As many people are aware, games can be a powerful force. The sense of autonomy, exploration, social interaction and, above all, fun can be incredibly engaging and motivating.

Gamification is an emerging practice to encourage engagement and motivation using game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts. Taking lessons from psychology, design, strategy and technology, gamification is being incorporated by a growing number of enterprises for their staff or customers, including Microsoft, Nike, LinkedIn, Deloitte, PWC, Samsung, Salesforce and many more.

Game elements and techniques include the dynamics, mechanics and components seen in many games such as points, badges and other rewards, along with other methods for indicating progression such as challenges, quests or leaderboards. The combination of these provides feedback to the customer, encouraging them to continue to perform tasks and reinforcing positive behaviour. Game design techniques take lessons from behaviourism, cognitivism and self-determination theory to understand the motivations behind people’s actions. Non-game contexts refer to a business or behavioural objective rather than simply playing a game.

For example, most people would agree that exercise is beneficial but many find it difficult to motivate themselves to do it regularly, especially since the benefits of long term exercise are not immediately apparent. Applications such as Fitocracy, Superbetter, Nike+ and Runkeeper allow ‘players’ to set themselves challenges, see the progress of similar players on a leaderboard, and receive regular feedback on their own progress in the form of badges or points.

While these rewards provide an external stimulus, the participant must be intrinsically motivated in order to continue to undertake the task. The activity must be rewarding in itself to some level even if the rewards were absent.

Fun is a critical element in gamification, whether it is hard or easy fun, serious or social, or any combination of these. In the above example, the ability to compare your own exercise with that of friends or other groups transforms a solitary activity into a social one where the player feels as if they are part of a larger community.

Another important aspect which cannot be ignored is that gamification has the potential to be used for manipulation. Take for example the poker machine. This can be seen as a variable reward mechanism that offers a tangible monetary reward purely by chance (if only you play it long enough). But there is no progression. It merely exploits the brain's dopamine response when receiving a payout but brings with it an often crippling addiction coupled with financial harm and social isolation. In this instance, to quote the character Joshua from War Games (1983), "the only winning move is not to play."

So what does this have to do with museums?

Surveys have indicated that our audiences have a variety of different ways of responding to cultural activities, known as culture segments. Some segments value being a part of something bigger, or seeing reviews and recommendations from other people. Others segments find loyalty programs and 'clubs' appealing and like to be given advance notice of events as a sense of exclusivity, while others like to have their existing knowledge and tastes challenged.

Putting people at the centre of their own progression through the landscape of cultural and natural history, and rewarding their exploration and engagement with our collections, exhibitions and public programs offers exciting new opportunities for spreading our message to even wider audiences.

With the rising ownership of mobile devices plus other technologies such as social media, crowdsourcing and delivery of rich multimedia content the possibilities for education, engagement and social good remain to be seen.

Stay tuned for more!

More reading:

The Economist - Monitor: Fitness for geeks and gamers
White House Office for Science and Technology Policy: Games for Grand Challenges
MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. Proceedings of the Challenges in Game AI Workshop, Nineteenth National Conference on Artificial Intelligence. LeBlanc, M., Zubek, R. 2004.
Wall Street Journal - Gamification: Hype or Game-Changer?
Fortune magazine - Inside the gamification gold rush
Samsung Nation
Enterprise gamification – Buzzword or business tool
The Gamification of Everything
Deterding, et al, From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining “Gamification”, Mindtrek 2011 Proceedings
War Games (1983)