Can gamification solve our problems? Week 3.

You’ve seen your Facebook feed. It ain’t all fun and games out there.

Could Gamification be applied to topple the oligarch?  Defeat the mortal enemy?

Can gamification solve our problems? Well, let’s see. What is gamification, anyway?  According to Merriam Webster (sorry Wikipedia — I’ve moved up) gamification is “the process of adding games or game-like elements to something (as a task) so as to encourage participation.”

What are game-like elements?

Game-like elements include PBLs (points, badges, and leaderboards), a collection of things (coins, fake cash/gold, etc), and customization (making something uniquely yours) among other things.

Certainly the newly emerged pink pussyhat from the Pussy Hat Project is an example of one element of gamification: badges. By displaying/wearing the hat, you are announcing your achievement of higher consciousness by supporting nasty women, no?

can gamification solve our problems
Pussyhats, unite


First, let’s take a look at some of the key takeaways so far on “gamifying” systems.

Key takeaways from gamification and game design

Lessons from my Gamification course on Coursera (see a full listing of courses here)

Professor Kevin Werbach makes a good point: games involve meaningful choices.  What does that mean?  In order to be a game, the activity must be voluntary, not forced.  The pink hats were not forced upon our heads, nor were the knitting needles (or crocheting? Have I mentioned I received a D in HomeEc?).  Thousands of people willingly sewed and sported these cats in the hat, and that made it fun.

The hat, however, isn’t traditionally what we would think of as a game.  A real game is described as having a “magic circle” which contains the game’s reality (with our “real” life). (One could argue that wearing the hat as a group effort did create a sort of magic.)

Games should also have progression: we humans get bored easily so the first level should be distinct from the 100th (unless you are playing solitaire, I suppose).  The design should include smooth onboarding (the game walks you through each step) and the ability to customize your experience (choose characters or themes, for example).

While PBLs can be incorporated to gamifying systems, they must not be over relied upon to create fun and motivation in themselves.  Points with no meaning become tired and … pointless.


As evidenced by how we feel when people “like” or share our posts, we humans love feedback, and the game should also reflect this desire by using “feedback loops.”


can gamification solve our problems
Some initial feedback


Of course, you as an individual have to actually notice / acknowledge the feedback.

Feedback loops are usually incorporated by showing your progress bar, points, speed, or whatever it is the particular game is measuring. Learning then occurs by reinforcement of stimuli (operant conditionin), and we associate results with what we are actually doing (for example, on Farmville we water the crops and see the food grow).

All very simple, it seems, until you sit down to do the work of game design. Luckily, I found a great book (based on the Prof’s recommendation) and promptly reserved it at my local library.

The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses

can gamification solve our problems
Everything you need to know about designing games…and more

I’m just short of 100 pages into this massive tome, but I’m already having aha moments from ideas that Jesse Schell, the author and designer of massively multi-player online games such as Toontown and Pirates of the Caribbean Online, has shared.  His love of games — all games (he was a professional juggler) — is apparent as he takes us through game design by way perspectives he calls “lenses.”

As I confessed last week, I’m an input who needs a little polite shove to output what I’ve taken in.  So I was particularly enamored with one particular paragraph that Jesse shared on converting ideas to prototypes:

“After a painfully rapturous brainstorming session, you have a huge list of ideas in front of you. This is where many designers trip up. They have so many ideas they like, they aren’t sure which to pick. Or, they have a lot of mediocre ideas…so again they aren’t sure which to pick.”

YESSSS x 1000!  So, so many mediocre ideas.  I’m a regular mediocrity generator. (Can I make that into a game?)  He continues:

“But something magic happens when you pick an idea and decide you are going to make it happen. One you make the internal decision, ‘Yes, I’m going to do this,’  flaws you missed before suddenly become evident, as do benefits. There is something inside us that makes us think about things differently before we’ve decided to do them than after we’ve committed.”

Schell advises us to take advantage of this “quirk of human nature” that allows us to see, more fully, the consequences of our choice.

Such a nugget for us idea-generating Inputs!


Can gamification solve our problems?

Not all of them. But certainly, adding thoughtful game-like elements and quests to your work processes and life can be rewarding and fun.  And apps often excel at this integration. Here are just a few examples of “apps for good”:

  • The example I mentioned in Week 1, Pain Squad, helps make something cumbersome for kids with cancer — identifying pain — into a game/quest that has shown to improve outcomes for these kids.
  • In my previous position at a non-profit start-up at Duke, we saw several cases of healthcare entrepreneurs from around the world using technology like apps (or simply SMS messaging) to increase positive patient outcomes.
  • Charity Miles lets you earn money for charities while running.
  • An app called Instead offers up challenges such as “forgo that latte and donate the resulting funds to HIV meds instead,” among other choices.
  • The My Life as a Refugee app helps users empathize (and hopefully move toward action) by making choices within the game as refugees.  I am not sure how they move players to action (in-app purchases/donations?) but there is plenty of opportunity to do so.

Find more examples here on Mashable.

In the coming weeks of study, I’m going to focus on this  central question since the game apps I plan to build are meant to be both fun and (one can dream) transformative.

Have you seen any examples of gamified systems/apps (good of poorly executed) that you liked?  Or hated?  Comment below!


PS: I just released a research survey (with skip-logic and everything) and shared with a handful of people to help shape the app. If I did not reach out to you, and you’re interested in participating, let me know. It should take about 4-5 minutes.