Our World, Gamified

Let’s start with a story:

A young couple are driving through the outer suburbs of Melbourne; the driver listens to some podcast or other while his partner flicks through social media on her phone. Looking up from the passenger seat, the woman sees that out the windscreen in the distance, perhaps 200 metres ahead, the brightly coloured sign of a Hungry Jack’s fast food outlet is fast approaching.


Remembering the franchise’s ‘Shake & Win App’ they had downloaded out of curiosity a few weeks earlier, the driver encourages his partner to try it out. The woman clicks on the icon and, when instructed by the app, shakes her phone briefly but enthusiastically. A moment later, an electronic coupon is revealed with a picture of a free item. A countdown timer appears on the top of the screen above it. They have 20 minutes to claim their prize. The race is on.

This is a true story, but there was no race. The couple have never actually redeemed any of the free or discounted items they have ‘won’ using the app. They actually never eat at Hungry Jack’s at all. I know, because I’m one half of that couple. Despite our ultimate indifference to the practical outcome of shaking the app (which has been around since 2012), my partner and I experience a momentary sense of intrigue over what might be ‘unlocked’ when we are within 2km of a Hungry Jack’s outlet. Maybe we’re just tight arses, or maybe gamification works…

Probably tight arses too…

Gamification is a curious phenomenon. The term has been around for long enough – by most accounts, British inventor and programmer Nick Pelling coined it in 2003 – but most people I meet haven’t heard of the concept, much less possess a working definition of it. However, as soon as those same people hear about some of the endless examples of gamification, they quickly ‘get it’ and start to see more and more examples everywhere. So this blog is designed to provide a broad and accessible introduction to what gamification is all about…

In short, gamification can best be defined as the application of game design elements in various non-game contexts. These non-game contexts include marketing, human resources, politics, journalism, social media, health, activism, tourism, cultural heritage, education, and more. Applying certain features of games (or their mechanics), such as points systems, achievement badges, unlockable content, side quests, customisable avatars, interactive narrative, instant feedback, checklists, and a multitude of others, gamification seeks to motivate the engagement of various publics – to buy, to learn, to participate.

The above definition should make clear something very important about gamification: it’s not the same thing as gaming; it’s not about making or playing games. When I’ve asked groups of students over the last several years if there are any ‘gamers’ in the room, I only ever get one or two (if any) people raising their hands. This is, in one sense, understandable, as the term ‘gamer’ generally conjures up images of someone who plays video games on a daily basis, someone who participates in long, late-night MMORPG sessions, or someone who owns far too many board games.

Sorry not sorry.

Few people might put themselves into the category of ‘gamer’, but when it comes down to it the vast majority of people are engaging in some form of play every single day. The statistics of how many people play video games on a frequent basis are pretty astounding, and if you did happen to collect board games and glanced at the continuous growth of the video game industry, you might start to worry about your life choices. Most importantly, and setting games completely to one side, I’ve never met anyone who completely dislikes the broad concept of ‘play’. In short, you don’t have to be a ‘gamer’ to get motivated by gamification!

Far from the example of Hungry Jack’s attempt to sell more fast food, Danielle Teychenne and I explored the potential benefits of gamification for Higher Education for a number of years. We developed various practical forms of this ourselves, but also wanted to take things further by exploring the diverse gamified world that we all live and play in. Convinced of the importance of exploring the subject (and continuing to learn about it), we launched a web series called Our Gamified World. The first episode of our second series summarises some key themes relating to gamification and unpacks the immensely popular language-learning app Duolingo.

Gamified strategies of engaging people have fast become what might almost be termed ‘ubiquitous’, even though research into the area is in many ways only just beginning. The diverse array of accessible (and usually free) motivational apps range from those that push people to complete mundane everyday activities (such as Habitica), to apps like SuperBetter which seek to promote resilience and provide an incremental boost to users dealing with depression. Most Snapchat users are unlikely to be fully aware that their social media use has been gamified by the Snapchat ‘score’ and ‘trophy case’. Likewise, many students who are familiar with Domino’s Pizza Tracker won’t realise that it essentially involves the same kind of game element being used by their educational institution to help them track their progress through their studies.

Clearly, the contexts that might be gamified are far-reaching and the potential benefits are enormous, but I don’t want to sound like I’m painting a utopian picture here. As my opening example of Hungry Jack’s ‘Shake & Win App’ highlighted, the commercial applications of gamification have been around for a long time and are only increasing – both in their number and in their subtlety. I’m by no means making a blanket negative judgement on this trend, but as gamifying consumer behaviour grows, so does the possibility of gamification becoming normalised to the point where it is more banal than engaging; more exploitative than transformative. Although it has been changed since, the description of the ‘Shake & Win’ app on Apple’s app store once claimed that ‘You can’t lose – every shake wins’. When it comes to gamification, it would seem there is much to be won and much to be lost.

3D Pokeballs by Lee McKusick (CC BY 2.0)

In some ways, the potentialities of gamification were perhaps most striking in the rise of Pokémon GO, which itself had the potential to impact on everything from political elections to nonhuman animal welfare. Most people think that Pokémon Go is dead and buried, but in the years after the worldwide hype simmered down, the app was enhanced to incorporate a much higher level of social play. And if you thought the limitations on physical travel amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic would destroy the app’s allure entirely, you might be interested to know that design changes to make it an ‘indoor’ app with complete remote access saw Pokémon Go have its most profitable year, taking in almost $2 billion.

In transforming the future, there are no hard and fast rules. What gamification will become in the short and long term is in the hands of those who design it and those who participate in it. Until then…

Game on.

Further Viewing

Below are some early videos I discovered on my own journey to understanding gamification, which further explore the issues I’ve pointed to here. Let me know if you discover any others explainers you find helpful!

Featured image: P1000794 Pokemaniacs by Sigfrid Lundberg (CC BY-SA 2.0)

All other images property of Adam Brown, unless otherwise specified.

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