Gamification and harnessing the power of play

When you think of your stereotypical gamer, what image pops into your head? I’m guessing it’s probably something along the lines of the pic to the left: a slightly geeky-looking guy in his teens/early-twenties, just heading into his fifth hour on the Xbox.

But the gaming audience has changed drastically in recent years, thanks in no small part to incredibly popular mobile games that incorporate social elements like Candy Crush and Angry Birds. Now in fact your average gamer is 35 years old and is almost as likely to be a woman as a man, given that 47% of gamers are female. And the industry’s said to be worth a staggering $2.3 trillion dollars — that’s more than the music industry or Hollywood.

In light of all this, we’re encouraging many of our clients to ‘harness the power of play’ and consider using some form of gamification to engage their audience base.

What is gamification?

Gartner Group defines gamification as the concept of employing game mechanics to non-game activities (such as recruitment, training and health and wellness).

Human beings love problem solving, and gamification exploits this basic truth. But good gamification in business doesn’t start with the decision to apply game elements; it starts with a business goal and the intention to fulfil a user need.

As such, it’s a great way for companies to add value, measure and collect data and engage with users.

Inspired by Jop Wielens presentation at the recent Reasons to be creative conference, I’ve been doing some research to explore the potential of gamification — and I’ve shared some of my insights below.

Four great examples of gamification

For 15 years, a group of top PhD scientists has been trying to decipher a crystal structure for one of the AIDS-causing viruses but couldn’t solve it.

So the University of Washington created an online puzzle video game called Foldit, which allowed people from all over the world to ‘play’ and compete with each other in figuring out various protein structures.

Over 240,000 people registering for the game and a solution to the structure of the M-PMV was found in just 10 days — a major breakthrough in the AIDS research field (and proof that gamification really can change the world).


OPower works with utility companies in the US to provide households with data on how much energy they’re using, how they match up with neighbours, and signpost new milestones they can work towards.

By turning energy saving into a competitive game, they’ve driven down average energy consumption by 2% (the equivalent of $120,000,000 in utility bill savings) and reduced pollution.

Pain Squad app

The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto were looking for a way to encourage their young cancer patients to complete daily reports on their pain so the hospital could be sure they were providing them with the right kind of care. They created the ‘Pain Squad’ app, which set up the reporting process like a crime investigation — and compliance with the reporting process leapt up to an unprecedented 90%.

Adobe LevelUp for Photoshop

In an attempt to convert more free trials into sales of Photoshop, Adobe created the LevelUp game, where users competed with each other to achieve different ‘missions’ using the computer programme (and subconsciously learning more about how it worked as they went along).

As a result, four times as many of the free trial subscribers went on to buy Photoshop, and Adobe was also able to learn more about how users liked to interact with the product.

Key gamification elements

To succeed, gamification needs to incorporate several (but not necessarily all) of the following elements.

1. Rewards for effort

The term gamification is often wrongly applied to sites/app that just allow you to collect points and badges and/or move up a leader board. But while rewards for effort like this are important when trying to build in gamification, they’re not enough on their own.

2. Multiple long and short term aims

Allowing the user to move through a series of different levels — each more difficult or otherwise different from the last — provides them with an impetus to persist with engagement or even return later.

3. Feedback

Incorporating visual elements that demonstrate clearly to the user that they’re getting somewhere (e.g. colour changes, points counters, etc.) keeps them motivated.

4. Enhanced engagement

By actively offering the user a sense of enjoyment, you’re taking brand engagement to a new level.

5. Uncertainty

A level of the ‘unknown’ — what the next level could hold, whether they’ll be able to beat their top score, etc. — intrigues the user and encourages them to hang around for longer.

6. Social influence

An ability to share your progress across social channels and/or directly compete against others offers the user validation.

7. Development and accomplishment

If users feel like they’re not getting anywhere, they’re likely to feel frustrated and could give up all together. It’s important to provide them with a sense of improvement and the feeling that they’re achieved something as they move through the game.

The future of gamification

I predict we’ll see the following trends develop, with gamification:

• being used to fuel learning and development, especially in the education sector

• that draws on collaborative effort to decipher complex challenges being used more the healthcare sector (like the Foldit example above)

• that’s been designed to increase revenue and overcome marketing challenges, but actually leads to changes in behaviour (like the OPower example[][7]).

And we’re certainly looking forward to helping more of our clients explore how gamification could help them.