You may not realize it, but your life is being controlled by games—games that you’re unaware of, mostly. Ones in which you don’t define the rules and that know you intimately; what drives you and how to influence your behavior. This is gamification.
It sounds ominous, but the use of game mechanics in daily life has been around for some time—we can all think of a loyalty program that gives us points for money spent and then rewards us with something we aren’t quite sure was worth the effort.
In recent years however, the industry has gone under a revolution. It's moved beyond the process of chasing tokens, known as ‘pointification’, and is involved in our lives in much less obvious ways to influence our behavior. It has become a powerful tool in both education and business.
“The first goal of gamification is to allow you to create a better level of engagement according to the objectives you define as the project designer,” explains Jose Esteves, professor of information systems at Spain’s IE Business School.
With Gallup’s latest State Of The Global Workplace report showing that 85% of employees worldwide are either not engaged or actively disengaged at work—meaning they are functioning below their potential—it’s clear that tools to drive up engagement should be in high demand.
This is why research firm Markets and Markets estimates the gamification market to grow from $1.6 billion at the end of 2015 to $11.1 billion by 2020, a clear sign of how much value is being put on the concept.
Already used to engage potential customers and employees in the workplace, gamification is helping engage students at business schools too. Omar Khaled, CEO of a gamification consultancy Droovy and an MBA graduate from the UK’s University of Liverpool Management School, recalls his experience:
“One of the modules during my MBA had a simulation course, where we were divided into groups,” he explains. “Each group got a different laptop and we took on the role of different companies and competed against each other in a virtual market.
“The benefit here is that it’s a risk-free environment. We could try out different theories and learn from our mistakes. We competed with each other and could learn from the experience. We got a little bit competitive, but in a good way. Wanting to do well made you want to learn more—that was one of the things that gave me the initial idea for my company.
On the surface then, gamification sounds great. Who doesn’t want to have more fun in their life and develop themselves professionally at the same time?
But when you start digging into how gamification works, there are some interesting questions to be raised about its application.
You only need to look at addiction problems in the gaming industry to see potential concerns. The World Health Organization (WHO) has now included ‘gaming disorder’ in a draft of its upcoming 11th International Classification of Diseases.
“You feel the need to continuously check your mobile phone because you think something is going to happen—mobile apps play a lot with this uncertainty we feel as a human being, this is a type of gamification” says Jose.
Dystopian images of workers grinding away until the early hours attempting to collect as many ‘work points’ as possible is precisely why some, such as Dr. Peter Lenney, director of the Lancaster University Management School MBA and leader of its Mindful Manager module, have expressed concern, describing points-based rewards systems as “back to the dark age on hyper-drive.”
These concerns aren’t without merit either as Omar explains: “One of the main features of gamification is to be addictive, it is part of it, but you can put a threshold on actions. It is a psychological tool that rewards you for actions and the reward then motivates you to do it again,” he says.
So, are we doomed to be trapped in addictive cycles of ever increasing productivity?
Jose wants to set our mind as ease. “There’s a negative assumption linked to video games; there’s a stigma around it,” he says. “In general, if a game is well-designed, it increases creativity and has potential to be beneficial to people.
“Yes I worry about pointification, of course, this is bad. These are systems that come about when companies want to adopt gamification, but do a bad job and fail to implement a proper system. The most successful games however are social based. It is social mechanics that encourage users to work with others and build communities. This goes beyond the game; this is the value of gamification.
“A well designed system brings people together, helps with the problem of motivation and has behavior driven results.”
Whether you like it or not, gamification is set to take a larger stake in your life. The good news is it wants you to be social, it wants you to have fun and, with it, you’ll probably achieve much more than you ever thought possible.