Gamification: How Game Dynamics Alter the Behavior of Scientist, Workers, and Terrorists: FINAL BLOG POST

This blog post looks at gamification, or the use of game mechanics and dynamics to drive game-like engagement in largely non-game contexts. Of particular interest is how gamification is implemented by science, businesses, and social media sites to foster greater engagement, participation, and investment within these realms. We will explore examples of how gamification is being implemented to alter behavior and how this can lead to both greater productivity as well as radicalized behavior.

Word Cloud "Gamification"        NOT       gamification-at-the-office-with-stick

A brief definition of gamification: While the use of the term gamification can be traced back as far as 2008, widespread use of the term clearly begins around 2010. 

Gamification is a concept bandied about by businesses, scientists, and social media scholars alike, and the definition used is often strongly influenced by the context in which it is being considered. In fact, the ways in which gamification is defined are nearly as numerous as the ways in which it is implemented. The wiki page dedicated to gamification defines it as “the concept of applying game design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging”. For the sake of clarity and brevity, one might alternatively define gamification as the use of game attributes such as game mechanics, dynamics, storytelling, gaming psychology, and other aspects of games to drive game-like player behavior such as engagement, interaction, addiction, competition, collaboration, and learning in a non-game context such as work, fitness, community and social participation, and scientific investigation. Did I say brevity? I meant verbosity. While that doozy of a sentence is a grammarian’s nightmare, it makes comically clear that gamification is both complex and broadly applicable. Businesses tend to emphasize the use of game mechanics to reap tangible business benefits, such as increased customer loyalty, or greater worker productivity, Scientists and social media scholars on the other hand, tend to emphasize the incorporation of game structures and dynamics to encourage problem solving, or the use of fun and reward to reinforce and influence behavior. Much research is currently going focused on trying to define gamification to make it a rigorous term and to distinguish it from a host of related ideas such as gamefulness, gameful interaction, and gameful design. Gamefulness (a term coined by Jane McGonigal) denotes the general quality of gaming, gameful interaction is interaction which results in gamefulness, and finally gameful design is designing for gamefulness, typically through the incorporation of game elements. Gamification is perhaps most strongly related to the process of gameful design specifically for non-game purposes, and this is the sense in which we will largely be discussing gamification in this blog post. We will specifically  focus our attention on the ways in which gamification is used to alter behavior in such diverse fields as science, business, and online social media.


Within the realm of science, great emphasis is placed on the process of problem solving and the mindful pursuit of unambiguous truth. Comparing this to the common association of games with diversion, relaxation, and make-believe, it might not be immediately apparent that games can play a large role in the realm of scientific research. However, the gamification of science is not only becoming increasingly common, but has already been implemented to solve immensely complex scientific problems. In the realms of biology and biochemistry alone large scale crowdsourcing games, often called serious games, such as Phylo, Foldit, and eteRNA, have proven successful in solving problems such as genomic analysis, protein folding, and RNA folding, respectively. This form of gamification focuses on problem solving and relies on three key aspects. First, it takes a complex problem that traditionally requires specialized training and immense amounts of time to solve, and translates it into a simplified and well-defined structural puzzle which relies on only a very small number of simple rules. Secondly, it makes these puzzles accessible to a large number of people. Thirdly, it leverages reward and reputation to create engagement, investment, and participation in scientific gameplay. In short, the primary focus of the gamification of science is to convert a largely non-scientist community from non-scientifically engaged citizens into citizen scientists. For instance, in only three weeks, non-scientists playing Foldit were able to unlock the structure of an AIDS related enzyme in monkeys that had baffled scientists and specialists for nearly a decade, bringing the scientific community closer to a potential cure for HIV and other retroactive viruses.


It is amazing that games such as Foldit can take a problem such as solving for the ideal folded shape of a protein, a problem which induces painful flashbacks of chemistry 101 for most people, and convinces non-scientists to dedicate large amounts of time to solving it. How is gamification being used to convince people that solving biochemistry problems is a game, not a chore?

Looking at the three aspects of gamification within science it is worth noting that the first is not something new to science. Scientific disciplines such as chemistry and have long taken complex problems such as the electronic nature of chemical bonding and constructed simplified models to explain observations. The VSEPR model of chemical bonding for example invoke a few simple rules such as:  two electrons form a single bond, bonds move but don’t break, and bonds will try to get as far away from each other as possible, to explain the shape of molecules.


While this model is very simple and was first proposed in the 1940s, it remains foundational to how chemists determine molecular structures, a problem that in reality can only be approximately solved by the most powerful of modern supercomputers. So it is not this first aspect of the gamification of science that is unique, but rather the combination of making these simplified models of scientific problems readily accessible to large numbers of people and then engineering game structures and dynamics to encourage participation.

Games such as Foldit for example are free to download and therefore can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. As one of the co-developers of Foldit, Adrien Treville points out: “Games allow us to identify people who are good at a task and let them to do it.” Games like Foldit can connect people who are non-scientists but are extremely good at solving puzzles with problems such as protein folding, which they might never normally seek to solve but for which they are ideally suited.

Science games like Foldit, eteRNA and Phylo foster player engagement through a variety of means including awarding points for working on puzzles, providing rankings via public leaderboards to honor success with public recognition and build a constructively competitive community. Projects such as Foldit also offer a sense of epic meaning by allowing players to contribute to solving world-scale problems such as finding the cure for AIDS, as mentioned above. Foldit also fosters participation by offering social elements common to many MMORPGs ( WOW, EQ,..etc) such as discussion boards, blogs and  other forms of community participation.  As game designer and researcher Dr. McGonigal claims in her 2010 TED talk (see below)

elements such as epic meaning and blissful productivity can be harnessed to solve humanitarian problems.

However, while the promise of harnessing the power of games to solve scientific problems is an attractive one, there exists the very real question of how player productivity is being utilized. Is it acceptable for researchers and companies to take the work that players of science games produce and capitalize on it by patenting new drugs or more efficient computer algorithms? These questions are at the forefront of the current debate surrounding issues of ownership of player productivity that we have discussed in class. With researchers such as Sherry Turkle warning about the dangerous and exploitative nature of gamification, as a stark counterpoint to the exuberant “gamification is going to save the world” attitude adopted by McGonigal, this question remains at the forefront of scholarship about gamification as well as the debate over the application of gamification to solve traditionally non-game related problems.

Businesses and Online Social Media:

While scientific games such as Foldit appropriate game structures and dynamics to solve scientific problems, it is important to note that gamification is a much broader trend and does not necessarily have to involve games, in the more traditional sense, at all. Increasingly, companies are utilizing gamification strategies in an attempt to increase worker productivity, as well as to retain customer loyalty and maximize customer engagement. In short, companies are utilizing gamification strategies to target and maximize quantifiable business advantages in productivity and levels of consumption. The focus of gamification in the productive side of business is not on problem solving so much as it is on reinforcing positive productive behavior in employees. How do companies gamify something without actually making it into a game and how do they manipulate worker and consumer behavior to maximize efficiency and productivity? As the online gamification company, Actionable, sees it, gamification in business is not about turning things that are not games into games, but rather it is about providing feedback to customers and workers about how well they are doing/contributing to a business or community and providing concrete goals for employees and consumers to work towards. For instance, a company might break up large and vague goals such as “improve the number of sales in your department” or “decrease the average call time in your call center” to small, targeted goals such as asking each worker to increase their personal sales numbers by 5 percent or decrease their average call time by ten seconds. Providing prizes and rewards for reaching these manageable goals further helps reinforce productive behavior. Thus, feedback is also seen as key in the gamificaton of businesses as it allows workers to see progress and creates positive feedback loops or alternatively provides an early warning of decreased performance.

Gamification of businesses can also be very influential in terms of consumer engagement. Loyalty programs and specific websites and apps gamify consumer participation with a particular company. For instance, Nike’s running app for iPhone and Android, Nike+, not only encourages fitness and regular exercise, but it provides a forum for competition with friends, as well as charts and graphs to visualize progress, and recordings of famous Nike-sponsored athletes to provide encouragement at given points throughout a workout. Specific products that couple with Nike+, such as FuelBand, Nike+ GPS watches, and specific Nike shoes, promise greater involvement and more accurate measurements of workout results. In this way, Nike encourages consumer loyalty through the coupling of products with the gamification of running.


As gamification becomes more widespread, companies look to the new industry of gamification consultant companies, which has emerged to capitalize on the increasing popularity of gamification, for assistance in developing business-specific gamification techniques. Companies such as Bunchball, The Game Agency, BadgVille, Actionable, and TechTarget specialize in offering “gamification solutions” for businesses as well-known as Warner Bros., Comcast, NBC Universal, ABC Television, Stella & Dot and LiveOps. Indeed, according to Gartner, the percentage of companies that gamify innovation processes is likely to reach fifty percent by the year 2015.

Companies that advertise on social media sites such as Facebook are also interested in using elements of gamification to increase the number of clicks, visits, and retention time on their facebook ads and pages. Some strategies proposed by gamification consultant companies for businesses to improve their Facebook ads and pages, include providing points for engagement and participation on their page, allowing points to be redeemed for real prizes, and providing users with contests and challenges. Facebook lends itself easily to this sort of tactic since it already has built into it elements such as the “like” button, tags, sharing, and messaging, all of which are designed to foster user involvement. Indeed, Gabe Zichermann, the chair of Gamification Summit, describes these elements as the basis for gamification of facebook business pages since they represent different levels of consumer engagement through actions that have already been standardized and accepted as part of the functions of facebook.

Social Media:

Facebook itself is perhaps one of the best and most complex examples of the gamification in business. Not only does it reach a vast number of people, but it is both a publically traded company and a global phenomenon in its role as an online social media website. On September 14th 2012 Facebook announced that it had reached 1.01 billion users monthly. And how did facebook get so popular you might ask; gamification likely has played an important part. Facebook uses an enormous number of gamification elements to promote engagement and active participation from its users. Looking at the interactive options available to facebook users alone there are “like” buttons, tagging, messaging, sharing, and commenting which allow users to constructively reinforce community participation by rewarding engagement on Facebook with social recognition. Users can also play games together on facebook introducing competitive or cooperative gameplay elements which help to prolong and extend user engagement on the site.The timeline feature of Facebook allows users to view the progress of their participation on the website and track the positive content and feedback they receive and create.

Events and competitions on facebook also serve to incentivize participation on the website. Users can send each other invitations to real or virtual events and, as mentioned previously, there are many opportunites for facebook users to win prizes for visiting and participating on the facebook pages of businesses.

Facebook also incorporates several structural features which promote positive feedback loops and allow users to discard negative content, thereby serving to create aspirational identity and lower the stakes of participation on facebook, serving effectively as the “extra lives feature” that is so popular in games at large. The timeline feature of Facebook allows users to view the progress of their participation on the website and track the positive content and feedback they receive. Having a visual representation of content and participation over time can serve to create personal investment and prevent people from leaving facebook. The ability of facebook users to rank their top friends also incentivises participation so as to maintain status with friends.

While facebook is one of the largest businesses/online social media communities in the world, other online social media websites utilize elements of gamification to garner participation as well. Interestingly the use of gamification to encourage participation in radicalized special interest groups such as websites dedicated to terrorism have received increasing amounts of interest in the last few years. In 2011 NPR aired a news piece entitled “The Gamification of Jihad” in which anchor Brooke Gladstone interviewed Alix Levine, of the security consulting firm Cronus Global on the use of gamification to incentivize participation in terrorist activity.

As Mr. Levin puts it, terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda as well as neo-nazi groups such as StormFront are increasingly awarding point and reputation power for participation on their websites. These gamified extremist websites reward members for the frequency and quality of their posts by allowing them to increase the size of their avatars, change the color of their user name or any number of small prizes. What the news piece highlights is that while the incentives are small the effect on engagement is huge. When asked why this should worry us, Mr. Levin indicated that we are only at the very forefront of this gamification movement of extremist groups so there is little concrete data to be had but the use of game dynamics such as are already common on sites such as foursquare and farmville hold the potential to create greater engagement and brand loyalty for terrorist groups and that is might translate into real world acts of terrorism.


With applications as broad as solving scientific problems, increasing productivity, efficiency and loyalty in businesses, and even emerging as a new model of incentivizing terrorist activity gamification looks like it will become increasingly important in the years to come. Given all these diverse examples of the implementation of gamification one thing is clear: gamification shows the distinct potential to manipulate human behavior. What its influence will be in the future remains unclear.


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