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Gamification: Marketing Miracle or Harmful Exploitation?

Owen Bell, Games and Tech Reporter

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Gamification is a word that has been getting a lot of media coverage lately. As companies look for new ways to draw customers and keep them, the idea of keeping their loyalty with a game is very appealing. The basic idea of gamification is to take something otherwise not associated with games and give it game-like elements. This usually ends up being a way for people to collect points and compete.

You see it being used all over. Reddit’s famous karma system is really just points that the users can collect and use to rank themselves. Fitocracy lets users set exercise goals and earn points. Companies even use it to try and improve employee performance by offering points based on how well people do their jobs.

Due to its success in the business world, gamification has started to be applied to issues of social good as well.

Stockholm, Sweden has one of the highest rates of unprotected sex between young adults in the world. In an attempt to curb the problem and prevent the spread of disease, the Stockholm County AIDS Prevention gamified the problem. They created an app called Condom08 distributed by a QR code on packets of condoms. Users could track various bits of data about their sex lives such as their frequency, intensity, loudness and duration. They could then post this data and compare it on the internet against their friends or that of similar strangers. The experiment was a huge success. By the end of the summer, 39% of young people in Stockholm said that they felt more positive about using a condom than before. This exceeded the project’s goals by 98%.

While it is great that Stockholm saw a massively greater change than they had hoped for, when gamification starts to be applied to social issues, I start to get a bit worried. When we need to do things that help society as a whole, we should do them because of we have a charitable spirit. We help the community prosper because the community helped us. What does it say when we require gamification to encourage us to help other people?

Giving blood is something that a lot of people have done. Donated blood has saved countless lives, and hospitals are always in need of more. To help encourage donors, blood banks and donation centers allow donors to collect points, which can be redeemed for rewards. Currently, many of these programs are so low profile that the majority of people do not know that they even exist and have never collected the prizes they are eligible for.

With the success of gamification, people have argued that organizations like the American Red Cross should advertise these systems front and center. Not only that, but they should also add some competition elements too, so you can see which of your friends are donating the most often.

Based on the previous success of programs like this, it is almost unquestionable that this could boost donations… But should it actually be done? Giving blood is something that we should want to do. We should want to help those less fortunate than ourselves. What does it say about us if we need games to make us do charity?

Unlike businesses, which try to use gamification to get more commitment out of customers that would not do so otherwise, charity is something that we, as members of our community, are expected to perform freely. Gamifying charitable work is an admission that people don’t want to give their money and time to those more in need. Rather, gamification seems to be there almost to trick people into doing what they already should be.

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Gamification: Marketing Miracle or Harmful Exploitation?