By which Paharia means, combining the data with game mechanics to allow people to pursue targets. So, for example, if someone wants to run 10km (7miles) in one hour but can only currently run 8km in that time, gamification might use a series of rewards and “levels” to help them to achieve their goal. Along the way, their performance might be monitored and recorded by their phone allowing them to track their progress. An element of peer pressure might be included by encouraging the runner to upload their progressively quicker times onto a social network or a website where other people share similar goals.
This kind of example is well known to Paharia. He started his California-based company Bunchball in 2005, trying to persuade the likes of MySpace and Facebook of the potential of online gaming. In the process he came across the motivational power of game mechanics and created a web-based service for businesses.
"We realised you could take the game mechanics that game designers had been using for years such as competition, real-time feedback and goal-setting, and apply them elsewhere," says Paharia. "Outside of gaming they still work to drive behaviour because they are based on satisfying fundamental human needs and desires."
Bunchball landed its first contract based on these ideas when asked in 2007 by NBC to create a community site for fans of the TV comedy series The Office. At this point the concept didn't have an established name. Paharia adopted the word "gamification" in 2009 after hearing someone use it in a presentation. Business was slow at first but took of in 2010. Now the firm employs 65 people and has an impressive client list including the likes of Intel, Marriott, Playboy and Ford. It has been followed by a raft of other firms offering similar services.
"Game-based techniques can be applied to many more aspects of life than people might think," says Kevin Werbach, an associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches a course on gamification. "The structures and procedures that game designers have developed can be applied just as well to the work place and social impact situations such as global warming or environmental sustainability." Opower, for example, is software designed to help people cut their energy use by completing challenges, earning points and badges, working in groups and sharing tips.
But not everyone buys into the view that anything and everything can be gamified. In fact, some game designers question whether most of what is called gamification deserves the title at all. "Games are engaging for many reasons," says Margaret Robertson, New York-based managing director of UK game design company Hide&Seek. "Importantly they have a dynamic structure in which things happen when you take actions, there are challenging goals and objectives, impediments and a real risk of failure. Most things that are called gamification simply involve the use of points and badges and don't come close to constituting a game. A better name would be pointsification."
Ian Bogost, co-founder of the game design company Persuasive Games, agrees. He calls Gamification a “marketing gimmick”. And, in another blog post, took his critque one step further, describing it as "exploitationware" and “bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business..."
Bogost’s point is that “gamification” over simplifies and misunderstands what makes games powerful. It takes what he describes as “a mysterious, magical, powerful medium” and reduces it to something that is unrecognisable. This may seem like pedantry. After all, who cares about a name, providing it delivers results?