Friday, March 14, 2008

Gamification and life

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

Spiralling petrol prices and blanket coverage of global warming don’t compare with the thrill of tearing up to the traffic lights and standing on the brakes. Let’s face it – driving a car in an ecologically-friendly way is dull, and the personal benefit is remote; a petrol bill at the end of the week (which might not be paid until the end of the month).

So being driven last week in a Toyota Prius hybrid taxi the other day, I was struck by how the car was creating feedback for the driver, and how he in turn was responding by altering his driving technique to improve fuel economy.

The screen on the centre console has a graphical representation of the wheels, the engine and the battery. When the driver accelerates hard, energy is shown being conducted from the engine to the wheels. Gentle driving shows the engine unused, with the battery powering the electric motor, and braking is illustrated by energy flowing back to the battery.

The energy flows directly represent the economy of the driver, and the result is a game. My driver had half an eye on the screen, and as he negotiated his way around town he was constantly striving to maximise his score. Fuel economy had moved from a worthy but irrelevant issue (he’s not paying the bill) to a little game that could leaven the dull routine of city driving.

As digital media have become a greater part of our lives, games have been emerging as a key tool in influencing behaviour, helping to inform and developing skills.

The US army produced America’s Army with game creator Ubisoft in 2002, and is about to launch its third version, to play on the Xbox360 console. Over nine million people have registered for the game, which has become a key recruitment tool for the military, as well as a training tool.

The US military are no strangers to video gaming, having commissioned games before, but America’s Army reflects their view that games can be an effective marketing and communications medium – an approach which has led to accusations of propaganda.

In the UK, the Home Office used an online game back in 2003 as part of a consultation exercise on the Youth Justice green paper. Knowing that this group would be unlikely to complete a Home Office questionnaire, the COI created an online game with scenarios that dramatised real crime situations – a talking point to explore teenagers’ views on rights, responsibilities, crime and punishment. And this game-based approach worked – three times as many teens completed the game/survey as would have been expected from a conventional study.

Games have always been a naturally accepted way for children to learn. Whether hand-eye coordination, interpersonal skills or language, children’s own games help them to assimilate these skills. Education has long made use of the principle that learning within a meaningful context is more effective than in the absence of such a context – as is the case with most formal learning. Psychologists call this ‘situated cognition’, and it’s behind the popularity of role playing in all sorts of training.

But there’s an increasing understanding that those who grow up with digital media learn more effectively in these environments, and are developing new ways of consuming information. Graphics vs text, random access vs step by step, parallel processing vs linear – characteristics identified by Marc Presky, a writer on education, as the new norm for the learning style of the digital native.

So whilst much of the attention given in recent years to the marketing potential of online and video games has focused on their capacity as an advertising medium – placing posters and banners in-game, the real potential of games though would appear to much greater – as the game itself becomes both the message and the means by which we learn from consumers.