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Games are for kids! …. Are they? 

Games are often undervalued: seen as childish, a waste of time, a way to run away from responsibilities, sometimes. But what if I told you games are powerful tools to improve motivation, learning, engagement, financial choices and even one’s own health? 

Let me introduce you to gamification, the application of gaming elements, designs and principles in non-game contexts. 

The applications of this technique are countless, and the goal is always to improve performance or dedication in whatever field that would normally be perceived as demanding, boring or of low interest while making it fun and enjoyable. So goodbye boredom and painful sacrifices for always too distant rewards! 

In the process of gamification, the bottom line is that making the activity funny and possibly open to challenges with oneself or even a community of other players will engage with the users in a deeper way, making it in turn easier and more natural for them to engage with the gamified platform.  

The following is a list of some of the elements of gamification: 

  • Points: assigning a score to a given task is helpful in fighting biased behaviours such as present bias and time discounting. Major goals such as saving a certain amount of money or establishing a habit are not immediate, they require time and dedication and, for this reason, it is easy to abandon the initial good intention after a while, especially if the task is not on top of the list of things you make for fun. Points allow you to visualize your achievements, how much you have done and how much (or how little!) you still have to do. This visualization can also help exploiting the so-called “goal gradient effect”: as you get closer to the objective, getting those last points between you and the final reward becomes more motivating, and you speed up what you need to do to complete the challenge.  
  • Badges and trophies: assigning a badge when reaching a milestone in the path towards the final goal strengthens the effect produced by the assignment of points. It makes you appreciate the efforts already made and motivates you towards the next trophy, building reasonable steps towards the achievement of the target. 
  • Levels: levels establish a status. Combined with the assignment of points can motivate people in gaining points simply to get to the next level. If your level is visible to the other players through the use of leaderboards, it stimulates players enabling competition.  
  • Challenges: challenges ignite competition or simply boost engagement in the task. They provide a reason to improve performance and do better in the following one. 
  • Fun: games are competitive but first of all they are funny! And when you are having fun, it is well known that time runs faster. Therefore, if learning makes you smile and laugh instead of mumble and puff, you will do it more frequently and that same activity that was previously seen as boring and daunting will now be something you look forward to. The result will be that you’ll study more consistently and effectively. 

The most important aspect of gamification is perhaps the immediate availability of feedbacks and, if you think about it, it is indeed the lack of feedbacks that makes things boring and apparently meaningless, even when they add up to a fabulous outcome at the end. The finish line is simply too far, and progress is too slow, or at least this is a common feeling. Anticipating rewards, even if with immaterial prizes, can go a long way.  

One of the most common fields of application of gamification techniques is education. Think for example of language learning apps such as Babble or Duolingo, and how to forget Kahoot? By assigning points and creating rankings based on the responses to the quizzes, testing the student’s knowledge becomes funny and motivating. Studying is often perceived as a boring activity but transforming it in a game transforms also its perception.  

A famous case study for gamification is the old “Nike+” app. Even though running is deeply enjoyed by many people, it can be challenging to keep up with, and to take up in the first place. The app had the purpose to keep runners motivated and ready to improve their performance and it did so by applying gamification concepts. In the app we could find elements such as points and immediate feedback about the run, levels, leaderboards, challenges, interaction with a community and even the possibility of customization. Customization could regard both the challenges, as one could define her own goals and ask people to compete with them, or it could contemplate the personal avatar. The virtual avatar was fundamental for the interaction with the community, which was itself probably the biggest driver of motivation, together with the availability of feedbacks. The most interesting aspect of the avatar is that it changes along with the runner, or better, along with the performances of the runner. The behaviour of the avatar was in fact based on the trainings: its energy levels depended on how far one had run, and when running more days in a row, the avatar would jump around and look very refreshed, just as running should make you feel. Studies have proven that using such avatars is deeply effective in training apps, as users tend to train more when their avatar reflects their performances. Making the avatar feel better, although it sounds weird to say, can motivate to exercise more and to do it constantly. 

Changing drastically the field of application, another noteworthy example is that of Aviva’s app “Aviva Drive”. The insurance company transformed safe driving into a game: drivers’ driving data is used to assign points, so that different points correspond to different levels of discount on the insurance; better driving is rewarded with higher discounts. The app also assigned badges for different skills, such as smooth cornering, that one can share on social media. 

Introducing gamification features in apps and website designs is relatively cheap, and it does not limit the freedom of the individual, while driving their behaviour towards good and healthy practices. Even though gamification is more recent that the concept of nudging, they can be easily assimilated, and it is rather interesting to study and be aware of the importance of this technique. 

In conclusion, think twice before underestimating games, and most importantly, don’t forget to have fun whenever you can! 


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