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Last week’s Observer included an interesting story about games with a social objective. Keith Stuart’s article, ‘Falling City: could a game help us find a solution to society’s ills’, tells the story of how author and Channel 4 journalist Jim Rossignol came up with the idea of designing and developing a new game, Falling City, in which players explore and clean up a dilapidated urban environment. Points are earned for cleaning up the city, as well as for getting the most out of residents (aka ‘Angries’). The idea of this social-based role-playing game is, as Stuart puts it, to get across the message to kids that “cities and their inhabitants need to be understood, whatever their failings, not demonised.”

Last week’s Observer included an interesting story about games with a social objective. Keith Stuart’s article, ‘Falling City: could a game help us find a solution to society’s ills’, tells the story of how author and Channel 4 journalist Jim Rossignol came up with the idea of designing and developing a new game, Falling City, in which players explore and clean up a dilapidated urban environment. Points are earned for cleaning up the city, as well as for getting the most out of residents (aka ‘Angries’). The idea of this social-based role-playing game is, as Stuart puts it, to get across the message to kids that “cities and their inhabitants need to be understood, whatever their failings, not demonised.”

While games like Falling City are designed to encourage gamers to empathise with others and to subtly bring ethical considerations to players who may otherwise avoid them, the question of whether or not this is likely to leave a lasting impression on them is still unclear. For instance, these games invariably only appeal to a small fraction of children, teenagers and young adults, and are typically geared towards delivering only one or two key messages. What is more, as they are games, these apps will inevitably come to fall out of favour as time passes – can games like September 12th and Sweatshop, whatever their good intentions, take the place of more popular multimillion pound titles and the various other micro-game applications appearing across smartphones? This would seem overly optimistic. But where the benefits of conventional games end, the processes and mechanisms upon which they are based may continue to be used in other ways as a means of tackling many social problems.

‘Gamification’, the idea that you can use gaming techniques for use in non-game environments, has struck a chord with many entrepreneurs and commentators in the business world, particularly those in the field of marketing and advertising. Gartner, one of the leading IT research and advisory companies, even go so far as to suggest that by 2015 70% of the global 2000 organisations will have at least one gamified application. By applying the same techniques as deployed in games, for instance points, leaderboards, badges, and virtual currencies, it is now widely assumed that organisations can better engage their stakeholders, whether customers or employees, in positive behaviours that they find intrinsically motivating, yet hard to stick at.

In many cases these rewards are only virtual, but in some applications they can lead to tangible gains for the user. Foursquare is a good example of the latter. One of the most popular applications using gaming techniques, Foursquare rewards ‘badges’ and ‘mayorships’ to users when they ‘check-in’ to locations using their mobile devices. Whether it’s a shop, bar or restaurant, many businesses provide discounts to the users with the highest number of check-ins, or to those who arrive in groups of people. For users of the application, Foursquare offers them both a gaming experience as well as the opportunity of discounts at different venues, while for businesses Foursquare provides a potential platform for engaging with different audiences and a new means of encouraging people to visit their venues. With 10 million unique users and an average of 3 million check-ins per day, Foursquare helps to illustrate the high level of traction that these types of applications appear to have with consumers.

The reason why gamification is so successful, and the applications and sites that use gaming techniques so addictive, is partly because they are simply much more enjoyable and interactive compared to the way people would have undertaken the same behaviour without the gamification element. Another reason for their addictive nature is on account of the type of reward mechanism they employ. Typically, these applications reward users at random intervals – what psychologists call ‘variable ratio schedules’ – which have proven far more effective at establishing lasting behaviours than regular, predictable rewards.

People’s natural affinity for gaming, combined with technological advances such as GPS and the rise of smartphones which make gaming mechanisms more prevalent and accessible, has ensured that gamification has rapidly spread across the marketing and advertising landscape. Indeed, the pace of their success opens up questions about its applicability to other areas, not least public services. Just as gamification has transformed marketing, there may also be scope for it to alter the way our public services are delivered, creating new sources of engagement and innovation which could help to improve the lives of service users.

Take the Department for Work and Pensions which recently worked with a software development company to create ‘Idea Street’, a gamified platform designed to crowdsource ideas from their 120,000 employees. Staff earn points for posting up their ideas and are able to gain additional points if they manage to develop these further. The ideas generated as a result of this initiative are due to save DWP approximately £20m by 2014-15 and there are now plans to expand the scheme to the Ministry of Justice as well as to public bodies in New York City. Similar systems might be used to improve levels of innovation within public services across the country.

While gamification can be used to increase levels of engagement, productivity and innovation internally within public services, further gains could be made by using these techniques to encourage behaviour change among service users, clients and citizens themselves. In the area of education, for instance, Quest to Learn, an innovative school in New York City, attempts to nurture student engagement with the curriculum through the process of role-playing, whereby children take on the behaviours of people in real-life knowledge domains (e.g. biologists or mathematicians) and play rule-based games where they seek out knowledge and solve problems. A similar programme is The KhanAcademy, an online education site supported by the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also draws heavily upon gaming techniques to keep students engaged throughout their learning journey.

Likewise, in the area of public health, gaming techniques might be used in order to spread public messages and information, as well as to encourage service users to lead healthier and more active lifestyles. Health Month is a popular self-improvement website used by thousands of people to cut back on bad habits and pick up healthier ones. People choose their own tasks (e.g. exercise for 30 mins a day) and if they stick to them are allowed to reward themselves at the end of the month. A similar health programme, Keas, found that 70% of participants who took part in their pilot period exercised every week for the whole 12 weeks.

While the above examples indicate some opportunity for gamification to add value to public services, it has not been without its critics. Many consider it to be at risk of causing ‘over-justification’, where people’s intrinsic motivations to engage in certain behaviours are crowded out by introducing and subsequently removing extrinsic rewards. Deeper reservations also exist about the extent of their addictive nature, while on a more practical level there is the question of whether they are really durable mechanisms, or, like the types of games mentioned earlier, merely fads that will need to be continuously updated to remain attractive to users. Ian Bogost, a well-known expert on video games, has even gone so far as to term gamification “exploitationware”.

While these concerns are genuine, the jury is undoubtedly still out on gamification. It may go down a storm in policy circles, or it may just be another buzz word that we’ll fail to remember this time next year. Who knows (the two aren't mutually exclusive). What is clear, however, is that easy-wins like those associated with these gaming apps don’t come along all that often, so no doubt we’ll be hearing more about gamification for at least a little while longer yet.

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