Gamifying the World David Fetherstonhaugh

Bringing elements of play to routine tasks can make the activities more tolerable — even fun.

If you think e-mail is too time consuming, how about online games? A 2010 Nielsen survey of US consumers shows that Americans now spend more Internet hours playing games like Farmville than they do corresponding with other people.

Games attract human beings because we are wired for play. Designers can harness our desire to entertain ourselves by embedding game mechanics into all sorts of products and services. Play can transform arduous or mundane tasks, such as exercising and conserving energy, into less taxing, more enjoyable activities. In fact, the power of play is often most potent when gaming elements meld so completely into an experience that people do not interpret their activities as a game.

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

Charitable giving: A million drops fill a bucket

Albert Einstein is often credited with saying, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.” It must have been the physicist’s interest in big numbers that led him to observe our tendency to underestimate how quickly lots of little gains add up. People save less, vote less, and donate less as a result of this bias. Even folks who care deeply about worthy causes often forgo charitable giving because they believe their donation will be too small to matter. “Why bother?” they ask. “A measly twenty bucks is only a drop in the bucket!”

Savvy donation-based organizations are now trading routine pleas for donations for simple game dynamics to elicit micro-payments. The best-known example is the American Red Cross, which immediately after devastating earthquakes struck Haiti in early 2010 launched a relief campaign using mobile-phone texting — and raised $32 million in one month. The Red Cross eliminated the uncertainty and self-consciousness associated with small donations by issuing the clear and simple instruction: “Text ‘HAITI’ to 90999 to donate $10.” (The $10 was tacked onto donors’ wireless bills.) The nonprofit has since begun using the strategy to solicit larger donations to support other causes.

Loose change buys environmental change

How many quarters does it take to transform urban blight? Fewer than you might think. CommonStudio, a design practice with an “urban social ecology” bent, is populating local bars, businesses, schools, and parks across the US with Greenaid vending machines. The machines dispense seedbombs, or gumball-sized orbs made of nutrient clay, compost, and seeds. For a couple of quarters, consumers can transform side yards, median strips, and vacant lots in their community from forgotten gray spaces into places to admire. Within days (weather permitting), green shoots color the landscape.

Greenaid is the brainchild of Daniel Phillips and Kim Karlsrud, who started the business after inheriting a collection of old gumball machines from Kim’s father. They originally filled them with candy, but no one was interested. After they started dispensing seedbombs, their vending business boomed.

Students turn garbage into greenbacks

During lunchtime at the Foundation Academy in Winter Garden, Florida, many schoolkids are more excited about gathering trash than they are about eating. The students are in particularly hot pursuit of empty Capri Sun juice pouches. “They’ve collected 10,020 so far. The winning class gets an ice cream party,” an organizer of the three-month-long competition says.

The Foundation Academy is one of more than 36,000 grade schools in the US with an active “trash brigade.” The brigades are coordinated by TerraCycle, a manufacturer of eco-friendly products that connects the student garbage collectors with its partners, who buy and “upcycle” trash that’s otherwise un-recyclable. The schools get to keep the money, and the materials purchased get turned into new products, from backpacks to fencing gear, which are sold by Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and other major retailers.

To date, TerraCycle’s supply chain has channeled nearly 2 billion units of trash to 186 distinct product lines. By turning an onerous chore into a game, the company is helping to harness a new generation of eco-friendly citizens while driving its revenue above $50 million in 2010.

Points make medicine, chores more attractive

Ask everyone in a given household what percentage of the chores they do, and the sum of their estimates will invariably add up to more than 100 percent. corrects everyone’s math — and prompts people to pick up after themselves — by awarding each member of the household points for doing chores. Players adopt an avatar and compete for “treasure” by participating in “adventures.”

One happy mom who used the website says, “I sat down with the kids, showed them their characters and the adventures, and they literally jumped up and ran off to complete their chosen tasks. I’ve never seen my 8-year-old son make his bed [before]!”

Similarly, Health Honors uses the science of motivation to encourage healthy behaviors in medical patients. One of its medication-adherence programs taps into people’s desires to earn rewards and give back: Participants with diabetes receive points for taking their medication or learning more about their disease.

Health Honors pools the points earned by all patients in the program and donates matching funds — a dollar per point — from pharmaceutical companies to charities like the American Diabetes Association or the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.


Trenton DuVal

April 29, 2011

In 2007 Free Rice, a vocabulary game supported by ads, was launched. As users played, they were served ads. The revenue from the ads’ sponsors went to fund the UN World Food Program. For each correct answer, players donated 10 grains of rice.

After the game started to gain in popularity and went viral, the amount of rice donated surged dramatically. Freerice players donated over 42 billion grains of rice in the first six months of the site being up. As of the end of last year players had earned enough rice, ten grains at a time, to feed over 4.32 million people for one day.

Also at the end of 2010, the UN re-launched the site with more games and social network integration. Visitors can now play games based on chemistry, Spanish, German, Italian, French, geography, art and math in addition to the original English vocabulary game.

382 people agree with this comment

Agree | reply

Trenton DuVal

April 30, 2011

There’s a story in Fast Company magazine about Bill Gates funding video games in classrooms.

It includes:
·  “$2.6 million for iRemix, which is being developed by Digital Youth Network. It will be a set of 20 literacy-based trajectories that allow students to earn badges and move from novice to expert in areas like creative writing.
·  $2.5 million to Institute of Play will build a set of game-based pedagogical tools and game-design curricula that can be used within both formal and informal learning contexts.
·  $2.6 million to Quest Atlantis is creating video games that build proficiency in math, literacy and science.”

451 people agree with this comment

Agree | reply

Katie Clark

November 15, 2011

Trenton — great examples. Thanks so much!

324 people agree with this comment

Agree | reply

David Tang

December 10, 2011

There are sites and conferences about how to gamify ourselves to make chores for example a video game, like if you don’t pick after yourself you will develop a lava pit of junk, and its called 99%

426 people agree with this comment

Agree | reply

Richard Strange

March 15, 2012

Amazing idea from Bill Gates’ team - we people under 10 always playing computer games in conjunction with learning, but he seems to be taking it to the over 10s. 

The real difficulty comes in bringing gaming to the corporate workplace.  Online regulatory training is seen as a chore and utterly abhored.  Lets make it fun!  No more powerpoints of men in suits nodding sagely at a lectern.

How do we convince corporations it will improve their employees’ retention of the training material?

270 people agree with this comment

Agree | reply

David Fetherstonhaugh

March 17, 2012

So cool, David.  The 99% organization reminds me of the tag line from Good Mag’s first issue: Love it, or fix it!

350 people agree with this comment

Agree | reply

Adam Ghilchritst

April 4, 2012

Yeah…....I also supposed to you that bringing elements of play to routine tasks can make the activities more tolerable. And its really true issue. Thanks mate. smile

351 people agree with this comment

Agree | reply

Comments are now Closed