Life as a (Computer) Game?

Gamification | Photo (detail): Sebastiaan ter Burg, CC BY 2.0

Since few things are as motivating as games, game mechanisms are being increasingly integrated into systems with which they otherwise have nothing to do. Earning points and getting high scores are part of everyday life in the age of computer games.

People have always played games – in all ages and cultures. Chess, Mikado, the Olympic Games, Tetris or World of Warcraft – the world of games is as various as it has been closely intertwined with our lives since time immemorial. In the digital age, people are particularly captivated by computer games. We therefore increasingly meet, offline as well as online, principles drawn from digital games in the most various spheres of life. This trend is called “gamification”, according to which game mechanisms – points, levels, ratings and rankings, challenges and rewards – are transferred to non-game environments.

Motivation and customer retention

The idea of taking games and their motivating power as a model to animate people to certain forms of behaviour is not of course new: businesses, for instance, have long been organizing entertaining and competitive interactions to foster customer return. Whether the good old discount coupon or the frequent flyer programmes of airlines, such customer loyalty instruments use a number of mechanism that have been taken from the world of games: collecting points, climbing to higher levels and its associated privileges, acquiring status and rewards. The concept of Weight Watchers also has all the ingredients of a multi-player game. For decades the weight reduction programme has been demonstrating how game mechanisms can motivate people to make changes in their behaviour that they would otherwise have difficulty making.

Self-tuning or joint task

Today we are experiencing a unique “gamification” of life. Computer games have made everyday life into a game: by rewarding doing the wash up and housecleaning with virtual points, everything is supposed to be made easier – so the idea behind applications like EpicWin. Overcoming one’s weaker self is also made easier by turning it into a game. The game Zombies, Run! aims at motivating runners. The app sends the athletes on audio missions and takes them into a game world that makes the running course into an adventure. Who doesn’t step on it when he is fighting against zombies?

Other games have as their goal not self-tuning but rather the fulfilment of joint tasks. The Finnish National Library, for example, sends volunteers troubleshooting in its electronic archive with Digitalkoot. The Institute of Art History at the University of Munich uses the online game Artigo to get artworks tagged. The sciences too rely on the tremendous energy and problem-solving ingenuity that people invest in computer games: Foldit and EteRNA set scientists to work together with gamers in researching diseases and their cure. PhotoCity sends players on a kind of photographic scavenger hunt to produce 3-D models of entire cities from playfully generated digital image data. In the age of computer games, fun and entertainment has become a new currency exchanged for work that would otherwise be difficult to finance.

The world becomes a playing field

That gamification now enjoys such great popularity is no accident. The omnipresence of technology has opened a new scope and range of application for games. Game mechanisms that we know from video games are no longer reserved to the virtual world. Thanks to smartphones, digital cameras, sensors and the ubiquity of the Internet, they are finding their way more and more into reality. Moreover, we are entering the age of throw-away electronics: processing units, sensors and cameras are becoming constantly cheaper. Soon the most common everyday objects will be equipped with digital electronics – from the coffee cup and food packaging to clothing. Because all these things will be hooked up to the Internet, the boundary between real and virtual world will crumble. Digital games will invade our lives more and more.

Beyond this, a whole generation is today growing up with the virtual worlds of computer games. Since “Generation Gaming” thus acquires a playful perspective on all of life, play and learning, play and working, play and many other facets of our lives, are coming closer and closer together.

Living in a playful society

Gamification is a balancing act between motivation and manipulation. If the advent of computer games in every corner of our lives brings with it fun and entertainment, it simultaneously creates a dense data network that makes the derivation of personality profiles an equally easy game. By transforming every activity of our lives into a computer game, we reveal a good deal about ourselves, because thereby personal data, which reflect our behaviour, occur more or less as a by-product. This opens the doors to every form of behavioural influence.

Thus gamification is a double-edged sword: the gamification of life could open up a future in which challenges are mastered playfully and work is highly motivated because even boring task can be packaged in such a way that they are fun. At the same time, gamification entails the risk that people will no longer be able to act autonomously because they will not even recognize when they are playing and when they are not. Gamification is still in its infancy. Only the future will tell how the power of games will be used.