Brushed your teeth this morning? Congratulations, you get 20 points. Hit your quarterly performance target early? Good work, you get half a day's extra holiday. You voted in the recent elections so you get your third citizenship badge. But you've slipped another two places down your gym's fitness leaderboard, so that means an extra few miles on the treadmill next week.
If this all sounds like an Orwellian nightmare, think again. This is your “gamified” future.
Gamification is a buzz word used to describe systems that take elements of everyday games like chess and Donkey Kong and applies them to everyday life. Perhaps the best-known example of gamification is Foursquare, the location-based social network in which people "check in" to places via their phones. Users are awarded badges for going out and experiencing new things. And the more they frequent a place, the higher their status becomes. For example, they may become the "mayor" of their coffee shop, potentially opening the door to discounts and other prizes.
But if you think it is just tech-savvy teens hoping for a cheap latte that are in on the game, think again. Everyone from businesses to governments are busy re-designing the way they work to include elements such as completing missions, competition, social interaction, status and rewarding achievement. Activities and products that have already been gamified include buying a burger, graphics editing software, learning languages, fitness gadgets and all manner of jobs including sales, IT, customer relations and even waiting tables. Gamification gurus maintain this is only the beginning. Only last year, the US-based analysts Gartner predicted that 70% of the world's top 2000 companies will be using gamification in some form by 2014.
But now there seems to be a growing backlash. Just 12 months after Gartner predicted the huge growth in the genre, it released another report saying that “gamification is currently being driven by novelty and hype”. By 2014, it predicts that 80% of gamification applications will fail to deliver “because of poor design”. In addition, a growing number of critics are asking some probing questions: Is gamification just a rehash of old ideas, how does it work, might it be exploitative, could it actually undermine motivation and won't it trigger addiction?
The ideas that underpin gamification stretch as far back as 1937, when American psychologist BF Skinner proposed a system he called operant conditioning. The idea – perhaps best known for the images of rats hitting a lever to release food pellets - revealed how the use of rewards and punishments could also change human behaviour. A few years later Abraham Maslow put forward his needs theory of human motivation which highlighted sense of belonging, self esteem and the realisation of personal potential as key. Then in the 1970s, so-called self determination theory identified competence, relatedness and autonomy as fundamental human needs.
But on their own, these ideas were not enough. After all, boy scouts have been getting badges to reward achievement for close to a century. And competition, leaderboards and financial rewards have long been deployed to motivate sales teams and those who accumulate frequent flyer points are offered enhanced status, special offers and other privileges.
The other trend that allowed gamification to grab the limelight was so-called big data. The emergence of mobile computing, cheap storage and inexpensive sensors means that information about every aspect of our life can be collected and recorded unlike any other time in history. Cheap, portable consumers gadgets and smart phone apps can now measure aspects things like their activity levels, diet, sleep patterns, mood and health. "Everything we do is being mediated by technology, whether it is entertainment, work or sports or play, and this is generating huge amounts of user activity data," says Rajat Paharia, the founding father of gamification. "Now we can take that data and apply it to the motivation problem."