The Game is Afoot

The Game is Afoot

What could be the common thread that binds global MNCs like KFC, Starbucks, Nike, Duolingo and M&Ms, in 2021? Gamification, of course.

While the above may seem to be slightly counterintuitive, it is, in fact true. Digital games across multiple platforms have become more norm than novelty, generating billions of dollars in sales each year. A recent report from German market research firm Statista showed that there are currently over 2.3 billion mobile gamers around the world – a number only set to increase in the near future. In this regard, figuring out the human psychologies that drive people to indulge so heavily in gaming, and applying similar design principles and elements to non-game contexts – a practice called ‘gamification’ – may just prove to be extremely beneficial to firms and policymakers worldwide.

In a recent edition of the book titled, “For the Win: The Power of Gamification and Game Thinking in Business, Education, Government, and Social Impact,” authors Kevin Werbach, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School, and Dan Hunter of Queensland University of Technology (QUT) argue that “applying the lessons of gamification could change one’s business, and the way people learn or teach.” (Penn Today, University of Pennsylvania)

According to Hunter, “Design principles from games can be used as a valuable tool to address serious pursuits like marketing, productivity enhancement, education, innovation, customer engagement, human resources, and sustainability.”

Figure 1: Using game aspects instead of designing whole games
Source: Marc Hulsebosch, University of Twente

Design Principles: Elementary, of course

First up, it would be rather prudent to recognise the careful and complex research in psychology that goes behind constructing games that enthral users worldwide. Built on decades of research into psychology and human motivation, a well-designed game, it is said, is one the strikes directly into the motivational heart of the human psyche.

Research dating back to 1998 found that as players of a game progressed through it to face challenges of greater difficulty, their dopamine levels increased concurrently as well. In recent research on mobile games, dopamine levels were found to reach even higher due to easier and more sustained accessibility of the games themselves. Thus, the success of a game is intrinsically connected through in-game elements to the striking of the human psyche: which is why a greater number of developers today are introducing gaming elements for their UX, looking to boost user engagement and make sure the user keeps returning continuously. In this regard, optimising game elements, therefore, becomes key. This involves:

    • Selecting appropriate game mechanics: Some of the most commonly used aspects of gamification that can be applied to non-game contexts: such as the use of (i) internal currency (as in Duolingo, a language-learning app), (ii) levels of varying complexity (as in Todoist, a productivity app that unlocks rewards for users depending on daily task completion points), (iii) badges, i.e. a visual representation of users’ achievements in the app (as in Fitbit, for example); (iv) personalised journeys where new features are unlocked along the way (such as in Singify, an app for karaoke singing); (v) progress bars and dashboards to track users’ progress (as used in online learning portal, Khan Academy) and (vi) challenges, where in-app events are catered to achieving specific goals (as in social networking platform Snapchat, for example); among several others.
    • Maintaining application balance: Using game elements whilst ensuring an app doesn’t entirely transform itself into a gaming format is key. Blogging website UXCam opines: “Game elements can also distract users from the actual value of your product. To avoid this, focus on how gamification examples can support your users in their journey through your app, rather than offering them a distraction for the sake of entertainment. This can be done with the help of the cognitive flow principle that game developers use.”Researching the target audience: A study from University of Twente researcher Marc Hulsebosch, for example, categorised players of a game as ‘Achievers’, ‘Explorers’, ‘Socialisers’ and ‘Killers’
      ( ).

      Figure 2: The Gamification Loop
      Source: Marc Hulsebosch, University of Twente


      ‘Nudging’ for the Win?

    Recent research from Werbach and Hunter have found that an increasing number of businesses today have started thinking – and addressing – problems using game thinking. This has proved especially useful in areas such as teaching, marketing, customer engagement, crowdsourcing and employee motivation. Application of game mechanics today is rather widely dispersed and found not only in business settings, but also in government, philanthropy, health and several other aspects of daily life.

    According to the researchers, when applied thoughtfully, gamification produces outcomes for users that would not have been possible otherwise. “For example, in the book they discuss how a South Korean company called Neofect is using gamification to help people recover from strokes; or, how a tool called SuperBetter has demonstrated significant results treating depression, concussion symptoms, and the mental health harms of the COVID-19 pandemic through game thinking.” (Penn Today)

    However, the aspect that has found the most widespread adoption in course of gamification is the adoption of ‘nudges’ to alter consumer behaviour. Following a theory proposed by Nobel-prize winning American economist Richard Thaler, nudging primarily involves the creation of ‘choice architectures’ to drive people towards making positive decisions, such as eating better, saving for retirement or ‘even being recruited for military service’.

    In this regard, one must also be wary of the unprincipled or unethical use of gamification as well. The researchers regard this as a misuse of the ‘guided missile’ of gamification and cite the example of how ride-hailing giant Uber, who once used gamification to “influence their drivers to work longer hours than they otherwise wanted to, causing a swift backlash.”

    “Gamification is mostly seen as just good design practice. So, for example, having virtual fireworks explode on the screen of a health app when the user hits a meaningful goal is a powerful motivator by itself. The app designers don’t necessarily need to create an elaborate game-like experience. The good news is that it’s easier than ever to get started with gamification. The bad news is that if you don’t appreciate why the fireworks are effective and the deeper design patterns they exemplify, you won’t be nearly as successful.”

     Reference: Werbach, K. and Hunter, D., 2020. “For the Win: The Power of Gamification and Game Thinking in Business, Education, Government, and Social Impact”, Revised and Updated Edition. Chicago: Wharton School Press.




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