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Gamification begins at home: the algorithms changing our everyday lives

Reality: it’s the worst game ever. The landscape of our lived experience is one that becomes so familiar over time that it disappears into oblivion. We walk the hallways of our offices, down the aisles of the grocery store and into different rooms of our apartments and homes, scarcely noticing them, lost in thought — or, as is more common now, our cellular phones.

Video games were once perceived by mainstream society as an escapist diversion, much like rock and roll and television were upon their introduction. But just as these cultural elements were eventually embraced and understood to be tools for more than mere “entertainment”, video game structure and its influence on players has been reexamined to show profound capacity for behavioral change.

Studies have proven that the average age of video gamers is around 35 years old.

As this form of media is capable of motivating and guiding the actions of individuals across a wide spectrum of ages, its use expands beyond traditional game-play contexts. Today we are seeing “gamification” strategies take hold in larger society. Many non-game applications, devices and services now employ gamification to increase user interaction and satisfaction.

But because applying video game-based learning and thinking methods to everything from work and education to weight-loss and environmentalism is still in relative infancy, the correct ways to layer a computer algorithm over these every day, “lived” processes (not to mention the long-term ramifications of doing so) is currently under hot debate.

What is gamification?

Simply put, gamification involves the incorporation of points, levels, achievements, rewards and other concepts from video games to drive action in the real world. In many instances, one’s game progress and success can be viewed by other users, managers, and other entities behind the screen. Game platforms or leaderboards may feature those who have accomplished the most.

Gamification appeals to certain innate human traits and characteristics. We’re by nature competitive creatures, eager to accrue status, material possessions and other resources to get a leg up on others. The elements of video game-play take advantage of our ambitions by allowing us to see how we stack up in comparison to other players.

The ability to interact with others socially caters to our need to belong to a tribe or group. Scientific studies have shown that successfully playing a game triggers the releases of dopamine — the “feel good” neurotransmitter.

The game of life

An estimated three billion hours are currently spent on gaming every week. By age 21, the average American will have spent more than 10 000 hours playing video games — the equivalent to five years of work at a full time job.

By effectively hooking people via game mechanisms, companies and other business structures, schools, nonprofit organizations, even healthcare providers, are finding it easier to increase engagement with products or services and foster behavioral change. Gamification synthesizes work and play, allowing for the enjoyment of playful tasks while simultaneously producing quality work results.

Simply put, gamification involves the incorporation of points, levels, achievements, rewards and other concepts from video games to drive action in the real world

Particularly for younger people — Millennials, technology natives that crave attention and the acknowledgement of achievement — productivity games in the workplace or home are highly appealing.

Current gamification models

Almost everyone considers daily chores to be unpleasant and boring.

ChoreWars is one online site that motivates family members or roommates to do these mundane tasks by giving them experience points for completing them. The dungeon master, i.e., head of household, can add whatever jobs he or she wants with an appropriate point value attached to them. There are treasures and equipment to claim too, which can be exchanged for real-world goods if the players so agree.

In the realm of health and fitness, many products include subtle or overt gamification features. Nike has created an app called Nike+ that tracks how much running its users do and then issues them NikeFuel, a representation of the amount of exercise done.

The Zombie Run app simulates a zombie apocalypse wherein the player has to keep running in the real world or else be killed in the virtual world.

The Nintendo Wii has become a staple in the world of rehabilitative care as patients move the controller around to score points. These points turn what would otherwise be an uncomfortable or even painful effort into a fun-filled pastime.

Going beyond tasks associated with the simple upkeep and maintenance of one’s home and self, the concept of ‘gamification’ can also be applied to improve energy efficiency. By choosing to purchase Internet-enabled devices capable of “communicating” the wider Internet of Things — such as smart thermostats, lights, and HVAC equipment — homeowners can connect to their homes and engage in games that issue points or badges when they turn off the lights, shut off their air conditioners and perform other duties that reduce energy consumption.

The rewards are trifold: virtual accomplishments, real money saved on electricity costs and the satisfaction of protecting the environment.

Even social interactions may be significantly altered by the introduction of gamification. For young people, who are particularly drawn to game-based methods of communication, the conclusion that pro-social games have an influence on pro-social behavior has been repeated in multiple studies.

Foursquare combines a user’s personal preferences and the advice of people that person trusts to generate recommendations of nearby activities and businesses. The service used to award points and badges for going to a new place or frequenting the same location many times within a specified time period. However, the company has discontinued most of these features, claiming that “our game mechanics started to break down” as its user base grew.

Cubicle farms filled with corporate employees have already brought gamification tactics to the workplace, using interactive digital platforms to transform the trivial tasks into something more rewarding. Microsoft’s “Code Review Game” tackles the annoying, yet vital, function of programming code review. For every bug identified, teams of programmers receive points. IBM’s “CityOne” simulation game puts players in the role of a city manager who must invest in smart city infrastructure, a type of product that IBM sells in the real world. Spreadsheets have never been so exciting.

Gamification going forward

The video game industry has long capitalized off of research pertaining to human psychology and the study of human behavior.

By implementing an engaging, challenging and enjoyable game design, studies show that players will feel motivated to participate in activities they may otherwise find mundane or distasteful.  As such, it’s certain that this trend is here to stay and will be assimilated into many industries going forward.

The age-old dichotomy between what we have to do and what we want to do is becoming increasingly blurred, and future generations might have trouble understanding that jobs, chores and games were once separate entities.