Skip to main content

It’s everywhere, everyday. Look around and you’ll find gamification where you least expect it.

Hello and welcome to your gamified life. I’m not talking about the games people play or playing your A-game, I’m talking about the game mechanics that drive the fulcrum of your day. Goals, rules, feedback, voluntary participation – free will with boundaries. That’s gamification and it powers your day from the get-go.

“When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.” Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

The bells, the bells!

It’s 6:40 AM and your alarm blasts a wake up. Now, alarm clocks have been around for well over 200 years (the very first American alarm clock was created by Levi Hutchins in 1787) and still have pride of place on night tables around the world. But how have they evolved to keep pace with changing times and human habits?

Before we talk about the plethora of 21st Century alarm clock apps, let’s look at the first big step up from the traditional brass bell and hammer alarm clock model, which was of course, the clock radio.

Although this is technically product diversification, and doesn’t qualify as gamification, it’s a precursor in the sense that combining the radio function with the clock adds an element of entertainment – the ability to tune to your favourite station — and therefore engagement. Consequently, people are more likely to choose a clock and radio hybrid over an old-fashioned clock.

The clock-radio still tells accurate time and the alarm still wakes you up, so all the functions of a clock remain unaltered. All that’s been added is an element of fun and engagement. And that’s the general purpose of gamification, to add a layer of entertainment or fun, without changing the nature of the underlying task or activity.

Of course, with the advent of mobile devices we find that technologies are converging. Think of how your radio, TV, phone and clock are now all rolled into one wonderfully portable device.

Consumers are a fickle lot and time waits for no one, as they say, so how do clock manufacturer’s keep their product fresh, interesting and more desirable than a competitors’?

Enter apps

Now, a true example of gamification applied to alarm clocks would be one of those nifty new apps that make you solve a math problem before the alarm will shut off. All the functions of a traditional clock are still there, but now there is an added layer of engagement (or torment). You can’t just hit snooze, roll over and go back to sleep, you have to actively engage with the phone.

Notice how adding gamification mechanics (challenge, mastery) solves a very specific problem – hitting the snooze button – by adding a layer of fun. In so far as doing maths first thing in the morning, can be called ‘fun’. The point is this; gamification adds value because it solves a problem, it’s not just there for the heck of it.

The gamified morning toilette

So, your morning is formally under way now. What’s next? How about brushing your teeth; has that been gamified yet? The answer is yes. Today, several electric toothbrush brands offer very zooty machines that not only clean your teeth, but record how long you’ve brushed, at what angle, and prompt you with a buzz to make sure you brush all four quadrants of teeth. Clever, but there’s more.

‘Smart’ electric toothbrushes supply a small LCD dongle (or app) that visualises the four quadrants of your mouth and allocates a star if you brush all four for the correct amount of time. The challenge (i.e. gamification mechanic) is to get a star every day. The rewards are two-fold. Intrinsic, in that you get satisfaction from a job well done, (which the dongle acknowledges with stars) and the additional extrinsic reward of sparkling clean teeth! Makes you want to brush the recommended twice a day. Gamification, loyalty, reward. Repeat.

Fit, fitter, fittest

If you have a remotely serious commitment to fitness, you’ve surely noticed dozens and dozens of apps on the market competing for the loyal patronage of runners, walkers and workout fanatics of all stripes. All are gamified – that is – they work on the principles of gamification. Some are bundled with fitness products.

Anyone who owns a Garmin product and who has experimented with the bundled Garmin Connect app can attest to its gamified dashboard. Strava, too, is an excellent and very popular gamified fitness app that is not dependant on specific technology or devices.

These apps work by playing into our very human tendency to compete and share, if you’re an extroverted type, or compete with yourself, if you’re more introverted. (Or if you don’t want others to know just how unfit you really are!) The apps assign points for activities; contain leader boards for comparison, and award badges and trophies for accomplishments, like most workouts per week, or longest distance run, or fastest 10 kilometres on a bicycle. It’s gamification exactly where you’d expect to find it.

Fill ‘er up and win

Ok, you’re wide awake and energised, ready to head out into the world. But first, you need to fill the car with petrol. Is there a gamified angle here? If you’re busy calculating how many loyalty points you’ll earn per litre, you betcha!

The simple logic is this — by allocating points for fuel purchases, you are more likely to continue filling up at that particular station, using that particular payment method. Your points can be redeemed against other purchases from other participating retailers. And so the cycle continues, driving customer retention. In South Africa, FNB’s eBucks loyalty program or the Discovery Insure driver challenge come to mind, but the concept of rewarding loyalty is universal and similar programs exist throughout the world to attract new customers, retain existing customers and get an edge in the marketplace.

So what’s the gamification element here? The tiered rewards structure typical of many reward programs is a big one. The more you engage, the more you move up the ranks of loyalty member VIPs, with the associated special perks and privileges. These might be extrinsic – like free gifts or increased points value, or intrinsic – like VIP airline check-in privileges. If it sounds like the gamification mechanic of levelling up, it is.

It’s everywhere

Are you starting to see how gamification is happening all around you? Great, because now it’s lunchtime and you and a colleague are headed to a coffee shop. But which one? Chances are you’ll make that choice based on which one has the best customer loyalty program. And they all have them.

Starbucks, for example has their own loyalty app, which tracks purchases and awards loyalty points that translate into discounts and other benefits. Every time you purchase a coffee you earn a gold star – collect enough gold stars on your virtual loyalty card and you get a free coffee or similar discount.

People love to collect things, and once they’ve started there is a strong, intrinsic motivation to complete the collection set. More often than not, a prize is ‘dangled’ for completing the set. Not just a virtual prize like a badge or trophy, but an actual tangible prize for loyal customers to have and to hold. These game elements, which drive customer engagement, are pure gamification at work.

Back to work

You’ve finished your coffee and redeemed a free muffin and now it’s time to head back to the office. However, it’s lunchtime and the traffic is hectic. Is there a gamified solution to deal with this particular pain-point?

Enter Waze. It’s not just an app that provides directions to a destination, oh no, gamification has made it much more engaging. Routes and directions are based on user feedback and the level of their interaction with the app. Just as you enjoy using social media to interact and feel part of a community, the app very cunningly makes use of your natural tendency to want to contribute to something larger than yourself – especially if there is a perceived benefit in doing so. In this case, you get to feel good about contributing to the reduction in traffic. Waze simply looks for alternative routes based on real-time feedback from app users.

And so it goes…

Challenge yourself to identify other day-to-day activities that have been gamified. Maybe you’ll hit the gym this evening and be incentivised and rewarded by a gamified loyalty program like Discovery Vitality, which touts itself as “the world’s leading science-based behavioural change programme that encourages healthy activity”.

Maybe the last thing you do before turning in will be to listen to an audiobook or your favourite podcast. You may even be one of those rare birds, someone who still reads books, albeit in electronic format and by means of an app. It’s a safe bet that however you choose to end your day, there will be a layer of gamification that enhances the experience, drives engagement, and rewards you for your actions.

Gamification really is everywhere, every day.