May 18, 2012

The Future of Gamification

Introduction and overview of responses

The word “gamification” has emerged in recent years as a way to describe interactive online design that plays on people’s competitive instincts and often incorporates the use of rewards to drive action—these include virtual rewards such as points, payments, badges, discounts, and “free” gifts; and status indicators such as friend counts, retweets, leader boards, achievement data, progress bars, and the ability to “level up.”

While some people dismiss gamification as a fad, neuroscientists are discovering more and more about the ways in which humans react to such interactive design elements. They say such elements can cause feel-good chemical reactions, alter human responses to stimuli—increasing reaction times, for instance—and in certain situations can improve learning, participation, and motivation.

Technology consultancy Gartner has projected 50% of corporate innovation will be “gamified” by 2015. Another consulting firm, Deloitte, cited gamification as one of its Top 10 Technology Trends for 2012, predicting: “Serious gaming simulations and game mechanics such as leaderboards, achievements, and skill-based learning are becoming embedded in day-to-day business processes, driving adoption, performance, and engagement.” Elements of game mechanics are being employed nowadays in training, marketing, education, and wellness initiatives.

Gameplay has long been a popular pursuit, from the simplest moves of Go, first played in China 3,000 years ago, to the massively multiplayer online games of today. Digital games generated $25 billion in sales in 2010, and their popularity is considered to be a driver of the adoption of elements of gamification in many Internet pursuits.

Another primary driver is the rapid uptake of social networks, now used by 70% of American Internet users, where reward and status elements are embedded in implicit and explicit forms in people’s interactions in their engagement in online communities. Game elements and competition are interspersed throughout the platforms that have made social networks like Facebook and Twitter popular.

Marketers, businesses, and other organizations have come to depend upon the competitive metrics they derive from analysis and implementation of social networks to measure and drive consumer behavior.

Gamification is not, however, just about status, community building, and marketing. Game-like approaches to education and problem-solving are rolling out in new ways. To cite one prominent example, researchers at the University of Washington made headlines in 2011 with their game Foldit. It generated a crowd-sourced discovery of the mystery of how a key protein may help cure HIV. The game drew 46,000 participants whose gameplay took just 10 days to solve a problem scientists had been working on for 15 years. Non-digital and digital real-world games based on scenarios and problem-solving have been around for a while, but it wasn’t until recent years that the label “serious game” was applied to this type of activity.

Some scholars and educators, too, have become interested in harnessing the potential of gaming mechanics and sensibilities as tools for advancing learning. A “serious gaming” movement has arisen to apply gaming techniques to such realms as military and corporate and first-responder training programs, civilization and environmental ecology simulations, K-12 educational programs on subjects like math and history and the sciences, news events and public policy campaigns, problem-solving strategies in the natural sciences, and even physical exercise programs.

Will the use of gamification, game mechanics, feedback loops, and rewards to spur interaction and boost engagement, buy-in, loyalty, fun, and/or learning continue to gain ground and be implemented in many new ways in people’s digital lives between now and 2020?

A highly engaged, diverse set of respondents were asked by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center to answer this question in an online, opt-in survey. Some 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics responded in a more or less split verdict. Some 53% said yes that gamification will be widespread, but a number of them qualified this by saying the evolving adoption of gamification will continue to have some limits. Some 42% chose a more modest scenario that predicted gamification will not evolve to be a larger trend except in specific realms. Here are the details:

42% agreed with the statement:

By 2020, gamification (the use of game mechanics, feedback loops, and rewards to spur interaction and boost engagement, loyalty, fun and/or learning) will not be implemented in most everyday digital activities for most people. While game use and game-like structures will remain an important segment of the communications scene and will have been adopted in new ways, the gamification of other aspects of communications will not really have advanced much beyond being an interesting development implemented occasionally by some segments of the population in some circumstances.

53% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited:

By 2020, there will have been significant advances in the adoption and use of gamification. It will be making waves on the communications scene and will have been implemented in many new ways for education, health, work, and other aspects of human connection and it will play a role in the everyday activities of many of the people who are actively using communications networks in their daily lives.

Respondents were asked to select the one statement of the two scenarios above with which they mostly agreed; the question was framed this way in order to encourage a spirited and deeply considered written elaboration about the potential future.

Here is a sampling of their predictions and arguments:

Playing beats working. So, if the enjoyment and challenge of playing can be embedded in learning, work, and commerce then gamification will take off. It will help if the personal rewards of the social side of game playing spread to other realms.

One of the most affirming arguments came from an anonymous survey respondent:  

“Gaming functionality will continue to grow and be used in more and more facets of our lives. People will receive training on the job, be exposed through education and development programs, have the ability to learn about areas that are important to them using this technology and social strategy. It will allow people to understand complex topics faster and with more nuances, and make the learning process more anticipated and less to be feared or avoided. New ideas will spread faster as the ability to educate more people becomes easier and quicker.”

Others made the case this way:

  • “The development of ‘serious games’ applied productively to a wide scope of human activities will accelerate simply because playing is more fun than working.” – Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future
  • “Playbor (play plus labor) and weisure (work plus leisure) will be ubiquitous.” – P.J. Rey, managing editor of the Cyborgology blog
  • “Gamification may be the most important social and commercial development of the next fifty years. Commercially, we may be seeing the end of the marketing orientation, possibly marking the beginning of the ‘game orientation.’ This will touch all aspects of the organization as it is applied to sales, production, management, and other areas of commercial practice. Socially, gamified technology will evolve and humanize many of the artificial interactions we currently endure—check-in’s, like’s, shares, and their kin will all ‘just work’ and drive new waves of innovation in our technology.” – Ross Rader, general manager at Hover and board member of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority
  • “People will increasingly expect game elements in a wide range of activities. Game-development tools will enable most people to gamify many aspects of life and work, in digital, physical, and blended environments.” – Cathy Cavanaugh, associate professor of educational technology, University of Florida
  • “Game mechanics and leveling up have been used in the military, the orchestra, schools, and in general professions since the beginning of human civilization…. The idea of game mechanics will simply blend into the idea of experience design or motivation design and marketing, making it easier for users to stick with a new experience.”— Amber Case, sociologist and popular speaker, and CEO of Geoloqi
  • “As more and more ‘intelligence’ is injected into a ‘gamed’ response, it gains more and more ability to impact whatever it is applied to…With the sophistication that can be inserted into interactive responses, game-like approaches will be applied across an increasingly wide sphere of human endeavors.” – Charles Perrottet, partner at the Futures Strategy Group
  • “Movements like the Quantified Self will make everything we do into our own game of self-improvement, learning, and real-time advances uniquely crafted to how we learn and what we want to learn or become proficient at. People’s ability to advance in any field will be self-controlled, automatically recorded, and unique skill sets will emerge as needed.” – Alan Bachers, director of the Neurofeedback Foundation
  • “The US military has been one of the largest developers and users of videogaming and simulation for training. Companies have developed more than just flight simulators for learning. The Disney’s, EAS’s, and others are, or will be, seeing more commercial opportunity to create better products for multiple subjects at multiple grade levels. To me, it is just a matter of time before public schools purchase and partner to use these tools, or get replaced in a vouchered world brought about by these companies wanting into the market and being big enough to counteract the political power of school unions and the boards they control.” Ed Lyell, professor at Adams State College

Games can be compelling and that can easily lead to behavioral manipulation.

  • “It’s a modern-day form of manipulation. And like all cognitive manipulation, it can help people and it can hurt people. And we will see both.”– danah boyd, researcher, Microsoft and Harvard’s Berkman Center
  • “Game mechanics will indeed be part of the lingua franca, but it will be seen as what it is—another tool of commerce trying a little too hard to wring personalized interactions out of mass behavior.” – Mack Reed, principal at Factoid Labs
  • “Companies should take responsibility for the tremendous power they wield in society. I fear they won’t, but I hope they do. Then of course, you can also say I hope consumers—people experiencing gamification on the ground—are also aware (as best they can be) of the games they are engaging with, what are their purposes, who developed them, why, and so on. We’ve all got to be very critical when fun can mask trouble.” – David Kirschner, research assistant at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
  • “I’m all for feedback loops in our complex world. Emergence is how everything works. But for some reason, I’m resisting their explicit disruptive role in education and health. There are too many entrenched reasons (some of them good reasons) not to run things this way. If everything was a game, no one would have a reason to invent; any metric corrupts, as people shape their behavior to ensure that they come out on top. There have to be other routes to excellence in work, health, and education; there have to be ways to explore, invent, create, and avoid—it can’t be that we’ll be adding up points for every salient element of our lives…. Excuse me, now, while I check whether I’ve been mentioned on Twitter.” – Susan Crawford, founder of OneWebDay and former Obama White House technology policy expert

The real energy in social innovation will come in software that privileges cooperation.

  • “Gamification has little use in cooperation, and that is the area of social software that is least realized at this time, and which I predict will be the highest-growth area in the future.” – Stowe Boyd, consultant and author

The infatuation with gamification is today’s fad and will fade.

  • “For all of the reasons that critics of game theory have identified over the years regarding its inability to capture the full range of human motivations, perceptions, cognitions, and practices, I believe there will be efforts to gamify much of what we do, but that much of that will just come and go as fads.” – Sandra Braman, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an expert on information policy.

The term “gamification” itself could use an upgrade.

  • “By 2020, anyone who ever used the term ‘gamification’ will be embarrassed to admit it.” – Alex Halavais, associate professor, Quinnipiac University
  • “Like ‘Web 2.0’, the term ‘gamification’ will fade away as the enormity of its success sweeps across the globe.” – Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education
  • “Gamification is a horrible made-up word. Just say games. Just say gaming interfaces. Just say game-design thinking.” – Vicki Suter, director of the California Virtual Campus

Further points they made:

  • While it has some drawbacks, gamification offers advantages in encouraging behaviors and generating measureable feedback.
  • Game-style engagement can bring an element of enjoyment to otherwise dull or challenging tasks, thus it will become a vital aspect of training, personal health, business, and education.
  • People are often not aware of corporations’ and governments’ surreptitious use of gamification data and patterns to gain intelligence.
  • Game-like approaches are generally a pandering to people’s already overmet desire to be entertained.
  • Some people could be “lost” to game-style approaches, causing an overall loss in productivity and other negative outcomes.
  • It is not wise to make everything into a competition or to force people into a situation in which they are expected to have to collect points for every human move.

Barry Chudakov, principal at Metalife Consulting and a visiting research fellow in the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, shared a comprehensive view: “Play, it seems, may not only be an end in itself, it may be a better way to view and understand the world. The brilliant game designer and thinker Jane McGonigal has been saying for a few years, ‘Reality is broken. Why aren’t game designers trying to fix it?’ Recently gamers deciphered the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like virus that had thwarted scientists for a decade. We will soon realize that games generate alternative realities. Because we view them as fictional worlds that are made-up, invented to entertain, we miss their astonishing utility. By 2020 we will see that these games and virtual worlds provide alternative ways of seeing and thinking, which is the essence of innovation. Games are like the apple falling in front of Newton’s eyes. Seeing the apple fall, Newton understood something else, namely gravity. Our view of gaming may be a legacy of the live-to-work ethos of the Industrial Revolution; this view may keep us from seeing the powerful uses of gaming. By 2020 we will realize that gaming’s ready-made (albeit carefully crafted) metalife is one of the best ways ever devised to see, understand, and improve upon reality.”

Another comprehensive insight came from futurist John Smart, founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation. “By 2020, gamification will have made more advances in entertainment and more inroads in education and mass consumption,” he predicted, “but it will remain niche even for most retail businesses, as well as for health, work, self-help, personal productivity, self quantification, and other domains. People want to be increasingly entertained, and The Entertainment Economy and The Experience Economy are two good books describing how the best businesses will continue to drive us in that direction. But we simply don’t have the artificial intelligence necessary to build really good versions of this yet, and educational software remains pitifully poor at creating games that improve, rather than distract from learning. By 2030, once we have a real valuecosm, and our artificial intelligence agents (our cyber twins) have good models of the values, history, and learning goals of their biological twins (us), we’ll have an environment where gamification could move significantly beyond entertainment. Until then, notwithstanding great visionary works like Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, don’t expect gamification to move us much beyond increasingly better entertainment games, and more serious games titles. Serious games will continue to remain mostly in the long tail rather than the fat head of the game market until serious artificial intelligence emerges.”

‘Tension pairs’ were designed to provoke detailed elaborations

This material was gathered in the fifth “Future of the Internet” survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. The surveys are conducted through an online questionnaire sent to selected experts who are encouraged to share the link with informed friends, thus also involving the highly engaged Internet public. The surveys present potential-future scenarios to which respondents react with their expectations based on current knowledge and attitudes. You can view detailed results from the 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 surveys here: and Expanded results are also published in the “Future of the Internet” book series published by Cambria Press.

The surveys are conducted to help accurately identify current attitudes about the potential future for networked communications and are not meant to imply any type of future forecast.

Respondents to the Future of the Internet V survey, fielded from August 28 to Oct. 31, 2011, were asked to consider the future of the Internet-connected world between now and 2020. They were asked to assess eight different “tension pairs” – each pair offering two different 2020 scenarios with the same overall theme and opposite outcomes – and they were asked to select the one most likely choice of two statements. The tension pairs and their alternative outcomes were constructed to reflect previous statements about the likely evolution of the Internet. They were reviewed and edited by the Pew Internet Advisory Board. Results are being released in eight separate reports over the course of 2012. This is the fourth of the reports.

About the survey and the participants

Please note that this survey is primarily aimed at eliciting focused observations on the likely impact and influence of the Internet – not on the respondents’ choices from the pairs of predictive statements. Many times when respondents “voted” for one scenario over another, they responded in their elaboration that both outcomes are likely to a degree or that an outcome not offered would be their true choice. Survey participants were informed that “it is likely you will struggle with most or all of the choices and some may be impossible to decide; we hope that will inspire you to write responses that will explain your answer and illuminate important issues.”

Experts were located in three ways. First, several thousand were identified in an extensive canvassing of scholarly, government, and business documents from the period 1990-1995 to see who had ventured predictions about the future impact of the Internet. Second, several hundred of them have participated in the first four surveys conducted by Pew Internet and Elon University, and they were contacted again for this survey. Third, expert participants were selected due to their positions as stakeholders in the development of the Internet. The experts were invited to encourage people they know to also participate. Participants were allowed to remain anonymous; 57% shared their name in response to at least one question.

Here are some of the respondents: danah boyd, Clay Shirky, Bob Frankston, Glenn Edens, Charlie Firestone, Amber Case, Paul Jones, Dave Crocker, Susan Crawford, Jonathan Grudin, Danny Sullivan, Patrick Tucker, Rob Atkinson, Raimundo Beca, Hal Varian, Richard Forno, Jeff Jarvis, David Weinberger, Geoff Livingstone, Stowe Boyd, Link Hoewing, Christian Huitema, Steve Jones, Rebecca MacKinnon, Mike Leibhold, Sandra Braman, Ian Peter, Mack Reed, Seth Finkelstein, Jim Warren, Tiffany Shlain, Robert Cannon, and Bill Woodcock.

The respondents’ remarks reflect their personal positions on the issues and are not the positions of their employers. Their leadership roles in key organizations, however, help identify them as experts. Following is a representative list of some of the institutions at which respondents work or have affiliations or previous work experience: Google, the World Bank, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Yahoo!, Intel, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Ericsson Research, Nokia, O’Reilly Media, Verizon Communications, Institute for the Future, Federal Communications Commission, British OfCom, World Wide Web Consortium, National Geographic Society, Benton Foundation, Linux Foundation, Association of Internet Researchers, Internet2, Internet Society, Institute for the Future, Santa Fe Institute, Yankee Group, Harvard University, MIT, Yale University, Georgetown University, Oxford Internet Institute, Princeton University, Carnegie-Mellon University, University of Pennsylvania, University of California-Berkeley, Columbia University, University of Southern California, Cornell University, University of North Carolina, Purdue University, Duke University, Syracuse University, New York University, Northwestern University, Ohio University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Florida State University, University of Kentucky, University of Texas, University of Maryland, University of Kansas, University of Illinois, and Boston College.

While many respondents are at the pinnacle of Internet leadership, some of the survey respondents are “working in the trenches” of building the Web. Most of the people in this latter segment of responders came to the survey by invitation because they are on the email list of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, they responded to notices about the survey on social media sites, or they were invited by the expert invitees. They are not necessarily opinion leaders for their industries or well-known futurists, but it is striking how much their views are distributed in ways that parallel those who are celebrated in the technology field.

While a wide range of opinions from experts, organizations, and interested institutions was sought, this survey should not be taken as a representative canvassing of Internet experts. By design, this survey was an “opt in,” self-selecting effort. That process does not yield a random, representative sample. The quantitative results are based on a non-random online sample of 1,021 Internet experts and other Internet users, recruited by email invitation, Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. Since the data are based on a non-random sample, a margin of error cannot be computed, and results are not projectable to any population other than the respondents in this sample.

When asked about their primary workplace, 40% of the survey participants identified themselves as a research scientist or as employed by a college or university; 12% said they were employed by a company whose focus is on information technology; 11% said they work at a non-profit organization; 8% said they work at a consulting business, 10% said they work at a company that uses information technology extensively; 5%noted they work for a government agency; 2% said they work for a publication or media company.

When asked about their “primary area of Internet interest,” 15% identified themselves as research scientists; 11% said they were futurists or consultants; 11% said they were entrepreneurs or business leaders; 11% as authors, editors or journalists; 10% as technology developers or administrators; 6% as advocates or activist users; 5% as legislators, politicians or lawyers; 3% as pioneers or originators; and 28% specified their primary area of interest as “other.”