Ahead of the game

Spurring engagement through the techniques used in videogames is a new science and one with great potential for changing human behaviours, as Ben East discovers

Nike might be the world’s leading sportswear brand in 2016, but 10 years ago it had a problem. Engagement with customers was largely limited to people visiting its stores after seeing their favourite sports stars run to victory emblazoned with the famous Nike swoosh. So the Nike+ app was launched, a way in which the company could make a game out of running.

As the technology developed, users could compete against each other, win points, unlock trophies and gain rewards. Nike+ might have been fun for runners, but for Nike it was crucial: in 2007, it had 500,000 people on its database. The last recorded figure was, tellingly, 23 million. Revenues in the company’s Running business went up by 30 per cent.

The Nike+ App
The Nike+ App encouraged users to engage through fitness challenges

The use of some of the fun elements found in gaming – such as point scoring and head-to-head competition – to craft programmes and solutions that benefit organisations has become big business. It has a term – gamification – and though huge brands such as Nike, Volkswagen, Starbucks and M&M’s have all had significant successes in the field, gamification has also been used in education by the likes of ‘global classroom’ the Khan Academy, to develop solutions to poverty and hunger (Evoke), and as part of programmes to train nurses (PeriopSim).

And Brian Burke, author and Research Vice President at information technology research and advisory company Gartner, thinks he knows why gamification has become so popular.

“You’re taking people through a journey towards changing their behaviour, developing a new skill, or engaging them in some sort of innovation activity,” he says. “It’s all about using game mechanics to digitally engage and stimulate people to achieve.”

Burke literally wrote the book on gamification: Gamify was published in 2014 to widespread acclaim. In it, he argued that the mere 20 per cent of companies using gamification techniques that were having any success were the ones who didn’t crassly manipulate the sector to suit their own ends, but instead encouraged people emotionally.

Which is why there is, for him, a crucial difference between gaming and gamification. “Games entertain,” he says. “Gamification motivates.”

Nevertheless, there is the accusation that gamification is a fancy 21st-century term for an incentive programme. After all, it takes the bare essentials of games – purpose, challenge, reward, rankings and so on – and repurposes them to enhance customer loyalty or impel employees to stay with a company. The difference, says Burke, is that the starting point isn’t making people do something that they may not want to in order to get a reward.

“With gamification, if you manage it properly, you get the individual meeting his goals, and the company naturally will meet theirs as a consequence.”

So when international management consultants Accenture launched the Steptacular app, to encourage its employees to improve fitness by sharing and comparing their walk-to-work achievements, the staff felt better – not least because they could also earn points to redeem against iPads – and the company benefited from a happier workforce.

A further example of gamification in action is a pioneering project taking place at cutting-edge neuroscientist Sebastian Seung’s lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His team were looking at high-resolution images of the brain in an attempt to get a clearer idea of how humans perceive direction, but the sheer amount of manpower needed to work through all the data meant they had to think differently about how they might achieve their aims. They came up with EyeWire.

Shanghai Piano Stairs
Shoppers at a Shanghai Mall test out Piano Stairs, designed to incentivise walking rather than taking the escalator

“We needed to map out the structure of neurons to understand how the brain processes information,” says Amy Robinson, Executive Director of EyeWire. So in 2012, we asked the question, ‘what if we could turn this lengthy process of mapping neurons into a 3D game that people could play?’”

On a very basic level, EyeWire is a puzzle game meets a colouring-in exercise, where players fill in 3D neuron cubes to map cells. And if that sounds rather more highbrow than Angry Birds, then consider this: four years later, EyeWire has nearly 250,000 players from 150 different countries. The snappy catchline might have helped: it was called “the gameto map the brain”.

As Robinson concedes, it needed to be catchy. “The thing we struggled with the most was figuring out how to make a platform that was engaging and fun, which people wanted to come back to,” she says. “It was a real challenge. We put a lot of emphasis on the community of EyeWire, so it’s very clear to people that as they play the game they’re helping neuroscientists understand the brain. The connection of that purpose with action is a strong motivator for many of our participants – it’s more than just a game, it is a community of people with a passion for solving puzzles and who have an interest in how the brain works.”

M&Ms game
A game created by M&M's saw users try to pick out a pretzel amogn the sweets

And, says Robinson, that community has allowed EyeWire to chart some hitherto unknown circuits in the eye. It’s a simple movement calculation, but the papers Seung’s lab have published may lead to better retinal prosthetics for people with sight problems. Robinson is in no doubt that this kind of “citizen science” will become far more common – she cites Foldit, a game that asks players to solve the mysteries of protein and how they might treat disease and pollution. Not least because gamification is already so prevalent in the digital world.

“You don’t think of Facebook as being gamified, but what are the ‘likes’ you attain for an interesting post, if not a score?” she says. “And there’s even a leaderboard – it’s the newsfeed. It’s subtle but it’s there.

“And take Uber. Drivers have a rating and know they’ll get scored afterwards, so they’d better behave well and drive nicely. It’s about building a mutually beneficial experience through subtle gamification elements.”

Meanwhile, in Dubai, Yehia El-Katib is browsing LinkedIn. “Social media has employed a lot of gamification techniques,” he agrees. “Look at this page: it tells me how complete my profile is, how I rank among others around me.”

Eyewire Executive Director Amy Robinson wants to understand how the brain processes information

El-Katib is Co-founder and Commercial Director of Dubai-based The Gamifiers, which helps companies such as Coca-Cola and Microsoft as well as government agencies such as the Department of Municipal Affairs to employ gamification techniques. One of the first digital agencies to focus on gamification in the Middle East, it has delivered projects via websites and apps across both public and private sectors in the past three years. While the application can be focused on customers, employees or companies, the end result is always the same: engaging with a target audience.

“And you do that by using the fun people are used to having in a gaming context,” says El-Katib. “The younger generation coming into the workforce are people who were born in the 1980s onwards, so grew up with videogames and mobile and social media.

Gamification speaks the language of this generation, although it is quite challenging when you have to explain that there may not be an actual game somewhere down the line.”

The really encouraging by-product, says El-Katib, is that if a company such as his gets the mechanics right, gamification allows the user to track their progress and feel they’re achieving something. It’s why he thinks education will be a very big market in the future, as teachers and pupils become more and more reliant on technologies and web interfaces than traditional books.

EVOKE is a social network game that seeks creative solutions to urgent social problems, such as world hunger

“It’s just really satisfying to add a gamification element to, say, a piece of software and see how it impacts on usage,” he says.

And yet, on one level, gamification isn’t anything particularly new. Brian Burke cites the examples of the Scouts, or Weight Watchers – programmes that give you rewards for progressive achievement, but do so offline. “The difference in the digital world is one of scale, and connection,” he says. “After all, Nike couldn’t connect with 23 million people in a face-to-face model.

“For me, gamification is much more closely aligned to behavioural science. In technology, we are extraordinarily good at automating processes, but we haven’t done much to motivate people to change behaviour. The thing I find fascinating is that gamification is allowing that to happen.”