Gamification: can video games change the world?

All work and no play is never good. But what happens when the distinction gets blurred? 'Gamification' is the new buzzword for thinkers who want to make work into a game.

The hours ticked by, and Seungseob Lee didn't move from his seat. His face, illuminated by the blue flickering of the screen, was a mask of concentration; all his energy was focussed obsessively on a single goal: to play and win more battles in StarCraft, a popular online videogame.

Lee's addiction to online gaming cost him his life. After two full days and nights without food, sleep or breaks from the game, he went into cardiac arrest and died in hospital soon afterward.

This is just one extreme example of a phenomenon which is fascinating scientists: video games can inspire extraordinary levels of dedication and effort in players, even when the tasks that are being set are relatively boring.

In World of Warcraft, the most popular game in the famously addictive MMORPG genre, players can spend hours and days hunting through the virtual environment performing the same repetitive actions in the hope of earning good equipment for their online 'avatars' and, more importantly, 'levelling up' to achieve power and status within the game.

Of course, lots of jobs in real life are repetitive and boring too, from filing tax returns to learning times tables. But while hard tasks in video games keep us hooked, hard tasks at work or at school tend to make us switch off.

So what makes in-game toil so much more addictive than real work? Psychologists think there are several elements that come together to make games so compelling. First there's competition: we're willing to make great efforts to gain an edge on other people. Second, games provide an immediate sense of progress by giving players 'experience points' and 'progress bars' to show how much each action contributes towards a set goal. Third, games reward effort with status. Those who do the most work achieve the highest levels and earn the respect of other players.

All in the game

As the power of video games becomes ever clearer, excitement is spreading through the worlds of business and academia. People are starting to think: what if we could harness some of the things that make video games addictive and use them to help us do real-world tasks? If we put as much energy into learning or working as we do into virtual entertainment, the results would be phenomenal.

Already, game elements are being turned to useful purposes, from inspiring customer loyalty to helping with scientific tasks or saving energy.

But not everyone is comfortable with this trend. After all – isn't 'gamification' really just a fancy term for the old art of psychological manipulation: do we really want to live our lives as puppets of an endless invisible game?

You Decide

  1. Do you play video games? Do you think they're addictive – or boring?
  2. Why is it that humans can attach so much importance to things (like levels or in-game achievements) that make no difference to our real lives?

Activities

  1. How could you 'gamify' some difficult job in your life? Design a game that would make you do something useful or productive. Would it be fun?
  2. One minute soapbox: make a one minute speech arguing that 'gamification' is either a good or a bad thing.

Some People Say...

“Video games are a pointless waste of time.”

What do you think?

Q & A

You say gamification is already being used in real life?
Yes, even things like air miles or loyalty cards are kinds of gamification, since they provide customers with a sense of progression and levelling up.
Any other examples?
There's a company called Green Goose that has built virtual games which let you earn points by doing real-world things like mowing the lawn or brushing your teeth. Meanwhile, scientists in America have built a game in which players get points for doing real medical research.
That doesn't sound too sinister.
Something which worries people is that to build game-type rewards into real life, you need a lot of sensors to detect how 'players' are behaving. It could lead to a world where everything we do, even in private, is monitored and judged.

Word Watch

Cardiac arrest
A heart attack.
MMORPG
A Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. In World of Warcraft, millions of people inhabit the same game world and can interact with each other on different servers.
Avatar
The word originally comes from Hinduism, but in a gaming context it means the virtual persona which is controlled by the player. In role-playing games (RPGs), players invest huge amounts of time and effort into enhancing the skills and abilities of their avatars.
Levelling up
Most games today have some sort of level system, where players' avatars increase in rank as they perform certain actions and gain 'experience points'.

Subjects

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