If you’re checking in on Foursquare or ramping up the “strength” of your LinkedIn profile, you’ve just been gamified — whether or not you know it. “Gamification,” today’s hottest business buzzword, is gaining traction everywhere from corporate boardrooms to jihadi chat forums, and its proponents say it can revolutionize just about anything, from education to cancer treatment to ending poverty. While the global market for gamification is expected to explode from $242 million in 2012 to $2.8 billion in 2016, according to market analysis firm M2 Research, there is a growing chorus of critics who think it’s little more than a marketing gimmick. So is the application of game mechanics to everyday life more than just a passing fad? You decide.
Kellogg’s cereals offers its first “premium,” the Funny Jungleland Moving-Pictures book, free with every two boxes. Two years later, Cracker Jack starts putting prizes, from stickers to baseball cards, in its boxes of caramel-coated corn snacks. “A prize in every box” is an instant hit; over the next 100 years, Cracker Jack gives away more than 23 billion in-package treasures. By the 1950s, the concept of gamification is yet to be born, but its primary building block — fun — is motivating billions of consumers around the world.
Duke University sociologist Donald F. Roy publishes Banana Time, an ethnographic study of garment workers in Chicago. Roy chronicles how workers use “fun” and “fooling” on the factory room floor — including a daily ritual game in which workers steal a banana — to stave off the “beast of monotony.” The notion that fun can enhance job satisfaction and productivity inspires reams of research on games in the workplace.
Richard Bartle, a computer science undergraduate at Britain’s University of Essex, helps classmate Roy Trubshaw create the world’s first widely used multiplayer game — “MUD,” for “Multi-User Dungeon.” A primitive, text-based precursor to games like “World of Warcraft,” “MUD1” (the first version) offers players a shared virtual experience — something new to the gaming universe — but is still more collaboration platform than game. Then Bartle makes “MUD1” feel more game-like by expanding the range of competitive actions and tasks available to players. He calls this “gamification.”
As video and computer games become increasingly widespread, education scholars start to think about their potential to enhance learning. Leading the charge are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Thomas Malone and Stanford University’s Mark Lepper, whose research looks at how games inspire players to think critically and solve problems. (The key? A balance of challenge, fantasy, curiosity and control — think 1980s edutainment mainstays “The Oregon Trail” and “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?”) Although Malone and Lepper don’t use the term, “gamification” comes to mean something quite different from what Bartle originally had in mind: It’s no longer about making games better, but about breaking games down into their component parts — goals, competition, narrative — and applying them to real life.