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The Past and Future of Gamification

Posted by on January 16, 2017.

For many decades, a running theme in sci-fi and speculative fiction has been the idea of complete, global automation of all production. Explored over and over again in both positive and negative contexts, it seems to have taken root as a collective idea that mankind will someday become dependent on robots to perform all necessary tasks. Whether this results in a golden age of freedom and discovery, a dystopia of indolence and mental atrophy or an Android Revolution and the doom of the human race is down to the individual author.

While a future of automation might capture the imagination, and even seem the most obvious next step in human advancement, there is another field emerging that could rival it: virtualization. The fields of gaming, technology and psychology are converging, finding new ways to engage humans and make us more productive and attentive – not by forcing these things on people, but by making experiences more immersive and compelling, so that we actively seek them out.

The phenomenon of MMO games has shown that, if they find the game engaging, players are willing to devote large amounts of time to it – even though many MMO games involve repetitive tasks without an immediate reward. In 2013, it was found that 28% of World of Warcraft players devoted in excess of 30 hours a week to the game, with a further 30% playing between 20 and 25 hours per week. The average U.S. workweek being 34.4 hours, this shows that many people are willing to devote at least as much time to an essentially profitless leisure activity as they are to earning a living.

Perhaps, by engaging ourselves in the right way and making ‘work’ as compelling as these games, humanity might save itself from robot overlords after all. Or, at least, improve engagement in the workplace, work satisfaction, education and information retention. In pursuit of this potential, the idea of gamification has arisen.

Gamification has been a very widely-researched and discussed topic, to the point of becoming a buzzword in the eyes of many, so to be brief: Gamification is the application of principles of game design to foster engagement in another medium – which can include business, marketing, education and anything else which would not normally be associated with video gaming. With the rise of gaming culture, and especially how much time and energy players are willing to invest in their hobby, it’s no wonder that we have become curious about harnessing that engagement for use in other fields.

We often hear about gamification’s potential, what it ‘might’ accomplish, but any attempts at putting it into practice rarely receive mainstream attention. However, gamification has already seen tangible success in the field of education. A University of Colorado study showed that adult learners participating in online education which had been gamified scored better in both skill-based and factual knowledge, and retained information better than people in non-gamified courses.

While this shows that gamification can prove effective, the fledgling industry has seen significant failures as well. In 2012, Gartner Inc. predicted that, by 2014, 80% of all gamification applications would fail to meet their targets. Already discouraging for many potential adopters, this prediction was verified by many attempts at gamification in business. One of the most catastrophic was the attempt by the CEO of Sears, Eddie Lampert, to add an element of inter-departmental competitiveness to the business. Restructuring the company to give each department its own pseudo-executive team, the departments would compete with each other for their executives’ rewards and bonuses – you could call this an instance of PvP (player versus player) gamification.

The plan began in 2008, making this one of gamification’s earliest adoptions, but by 2013 Sears’ stock was down 40% and the company posted a first-quarter loss, having been in profit the previous year. Staff feedback on the initiative was mostly negative, and Sears has been struggling to regain its footing ever since.

In 2011, Adobe implemented a gamification system with their image editing software, Photoshop. They saw less disastrous results, but Gartner’s prediction still held true as the initiative had no noticeable effect on Photoshop’s sales. With the help of gamification vendor Bunchball, Adobe introduced a tutorial app – LevelUp – which aimed to teach users the mechanics of the complex software in an engaging, mission-structured way. The intention was for prospective users to ‘play’ LevelUp during Photoshop’s free 30-day trial period, increasing familiarity with the software and therefore encouraging purchases at the end of that period. Petar Karafezov, senior manager of EMEA digital marketing, said, “We were able to teach people how to use Photoshop in a different way and use it more successfully, but that didn’t result in an immediate increase in revenue”.

While these are only two examples of unsuccessful gamification, such initiatives that fail to meet their expectations tend to have a common theme – they fail to tie the engagement offered by game design directly to the desired results. In Sears’ case the intention was to encourage staff to cut costs and drive up sales, but the primary motivation offered by the scheme was simply to ‘win’ against other departments. Adobe made a successful and innovative means of teaching Photoshop mechanics to prospective customers, but did not in any way tie the eventual purchase of the software to the gamification; the immersion did not extend beyond the learning process.

Despite such high-profile individual failures, gamification as a whole continues to grow. An infographic published in December 2015 showed that the market growth of gamification grew from an estimated $242 million in 2012 to $1.7 billion in 2015. By 2018, the gamification market was projected to grow to $5.5 billion. By 2017 we are likely to see the first major signs of such growth.

Although accurate, the window for Gartner’s prediction has now closed, bringing hope that the practice of gamification can learn from its many mistakes and fulfil the often-discussed promise that it holds in theory. We may well see gamification turning a corner over the course of 2017; 2016 was a year of significant change in the gaming industry, compounded with some early signs of gamification graduating from experimental, often haphazard, implementation to more well-informed, precisely-targeted applications.

The gamification industry depends on the gaming industry, so it follows that changes in gaming will create changes in gamification. One of 2016’s biggest changes to the gaming industry has been the rise of Virtual Reality.

Most VR devices have a very high price-point for entry, especially in a business setting, so it is unlikely that there will be any internal gamification using VR. It is also a very new platform, and its usefulness won’t be easy to gauge until the gaming industry in general has become more familiar with it. However there have already been some first steps into VR gamification in the fields of education and training, and apps delivered to existing VR platforms could be a boon to raising awareness and engagement with products or causes.

Although Virtual Reality has had more attention and discussion this year, Augmented Reality has also seen a huge surge in popularity, and holds more promise when it comes to gamification. Unlike VR, the expensive hardware and space requirements of which provide a high barrier to entry, AR can be implemented with devices already owned by the majority of people, or which are already provided by many businesses. With in-house app development and third-party business apps becoming more widely-used, AR can be easily adopted by both staff and consumers.

Augmented Reality has already been used in sales and marketing – this IKEA video, showing mobile devices being used to virtually place an item of furniture in the room, allows users to preview the suitability of chairs and tables before buying. For purchasers who have difficulty visualizing new products in situ the result removes design guesswork and improves customer satisfaction – and satisfied customers will be return customers.

AR’s primary strength is its visual element, although in a business context this can also be its greatest downfall. Any app which uses AR to introduce gamification to a workplace must take great care that its gameplay elements and its visual feedback tie directly to the desired performance. If a simple game like Pokémon Go offers so much engagement that consumers have been known to walk into traffic or lose awareness of their surroundings, mis-targeted gamification could easily destroy employee engagement with their work.

It is likely that Augmented Reality will be the platform for internal gamification in business – it works on devices that staff already own, it’s easy to develop for and it holds the most potential for turning mundane, routine tasks into something more engaging – while Virtual Reality will offer more in terms of customer-reaching gamification.

Although 2017 might not see gamification finally take a mainstream hold in business it is likely to see at least one attempt at combining gamification with Augmented or Virtual Reality, but, given those platforms’ newness, the first projects with them are unlikely to succeed. However, gamification has now undergone enough scrutiny, testing and learning experiences for 2017 to see a small selection of gamification projects to hit the sweet spot, become large-scale successes and to pave the way – by example and by reputation – for other organisations to make a more informed and competent attempt than we’ve seen so far.

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Submitted in: Expert Views, Josh Townsend |