Scitech  Just fun and games

Exploring the different sides of gamification

Imagine that after going on a long run, instead of taking a hot shower, you log onto your computer, enter your time into a website, and are greeted with a friendly congratulations informing you that you’ve received 1,000 points for your effort. You’ve leveled up and it looks like you’ve been able to come out a little bit ahead of your friend’s score. In class, you complete an online practice section in Khan Academy, and instead of having your teacher give you feedback on your assignment, you get an instantaneous pop-up informing you that you’ve just received the “Good Habits Badge.” Welcome to the world of gamification.

Gamification is the turning of tasks that normally are routine, rote, or generally uninteresting, and applying game mechanics to them in order to make them more fun or appealing. Often this will take the form of ‘badges’ or ‘achievements’ that users can receive for completing specifics tasks. More advanced systems track points, offer progress bars, and foster competition to keep players involved.

While the basic tenets of gamification have been around in various forms for years, the wider proliferation of smartphones has led gamification to start seeping into all aspects of our lives. Originally used for achievements in mainstream video games like Halo 3, gamification has expanded to involvement in programming, fitness, education, and has applications in science and market research. Companies like Fitocracy use it to give user badges for exercising, competing with friends, and burning a certain number of calories. Codecademy uses badges as an incentive to help users learn web languages like HTML, CSS, and Javascript.

Gamification takes tasks that seem undesirable or chore-like and makes them engaging. By allowing users to visualize their progress and be rewarded for their effort, gamification allows for a more concrete sense of achievement. It plays into users’ desire for both constant feedback and competition. Users become engaged because they want to win. Going for a run is suddenly important because you want to beat your friends; making sure you code for a while today means that you can finally get that badge. Users also have the option to share their wins on Facebook and Twitter, providing even more avenues and incentives to showcase their accomplishments to the world.

However, not all gamification initiatives are as well-intentioned as they seem. The augmented reality game recently launched by Google, Ingress – which encourages users to fight an invisible secret organization that seeks to “mind hack” the citizens of the world by collecting energy and going to “portals” in real locations across the globe – has been analyzed by many to be a data collection exercise for Google Maps. By utilizing players’ GPS location data on their phones and encouraging them to explore and photograph hiking paths and other areas not easily accessible to Google’s own team and satellite cameras, Google enhances its own map services, especially its pedestrian directions. While users consent to a terms of service agreement allowing Google to use their phones, GPS coordinates, and data, it isn’t explicitly stated that data collection is the real purpose of the game.

Even more sinister is gamification’s recent foray into actual war zones. In 2002, the U.S. Army released America’s Army, a recruitment tool which simulated actual U.S. Army training situations and encouraged users to get the real army experience. Now in it’s eleventh year, America’s Army is seen as a “low cost recruitment tool” that aims to get military service to be a serious future option for young gamers. More recently, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) released its own gamification initiative as part of its larger “Pillar of Defense” online propaganda campaign. Players are asked to join part of the IDF’s “virtual army” by sharing, via social media, state-sponsored news releases and images that present a decidedly one-sided version of the current military initiatives in Gaza. The more that users share and tweet, the more points they get, allowing them to move up the virtual ranks. At 1,000,000 points, it’s possible to get the “Lieutenant General” badge and be presented with the message, “All rise for the chief of staff! You are commander of the Israeli Defense Force, Sir. Salute.”

While gamification has the potential to implement a motivating force that helps people educate and better themselves, it also has the potential to trivialize complex issues and reduce them to little more than points to be won. With games like Ingress, consumers are made complicit in giving away personal information – without their knowledge – to help better a corporation at little benefit to themselves. Moreover, gamified war does not take into account the tremendous real life impact that war has on the people involved in it. Since 2002, well over 100,000 people have died due to the war in Iraq. Before the recent ceasefire in Gaza, Israeli airstrikes of the past few weeks have led to over 100 Palestinian deaths. War is not something to be taken lightly, and turning it into a game simply serves to add another layer of separation between our actions and their consequences.