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The Gameful New World

The Gameful New World

Businesses, schools, and governments are becoming game designers. Through rewards programs and challenges, organizations are applying the principles of ‘gamification’ to win your loyalty and engagement.

by Ali Pitargue
Illustrations by Sheku Nafisi


Is life just like a game?

If you’re a task-driven individual, it’s possible that you see it this way. You choose your weapons, level up, accept challenges, and unlock achievements along the way. For any goal—whether it be succeeding in school, meeting sales targets, or losing weight—applying elements of game design could help you build a road map. Adopting a ‘game brain’ would not only make these goals seem more achievable, but also more engaging.

On the other hand, you may also caution against treating reality like an arena. When something needs to be taken seriously, someone may chide, “This isn’t a game!” Games are closely associated with playfulness, giving the impression of disrespect and dismissiveness. Viewing life as a game could ultimately be a simplistic outlook. After all, there’s more to ‘winning at life’ than acquiring points and accessing levels. Unlike the imaginary stakes of virtual gaming worlds, solving problems in real-life helps avoid real-life consequences.

Many game designers, such as author Jane McGonigal, are in favour of applying game mechanics to reality. “What we’re really afraid of isn’t games,” she writes. “We’re afraid of losing track of where the game ends and where reality begins.”  Just because you apply game mechanics to a task, doesn’t mean that the task is not important. It’s just a means of getting from point A to B. And for many of us, it works as a vehicle for motivation. 

This sentiment leads us to a process called gamification—”the application of lessons from the gaming domain to change behaviours in non-game situations.”  Gamifying tasks can turn mundane errands into thrilling challenges. You could even gamify something as simple as cleaning your room, for example. Remember how Mary Poppins gamified the task of cleaning by making it a contest among the children? It worked like a charm. In the opening lyrics of “A Spoonful of Sugar”, she warbles: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Define the fun, and snap! The job is a game.”

Modern developments in technology, such as learning apps and fitbits, help us visualize and organize our gaming mentalities. If you’re up for a new challenge, there’s plenty of apps that can help gamify your venture. However, before we activate our game brains, we should ask the question: whose rules are we playing by?


Gaming for Enterprise

Businesses, schools, governments, and other organizations have been wading in the gamification trend for years. Through rewards programs, challenges, contests, and leaderboards, they seek to activate their clientele’s game brain. These mechanisms involve comparing and sharing your progress with other members of the public, whether it be other customers, classmates, or workout buddies.

Ian McCarthy, an SFU professor of Technology and Operations Management, notes how firms are able to use gamification to derive value from their customers. Though cultivating competitive and collaborative environments, they are able to draw out engagement and output. “If you get the mechanics and dynamics of the game set up right,” he advises. “Then the emotions come—people enjoy it, which will mean they will be more engaged.”

In a typical classroom, for example, few things excite a class of attention-deprived students educationally than a game of Kahoot or Jeopardy. Give them a chance to compete with each other, and suddenly students are willing to seek out knowledge and answers pertaining to the curriculum being taught to them. As opposed to a lecture, games allow for two-way participation and interactivity.

Another hot avenue for gamification is health. Those who find working out tedious could allow themselves to get motivated by apps like Nike Fuel, or even wearable tech like fitbits. These not only help people visualize their performance, but also prompt them to up the ante. In addition, apps can also be a shared (and often competitive) experience. When working out with friends, for example, users are able to share their progress and challenge each other through gamified fitness apps.

Even a natural biological function like sleep can be gamified. The upcoming cloud service, Pokémon Sleep, is set for release in 2020 . Or say, if you have a drinking problem, a Brazilian platform called Think, Drink, & Play allows you to self-evaluate your alcohol intake and quiz you all about responsible drinking. Too much carbs in your diet? Try MyFitnessPal. We could go on.

From a business standpoint, gamification could allow firms to put their consumers in-line, as well as influence their behavioural patterns. For-profit gamified systems like loyalty points encourages customers to replay, making their revenue streams recurrent.

A main criticism of enterprise gamification is how it’s frequently equated to control mechanisms. “The word ‘control’ sounds sort of dark in a way that you’re making people do things they shouldn’t do,” remarks McCarthy. “The term ‘nudging’ is often used to get different behaviours.”

If gamified experiences ‘nudge’ instead of ‘control’, users are able to retain their autonomy, because after all, intrinsic in the idea of playing a game is how it’s a voluntary exercise. You are free to disengage, and with tools like social media at your fingertips, you’re also able to provide your own input. McCarthy says consumers are increasingly being listened to. “[Consumers] influence it in terms of what they post on social media—saying what they liked, what sucks, what needs to happen next, and what’s unfair.”   

So, can these enterprise-designed gaming spaces really improve, make, or break lives? We could go on about firms exploiting user data, addictive personalities, and people’s worst instincts. On the other hand, gamification can help with things like structuring your responsibilities. Like many phenomena, it has multiple sides, but otherwise, they have their limits. Mostly, it really depends on the user. Rather, if they’re playing for the right reasons.

The Object of the Game

Behavioural value from games comes from inducing positive emotions. In her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World, Jane McGonigal writes that “all of the neurological and physiological systems that underlie happiness—our attention systems, our reward centre, our motivation systems, our emotion and memory centres—are fully activated by gameplay.” McGonigal argues that gaming mechanisms prompt users to input ‘better hard work’, where users are granted the autonomy to choose the right work at the right time in a way that positively affects their instincts.

McGonigal advocates for the positive effects of gameplay, but she shies away from the term ‘gamification’. She does not feel that the object of a game should necessarily be achieving metrics and stats.

Most gamification mechanisms are structured around a reward system. Users complete a

challenge, and they score points, move up leaderboards, and maybe earn bragging rights from other users. However, it’s not as simple as dangling a carrot on a stick for someone to chase.

The positive emotions derived from gamification are linked to the user’s intrinsic motivation—a user’s enjoyment of playing the game itself, as opposed to the acquisition of status, points, and rewards (extrinsic motivation). Users immersing in the play is what sustains a game’s longevity.

McCarthy warns that users get fatigued easily. “Most of us have Monopoly, checkers, or chess at home but we don’t play it all the time.

Sometimes we tire of them and you have to refresh and change the games,” he notes. Not only will businesses struggle to come through with rewards, but users simply get tired of games.

Think back to the Pokémon GO frenzy in the summer of 2016. The craze wore off quick with the player rate dropping by 79% after one month.  It’s still the most profitable mobile game as of today, but for other gamification programs, the lifespan is likely even less. 80% of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives. 

If you plan to gamify your goals as a self-help mechanism, you have to find ways to prevent your enjoyment from diminishing.

Instead of rewards, McCarthy suggests that game designers should place most emphasis on the users’ intrinsic motivation. The challenge for game designers, in the end, is harnessing the lifespan of a user’s interest in the gameplay. “It’s really important that you at least have intrinsic motivation, otherwise it doesn’t exactly conform to the principles of gamification.”

According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, relying on rewards to lure users actually achieves the opposite effect of what the game designer intends. “They can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work. And by diminishing intrinsic motivation, they can send performance, creativity, and even upstanding behaviour toppling like dominoes.”

This is where the toxic side of gaming dynamics come in. Pink also notes how rewards systems can foster short-term thinking, concentrating a user’s goals to what’s in front of them than what’s far off in the distance.   McCarthy warns game designers to be careful of providing extrinsic rewards, for it could trigger unintended outcomes. “Once you get into extrinsic reasons—people given compensation, other forms of rewards, then the ‘gaming of the game’ actually happens.”

‘Gaming the game’ is not only disadvantageous to game designers, but also to users. The value that all parties desire diminishes altogether.

A Gamified New Reality?

Are we, as a society, setting ourselves up for a Black Mirror-like gaming simulation? As of now, there’s little need to fear-monger. The fundamentals of gamification have been in place for a long time. The term ‘gamification’ was first coined by Nick Pelling in 2002,  but organizations have long been using games to sway behaviour through applications like sweepstakes and challenges. Now, the term ‘gamification’ has become a sort of buzzword, but it doesn’t stop organizations from integrating game mechanics in their work.

“We’re not necessarily going to call it ‘gamification’ because that might actually have a negative connotation in terms of what we’re trying to do,” says McCarthy. “But the principles still make sense. I would say that organizations are still embracing it. They’re embracing it for how they recruit students and faculties.”     

Life isn’t all fun and games’ was sage advice once. What we have to keep in mind is that the rules of life are constantly changing. Wouldn’t it make sense to smarten up by summoning our game brains? Whether you’re clamouring to make the best of your time on earth or defeat ‘the system’, you’re setting yourself up for a series of challenges and levels to overcome. For this, you need strategy, tools, allies, and a drive for game.

And like any game, you either play by the rules, break them, or make your own.


Top Gamification Apps


Habitca: Habitca converts your tasks and responsibilities into RPG quests. You input your goals and tasks in the app, which correspond with rewards and punishments. Earn points and level up, then you can upgrade your avatar where you eventually become either a warrior, mage, rogue or healer. The rewards could be something you assign yourself (such as watching an episode of your favourite show), or earning accessories like battle armour, pets, and magic skills. There are also boss fights! You (as well as your friends) can use your skills you’ve accumulated to fight monsters.


Zombies, Run!: A zombie epidemic has swept the world. You have to run for your life. Zombies, Run! engages runners in make-believe as they are placed in the middle of an apocalypse. As you run, you listen to audio that simulates apocalyptic settings. The voiceover gives missions to gather supplies as you race to safety outposts. Users can also unlock secret missions and story modes. If the voiceover alerts that you are being chased by zombies, you have to run faster. The game is an ongoing story mode with over 200 missions.


SuperBetter: Developed by Jane McGonigal, SuperBetter is a task-manager app designed to help those who suffer from depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and other health-related issues. The app contains quests (tasks to be completed), power-ups (actions that build on mental/emotional health, such as hugging yourself and drinking water), and fighting ‘bad guys’ (refraining from habits that harm your health). These features can be tailored to one’s health needs. The app was essentially made to engage recovering individuals in a game instead of researching healthy practices.


Duolingo: The ever popular Duolingo app makes learning languages more fun and accessible. As opposed to textbooks, Duolingo allows you to partake in quick, easy-to-grasp language lessons, then challenges them to quizzes where they can practice basic writing and conversational skills. Users track their progress, accumulate rewards, and join the community. It is available in over 30 languages, attracting over 300 million learners. Learning languages can take years, but Duolingo’s game-like design encourages you to keep up the pace.


JouleBug: JouleBug is a gamification app designed to make your everyday habits more sustainable and environmentally-friendly. You are educated in many ways to go green, then you can level-up the more you partake in environmentally-conscious habits, whether it be washing your clothes with cold water or shopping local. Not only can you earn badges, but you can also compete with your friends in how many gallons of water you saved or how much electricity bill has reduced. There are also eco-challenges where you can aim to rank high on worldwide leaderboards.