Lecturer, College of Image Arts and Sciences, Ritsumeikan University
Co Authors :
Gamification refers to the act or method of deploying game elements in nongame contexts. Typical elements used are goals (i.e., collecting points), high scores, and comparison or competition among players. While these elements can be deployed in any context, some of the most prominent examples have been developed in the intersecting fields of education, marketing, design, the organization of work, and social networks. As a method, gamification is not a recent discovery. However, the rise of consumer culture (the need to attract customers), digital technologies (the possibility of measuring and tracking), and the internet (facilitating data aggregation, comparison, and contests) contributed to the peak of gamification in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
In addition to game design and game studies, educational and economic actors and researchers have shown a great interest in gamification as a method of motivating students and consumers. Given its abstract nature and range of applications, the term has been discussed widely. Deterding et al. (2011) offer a widely recognized, structured introduction to the term in English, where they contrast gamification with serious games. Whereas serious games function as full-fledged games in themselves, gamification does not produce games. Rather, it is an enhancement of a service. Accordingly, they define gamification as the use of game design elements in nongame contexts.
In Japanese, Inoue (2012) has written extensively on the concept and its future potentials. He stresses the instrumental role that gamified support, SNS, played in the 2008 Obama election, adding that, not only political action but also various social infrastructures can be gamified in the future. Inoue points out that, if gamification spreads to studying at school, work management, advertising, sports, health management, and other areas, this might change our image of free will. Gamified services combine a projective, strategic dimension (what are my short, mid-, and long-term goals, and how can I reach them), intentional others (players to compare results with), and a continuously modified design. In one way or another, this combination rearranges our perspective on free will, our ability to exercise spontaneity, and the importance of internal motivation.
This ambivalent potential is also a reason for much of the dispute over the term and its effects. While the term’s definition is broadly accepted on a formal level, its significance and evaluation vary greatly among scholars. Enthusiasts dream of a new, better world that deploys game elements for solving problems and motivating engagement in educational or political contexts. Jane McGonigal (2012) argues that videogames, from small-scale casual cellphone apps to epic massive multiplayer online worlds, can enhance and ultimately fix our broken reality by offering us more activating, fun, rewarding, socially rich, and fulfilling challenges than our boring everyday lives. Likewise, well-known game designer Eric Zimmermann declares the twenty-first century to be the ludic century. He celebrates playfulness and predicts a situation in which “the ways that people spend their leisure time and consume art, design, and entertainment will be games—or experiences very much like games” (Zimmermann 2014, 20). Like McGonigal, he is convinced that the complex problems of today “require playful, innovative, transdisciplinary thinking” (ibid., 22), in other words, the kind of thinking needed for playing and designing games.
It may not come as a surprise, then, that gamification has also emerged as a trendy business strategy. In their review of the theoretical and practical development of gamification, Walz and Deterding observe that over the years, “a whole cottage industry of gamification consultants, agencies, and software providers has emerged” (2014, 3).
Critical perspectives alert us to the rhetorical move by which such “gamification” suggests an overlap with the rich cultural phenomena of play and games, while the practice itself is actually dominantly aimed at exploiting the users and their actions (ibid., 5–7). Ian Bogost (2014) provides a detailed discussion of this tendency, claiming that “Gamification is Bullshit.” For the gamification industry, he states, games are only relevant as “a convenient rhetorical hook into a state of anxiety in contemporary business” (ibid., 76). The aim of the gamification industry, according to Bogost, is to establish gamification permanently as something every company must have (ibid., 72). Such gamification, he says, is detached from its gamified content and the results of the practice to the extent that the measurable “output” created by a gamified exploitation of company workers or users risks covering up any underlying problems with the related products or services themselves (ibid., 69). The more the smooth functioning of gamification (i.e., the earning of points, etc.), the more it becomes a goal in and of itself (ibid., 72).
Reviewing existing studies on the psychological and behavioral outcomes of gamification, Hamari, Koivisto, and Sarsa (2014) offer a more positive picture. While pointing out that most of the studies reviewed reported the positive results of gamification, the authors also note that in many cases, not all tests ended in favor of gamification. Instead, factors like implementation contexts and user motivation seem to influence the results significantly. With regard to educational contexts, the studies reviewed reported mostly positive effects—not, however, without pointing out that various factors, like the increased competition in gamified contexts, may also bear negative effects on learning. Other studies similarly suggest that the positive effects of gamification cannot be generalized across cultural contexts. For example, an IBM research team tested their SNS with gamified elements (Thom, Millen, and DiMicco 2012), comparing employees in India and the United States. They found that most behavior was similar in both countries, but at the same time, the comment activity of the US employees in the SNS was clearly lower than that of the employees in India.
In sum, gamification is a decisively ambiguous concept with debatable results in its application. What is more, the interpenetration of games with everyday life has a long history (Walz and Deterding 2014, 6). Rather than reducing this ludification of culture (Raessens 2014) to the strongly normatively framed concept of gamification, Walz and Deterding propose a more facetted approach: They distinguish between serious games or games designed for nonentertainment purposes, serious toys or toys designed for nonentertainment purposes, playful design or nontoy objects that use design elements from toys, and gamification or nongame objects that use design elements from games (2014, 7). This nuanced approach is an important step and a promising starting point for future engagements with the act or method of deploying game elements in nongame contexts.
This need to move beyond generalized terms becomes apparent when we look at what might be one of the most notable applications of gamification in Japan: #denkimeter. Developed by Akito Inoue, one of the authors of this entry, #denkimeter is a game service that was released one week after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Following the earthquake, nuclear power plants across Japan were shut down. This resulted in a significant supply shortage of electrical energy in the Kanto and Tohoku regions of Honshu island, which was countered by the power-supply companies with scheduled blackouts. During this period, the government strongly urged the population to save energy. On March 12, the day after the earthquake, someone started the energy-saving operation “Operation Yashima” (yashima sakusen), named after a sequence in episode six of the famous anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. In the original operation, an invading enemy is defeated by using a high-energy-consumption rifle that consumes all the energy available in the power grids across Japan.
In those days, the atmosphere in Japan was depressed and tense. Under these circumstances, the energy-saving game #denkimeter was released. Its rules are simple. In Japan, the electricity meter displaying a household’s energy consumption is usually attached to the wall close to the entrance door of the apartment or house. The game #denkimeter allows you to track how much energy you save by documenting the readings from the meter regularly. If your consumption is too high, the service will respond by calling you “garbage” (gomi) or “maggot” (mijinko; actually referring to daphnia). Such “titles” can be posted on Twitter.
Around that time, saving energy was considered a social duty. However, #denkimeter motivated energy saving without further darkening the mood and was highly appraised for this (see, for example, Shin 2011; Ono 2011; Matsui 2011; Uno and Hamano 2012; Uno 2013; Media Āto Kokusaika Suishin Iinkai 2015; Nakagawa 2016). In 2015, the game was also discussed in a Japanese high school textbook (Tsuido 2015). More importantly, it had a real effect. People who had never thought about energy saving before reduced their energy consumption by 10% to 80 % after playing #denkimeter for a few months.
During and after the earthquake, the Japanese language sphere of the internet was abounding with ethical warnings and finger wagging in many regards, energy consumption being a prime example. While the main purpose of #denkimeter was energy saving, it can also be seen as a counterperspective against the approach of moralistic enlightenment. As one Japanese critic puts it: “It does not appeal to the good in people, or force morals on the players. By participating in the game, each individual player contributes to a positive effect, and together, the player’s actions add up to contribution to society” (Hamano 2011, 22).
The game #denkimeter is a successful and helpful example of gamification because it shows the simplicity of the idea, the complexity of applying it, and the potential scale of its effects all at the same time. The overall mechanism is not very complex. The game shows how much energy you saved and how your efforts compare to other players. This simple structure has been called “Point, Badge, Leader’s Board” (PBL). It solely depends on some kind of measurable factor, which can be used to “gamify” any context.
This simplicity is also the source of frequent arguments, because many scholars, like the abovementioned Ian Bogost, criticize the equation of “PBL=game” as too simple. On the other hand, PBL is indeed widely applicable. The success of widely recognized services like Badgeville or BigDoor, which grew out of Sillicon Valley, is largely due to the fact that, at their core, they allow for the embedding of PBL mechanisms into a variety of web services. By now, PBL mechanisms have advanced into many areas of life, including medical care, education, cars, television, and politics.
At the same time, #denkimeter is designed in awareness of the contexts in which it is used. The service was popular because it employed the kind of humorous language popular in Japan in general, and in Japan’s online culture and its “net slang” in particular. This makes #denkimeter a “humorous” service in itself, but it is also a conscious choice on the part of the designer, who hoped that such language would help spread the service on the internet. As such, #denkimeter is much more than a simple adaptation of PBL for energy saving. Instead, the designer was conscious of the importance of context and player motivation that Hamari, Koivisto, and Sarsa (2014) discuss in their abovementioned study.
What is more, the service #denkimeter is far from the kind of contentless gamification Bogost criticizes. Highly conscious of the context of its invention, its goal was to change society—which it did to a considerable extent. In this sense, #denkimeter shows an important potential of gamification, namely, that it can create alternative realities. Amid a gloomy atmosphere, #denkimeter changed the idea of “saving energy as contribution to society” into “saving energy as personal entertainment” and “saving energy as something funny, even silly.” Indeed, in the wake of the disaster, people started saving energy as a personal hobby—intentionally avoiding the kind of moral (peer) pressure known from existing social movements and awareness raising activities. In other words, by deploying game elements in a non-game context, it succeeded in transforming this context into something different. This potential to generate alternative realities can serve both as a means of criticizing dysfunctional social reality and as a means to worsen a given situation. Gamifying the competition within a company by introducing game-like mechanisms for evaluating performance might raise productivity in some cases, but it frequently ends up creating unfriendly, stressful workplaces. The worst tendencies can be observed in new kinds of “sweatshops” (burakku kigyō), in which those in charge of managing the workers push toward overwork (karō) by introducing game-like elements into the work environment. This may be considered a new type of exploitation. It also highlights, once again, the importance of a nuanced analysis of any gamification with regards to its contexts and the game elements deployed. What likely distinguishes most gamification of workplaces from services like #denkimeter is that participation in the former is often not free and cannot be revoked without consequences. The latter, in return, does not force participation but offers a playground and a magic circle one can step out of at any time. Such freedom of participation is widely considered a central constituent of play and games (Huizinga 1970; Caillois 1961)—even though, arguably, it often only exists as an ideal. More work needs to be done in consideration of the question of whether gamified contexts that fail to offer such freedom are indeed less effective and are more likely to produce negative effects.
Thus, #denkimeter serves as a showcase of how gamification works and what effects it can have. While the service already makes use of online communication via social networks, several recent technological developments greatly broaden the possible application of the idea of gamification. First, increasingly affordable sensor technologies of diverse types are rendering more and more areas and aspects of daily life measurable. This in turn increases the possibilities of PBL-centered gamification. For example, the widely discussed Pokémon GO from 2016 built its success on the worldwide spread of smartphones equipped with GPS receivers. Second, and closely related to this, is the increased availability of network communication, which allows for real-time comparison with other “players,” even across longer distances, thus bridging a spatial separation. In the enthusiast scenario, everybody can be connected while at play and experiences add meaning to and pleasure in their tasks and everyday actions. From a critical perspective, these connections potentially transform the gamified workplace into an increasingly globalized, increasingly competitive, digital sweatshop. We find traces of both directions in recent developments. AKB48 can be considered an example of empowering and entertaining but at the same time exploiting fans (and protagonists). Earlier examples show that gamification is not entirely an internet phenomenon. For example, “Bikkuriman choco” is one good case in point. Bikkuriman chocolate created a boom among children in the 1980s, but not for its taste. Rather, each chocolate had a collectible sticker featuring “Bikkuriman” characters attached to it. The characters had ranks, like gold character, silver character, and angel and devil characters. The children wanted to obtain stickers of high ranks. In addition, the fictional world of Bikkuriman was enthusiastically used as setting for games and stories by the children. As a result, this chocolate achieved big sales due to the collectible and ranked characters rather than its taste as a sweet. In fact, it became a problem that children started throwing away the chocolate without eating it.
The abovementioned examples show that gamification is not only a concept with great constructive or destructive potentials in its application, but it can also be fruitful as a critical-analytical perspective on social realities. In regard to any situation or phenomenon, including political and discursive contexts, a critique from the perspective of gamification could mean identifying how measurability and feedback mechanisms function and asking about the intentions and benefits of gamifying and its effects on the “players’” actions and behaviors.
To sum up, gamification is a rather loose term that captures the infusion of nongame contexts with game-like elements. One of the most central and widely used elements of gamification are PBLs, which are deployable in increasingly various contexts due to the technical developments of recent years. The game #denkimeter captures its most central features, at the same time indicating that, simply applying these features is not enough for a successful attempt at gamification. Moreover, the vagueness of the term makes it ripe for marketing and consulting discourses, which offer the most extensive coverage of the concept in books and magazines. While the practice of gamification is not entirely new, the concept has gained much attention in education and business contexts, as well as in digital media industries, since the late 2000s. Its broad application in Japan also makes it a promising analytical tool for structuring and understanding the economic, social, and cultural realities in Japan today.
Bogost, Ian. 2014. “Why Gamification Is Bullshit.” In The Gameful World: Approaches, Issues, Applications, edited by Steffen P. Walz and Sebastian Deterding, 65–80. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Caillois, Roger. 1961. Man, Play, and Games. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.
Deterding, Sebastian, Dan Dixon, Rilla Khaled, and Lennart Nacke. 2011. “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining ‘Gamification.’” In Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments, 9–15. New York: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/2181037.2181040.
Hamano Satoshi. 2011. “Setsuden gēmu de rentai mo—netto de o-kigara kōken no kanōsei.” Asahi Shinbun, April 5, 2011: 22.
Hamari, J., J. Koivisto, and H. Sarsa. 2014. “Does Gamification Work?—A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification.” In 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 3025–34. https://doi.org/10.1109/HICSS.2014.377.
Huizinga, Johan. 1970. Homo Ludens. London: Temple Smith.
Inoue Akito. 2012. Gamification. Tokyo: NHK Shuppan.
Matsui Yu. 2011. “#denkimeter wo iOS de play dekiru yo nishita iDenkiMeter haishin kaishi.” Gamer’s Express, April 3, 2011. http://g-x.jp/4d984b6c-28cc-4315-a194-2bafcaac1ca2.
McGonigal, Jane. 2012. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Vintage.
Media Āto Kokusaika Suishin Iinkai. 2015. Nippon no manga anime gēmu from 1989. Catalogue. Tokyo: Kokusho Kankōkai.
Nakagawa Daichi. 2016. Gendai game zenshi. Tokyo: Hayakawa Shobo.
Ono Kenji. 2011. “‘Sentoryoku 0 ka, gomi me. . .’ Setsuden suruhodo tsuyoku naru! twitter de dai boom Denkimeter tte?” Excite Review, March 23, 2011. http://www.excite.co.jp/News/reviewapp/20110323/E1300807472039.html.
Raessens, Joost. 2014. “The Ludification of Culture.” In Rethinking Gamification, edited by Mathias Fuchs, Sonia Fizek, Paolo Ruffino, and Niklas Schrape, 91–114. Lüneburg: Hybrid Publishing Lab.
Shin Kiyoshi. 2011. “Game de shakai wo yoku suru ‘gamification.’” Nikkei Shinbun, March 31, 2011. https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXNASFK30021_Q1A330C1000000/.
Thom, Jennifer, David Millen, and Joan DiMicco. 2012. “Removing Gamification from an Enterprise SNS.” In Proceedings of the ACM 2012 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 1067–70. New York: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/2145204.2145362.
Tsuido, Kazuaki, ed. 2015. “Gamification: Game May Save the World.” In Vivid English Communication III, 32–37. Tokyo: Daiichi Gakushusha.
Uno Tsunehiro. 2013. Nihon bunka no ronten. Tokyo: Chikuma Shoten.
Uno Tsunehiro, and Hamano Satoshi. 2012. Kibō-ron. Tokyo: NHK Books.
Walz, Steffen P., and Sebastian Deterding. 2014. “An Introduction to the Gameful World.” In The Gameful World: Approaches, Issues, Applications, edited by Steffen P. Walz and Sebastian Deterding, 1–14. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Zimmermann, Eric. 2014. “Manifesto for a Ludic Century.” In The Gameful World: Approaches, Issues, Applications, edited by Steffen P. Walz and Sebastian Deterding, 19–22. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.