The gamification of life

You probably haven’t noticed, but you’ve been played. You were played at school, when teachers gave out gold stars for good work.

The stars would be put against your name on the wall, which we’d now call a leaderboard. This encouraged competition: ten stars might have earned you a sticker or a treat, much like boosts or pickups in a computer game.

In classes based on ability rather than age, you might even have earned enough points to “level up” to a higher class.

Quests, assignments, rewards, achievement points, levelling up: these are the mechanisms that underpin video gaming. They’re also the ones used in gamification – the use of gaming mechanisms to make real-world tasks more compelling.

Gamification is one of this year’s big technology buzzwords, and some people think it’s going to go global

Gamification is one of this year’s big technology buzzwords, and some people think it’s going to go global.

Teachers could easily swap their nursery-style system for a computer-age version. Lee Sheldon, a game designer who teaches at the University of Indiana, has already done this. He awards undergraduates on his game-design course “experience points” instead of grades, and they have to “level up” from their starting grade, which is an F.

Points are earned by completing quests or projects, which can include essays and tests. As in World of Warcraft, they can also form groups to tackle “guild projects”. Sheldon told the Australian paper IT News: “The elements of the class are couched in terms they understand, terms associated with fun rather than education.”

Jesse Schell teaches game design at Carnegie Mellon University and is chief executive of Schell Games in Pittsburgh. He used Sheldon as an example in “Design Outside the Box”, his presentation at the DICE 2010 conference in Las Vegas last year.

He said: “Class attendance is up, class participation is up, homework is turned in more often and better because it’s a better structure. It’s a better system.”

As Sheldon has pointed out, gamification can also be applied in the workplace. “As the gamer generation moves into the mainstream workforce, they’re eager to apply the culture and learning techniques they bring with them from games,” he said. “It will be up to management, often of pre-gamer generations, to figure out how to educate themselves to the gamer culture, and how to speak to it effectively.”

Points for brushing teeth

If education and employment can be gamified, so can shopping, watching TV and any other form of consumption. Examples include Air Miles, loyalty cards used by supermarkets and prizes for filling in surveys.

The gamification process is so ingrained that people gamify their own lives

The gamification process is so ingrained that people gamify their own lives, even if it’s just by rewarding themselves with drinks or chocolate bars for completing self-imposed challenges such as five-mile runs.

In the final part of his talk at DICE 2010, Schell imagined a world in which everything was gamified. After looking at Facebook and Foursquare, the “poster child” for gamification, he described a typical day in the future where users earn points for everything from brushing their teeth to watching TV ads.

In this brave new world, the government would give bonus points to people who use public transport instead of driving to work, and health insurance companies would award points to people who cycle.

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