The many points of ‘gamification’

“Gamification” is the phenomenon of turning something into a game. As the general population becomes ever-more comfortable with personal computer technology, games will pop up in unexpected places.

“Gamification” is the phenomenon of turning something into a game. It can be as simple as buzzing like an airplane when you spoon-feed your toddler, or Global Thermonuclear War (thanks, Matthew Broderick!).

As the general population becomes ever-more comfortable with personal computer technology, literally everything can become a game — how you work, how you shop, how you commute, how you eat, how you take care of yourself. If the last 10 years saw the evolution of immersive social networking, game designers predict the next 10 years will see the development of a game-layer blanketing all aspects of life.

Gamification is popping up everywhere you look — even at the national policy level where the Department of Education engaged educators and communities in the “Race to the Top,” a grants program based on schools earning points.

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Health care wants in

A Philadelphia conference last year called “E-Patient Connections” explored issues of communicating about health in the online realm. Everyone at the conference was talking about the implications of gamification for health care.

Motivation is always a big problem in managing one’s health. It’s one thing to know that exercise and a healthy diet are important, but a whole other thing to actually get started.

The question is can you use the same “hooks” that make video games so compelling to get people interested in managing a chronic disease, losing weight, or exercising more?

Health-care experts interested in a game layer are looking at the elements of gaming, and are trying to “bake” them into something new — ways to engage people in taking care of themselves. Some of the elements are fun, competition, rewards, levels, badges of achievement, and incentives.

For example, think of Nike +, a site where runners can track and share their workouts. consumers report that this has greatly increased their motivation.

One of the conference speakers, Fabio Gratton of Ignite Health, mentioned an experience that changed his thinking. A woman offered him a free soda if he took a spin on an exercise bike. He got on the bike, in order to get the free soda.

“You will have to ride this bike for about an hour in order to work off the calories in this soda,” she told him. Gratton said this simple game made him rethink his soda consumption, and was much more compelling than any calorie information he had read on bottles.

Game designers and health experts are trying to figure out how they can harness some of the energy that people spend playing video games, or updating their Facebook profiles, and pour it into something that’s good for their health.

Many already playing

Once you recognize the hallmarks of gaming, you start to see game dynamics everywhere. Just look in your wallet; you probably have a credit card of a certain color (level-up to gold, then to platinum, etc.), and a coffee card (earn points for each cup of joe you buy, get prizes). With your GPS smartphone you can compete with friends and strangers on Foursquare, a completely insular game invented by Foursquare to earn status validated only by Foursquare.

With sensor technology that can increasingly tell where we are, where we’ve been, what we’ve bought, what we eat, and even what we are hearing at any given moment, gaming technology could become more and more intimate.

Game designer Jesse Schell paints a nightmare scenario where every move we make can potentially earn points. At the TEDx-esque Design Innovate Communicate Entertain, or DICE, summit in 2010, Schell described a future where toothbrushes sense when and how long you brush, e-readers with eye-scanners see if you really read the book you’re about to comment about on Amazon, and soda fountains give extra points for soft-drink loyalty.

A game-layer implies a reality filled with petty competition, but designers say that doesn’t have to be the case. The games can be better. Dashboard displays gauging gasoline usage can game us into driving better. Calorie-counting games can game us into eating healthier.

Changing view of games

Design goes both ways. Just as games change how we see the world, good design changes how we see games.

A few years ago game designer Jenova Chen designed “Flower” for the PlayStation 3. The objective of the game is not to earn points, to gain status, or beat you friends online. The beautifully designed game is meant to be explored.

The user constructs the digital environment by interacting with light, color, and objects. You learn to manipulate flower petals with wind. The sensory experience combined with the logic of shifting vectors can be as hypnotic and fascinating as a walk through the woods.

You can play an online version Chen’s MFA thesis, flOw. 

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