starwood points, or get fun prizes with your Citi ThankYou Points, you have already had a close encounter with funware.  

But these programs have been basic- at best.  As SCVNGR founder Seth Priebatsch points out (in the video below, which I recommend you watch), gamification can be so much more than just retailer reward programs.  Gamification can involve building an entire additional layer on top of the world in which you navigate.  And thanks to the many apps, networks, sites, games, and devices that are finally starting to roll out and refine themselves, this is finally becoming a real possibility.


From Social to Social Games to Serious Games to Gamification

In the video above, Seth Priebatsch points out that in the years leading up to today, most of the attention was directed toward building a social layer over the world.  This resulted in social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and this social layer is still rolling out in the form of new social networks and interesting social overlays on nearly everything- even search, with Google's +1.

From these social platforms have sprouted social games. Social games, which are typically turn-based, casual, multiplayer, and developed on social platforms, have seen particularly strong growth in the past several years. The space has been developed by a handful of companies including Zynga Gaming Network, Social Gaming Network, Kongregate, Gaia Online, Playfish, and Serious Business.

In addition to the advent of social games, we have seen a resurgence in serious games. Serious games (those designed to serve non-recreational purposes in a recreational manner) have been gaining significant momentum in the past decade. Games preparing players for anything from an all-out oil crisis to terrorist attacks and the demise of mankind have received not only significant funding but sizable attention as well. Leading researchers in the gaming industry are convinced that serious games will not only aid us in the future and that coming-of-age generations are perfectly trained to apply gaming mechanics to real-world challenges.

Some of the most interesting serious games enable players to make small but significant positive contributions to society on a regular basis by connecting them with causes that stand to benefit from their particular areas of expertise. One such game is Sparked, which encourages microvolunteerism by presenting users with small volunteering projects that match well with skills and interests added to their personal profiles.

It is with games like Sparked that we start to see gamification really peek out.  It is more than a social game because it involves real world consequences.  It is more than a serious game because it has fun, realtime aspects.  

While Sparked has gamified the act of volunteering, there are many other new games out there that gamify all other sorts of activities- ranging from chores to coolhunting.  As the gamificaiton trend evolves, more and even better games (not to mention devices and interfaces) will roll out.

People to Watch

Gamificaiton is still a new and rapidly changing concept. New developments are taking place every week.

If you want to keep on top of the important changes, therefore, you should keep an eye on some of the key people in the field:

  • Gabe Zichermann - Entrepreneur, author, and speaker (check out the video below)
  • Gary Wolf - Innovator in the concept of the quantified self (check out the video to the right)
  • Jane McGonigal - Game designer (interested in using games to essentially save the world)
  • Seth Priebatsch - SCVNGR founder (intent on gamifying life)


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