This is a guest post by Jeremiah O’Leary – Experience Designer – Digital Surgeons

Jeremiah is a maker and thinker practicing experience and interaction design with a high tolerance for volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity.

“IRL,” or In Real Life, is a term used by virtual gamers in digital worlds to designate that they are talking about the real, physical world.

Now that you know what IRL is, forget it — it’s irrelevant as game interactions no longer take place solely in digital worlds.

The line between life and games continues to blur as interaction designers continue to figure out new, innovative ways to get users to interact with products and services.

When Play Becomes a Game

Too often people mistake play and games. While it is difficult to have a game without play, it is all too easy to play without it being a game.

To put this in perspective, imagine two boys throwing a tennis ball back and forth to one another in the park. They are having fun as they carelessly toss and catch the ball. These two boys are playing, but there are elements missing that make what they are doing a game.

Take the same two boys and the same tennis ball, and one of the boys draws a line in the dirt with their foot, and declares that the two boys will take turns throwing the ball from the line. The first boy to hit a nearby public trash can with the ball three times wins.

Play has now become a game. Rules have been introduced, and most importantly, both players have agreed to the rules before entering the game space. There is now a way to succeed with a reward (in this case, bragging rights). And there is a way to fail with no reward.

Gamification is the application of typical elements of game playing to encourage engagement and interaction with a product, service, or brand. And gamification is not a new thing. Games have been invading our culture(s) for decades, often times hidden under layers of points, calculations, and redemption programs.

From the GOPPPL to Geocaching

An early example of gamification comes from 1967 with the birth of the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL). The GOPPPL would later be known as the first ever fantasy football league. This was a time when nerds spent hours in analog spreadsheets, hand-calculating points and scores to determine a victor.

In 1997, CBS Sports made the process light years easier by releasing the first digital facilitator of fantasy football, also known as a website. By automating the calculations, barriers of entry were all but eliminated. As a result, fantasy sports have now invaded the lives of everyone. My 83 year old grandmother plays fantasy sports. Here we have a game that leaches off of another game.

Looking towards the future, we see the emergence of fantasy eSports. Rather than drafting, say, the Carolina Panthers’ defense, one might draft a certain CS:GO team, or League of Legends player, etc. Their performance in their eSports competitions feeds the Fantasy eSports platforms in the same way that professional athletes feed the traditional fantasy sports platform.

Geocaching has taken what used to be a walk through the woods, or even a city, and turned it into a scavenger hunt. Jesse Schell of Schell Games put the success of Geocaching into one sentence, “Because it is cooler to go for a walk in the woods when there is a treasure chest at the end.”

Geocaching is a game created by hiding various treasures throughout the globe while logging their location coordinates for others to seek them out. While geocaching used to be exclusive to those with extensive knowledge of how to use a map and compass, it began to see growth in the early 2000’s as personal GPS receivers became more and more popular.

Now in 2015, geocaching has been simplified into an application for the rectangles that we all carry in our pockets every day. One can download the geocaching app and be seeking out treasures within minutes.

Looking to the future, we have games like Pokemon Go to be excited about, which merges geocaching with augmented reality to create an innovative experience for its users. The treasure chests are becoming virtual as interaction designers find more ways to seamlessly weld technologies together.

Watching television has been a popular thing to do since the magic moving picture boxes invaded American homes after the second world war. While the act of watching television is something that has been around for decades, playing television is something that we’ve seen emerge from time to time.

When Fox aired the 20th Anniversary episode of The Simpsons, within the episode were clues to solve mysteries on Fox’s website. Viewers would watch the episode while searching for subtle clues, and then visit the website to enter the clues to win a prize. Fox effectively turned watching television into a game. Viewership was up, website traffic was up, all because of a well embedded scavenger hunt within a television episode.

This dynamic can be seen frequently in NBC’s Seinfeld. Once it became known the each Seinfeld episode contained a Superman reference, every episode became a scavenger hunt. Viewership was up, DVD box (remember those?) sales were up, all because people wanted to play the ‘Find the Superman’ game.

Disney has been doing this for decades. Everyone knows that Disney likes to hide some…. questionable artwork within their movies, but the element that I would like to focus on are the hidden Mickey Mouses. Every Disney feature has references to the famed mouse throughout their movies. Every Disney movie and every episode of Seinfeld is a game just waiting to be played as soon as the viewers understand the rules.

Using our powers for good: How gamification can promote responsibility

In 1997, Tamagotchi pets took the United States by storm. The virtual pets lived in little plastic eggs, small enough to fit on your keychain.

While putting a digital game on a keychain was impressive enough in the 90’s, the Tamagotchi pets did more than just provide whimsical fun; they taught both children and adults responsibility. Tamagotchi pets are capable of dying, and die they did. When users did not provide the food and care (including cleaning up little hershey kiss poops if you remember), the virtual pets fell ill and eventually died after becoming horrible deformed.

Never had society become so attached to mere kilobytes of data, but the way that data was presented created a game that was worth caring about.

In 2009, Ford Motor Company took advantage of this nurturing nature by including a virtual pet in the dashboard of their hybrid cars. The pet was in the form of a house plant, and its success overall was based on the miles per gallon the driver achieved.

In short, the more gas you saved the larger and healthier the plant became. Ford put a virtual pet in our cars and it changed the way that people drove. It was a giant leap in the right direction of using gamification to change human behavior for the better.

But Who Designs These Games?

I often times bring up Lee Sheldon when having conversations about effective gamification. Sheldon is a former game designer, and professor at the University of Indiana. Sheldon was able to take what he had learned as a game designer and apply it to the grading system of his classes.

Rather than standard 1-100 and A-F grading, Sheldon created a system that saw students starting the semester as a Level 1 Avatar, and allowed them to “level up” throughout the semester through Experience Points gained by completing assignments.

By tweaking the language of the system, Sheldon saw increases in attendance, homework was consistently turned in on time, and at a higher quality. Sheldon argued that school already was a game, and so it should be treated as a game. With scores, leaderboards, and achievements, how was school not a game?

So what is going to happen when Lee Sheldon’s students get ahold of all of the existing games?

We are already being bombarded by points/redemption systems, with our Starbucks points, and pizza points, and credit card points, and frequent flyer points, and vacation points… and the list goes on.

So what is going to happen when the marketers step aside for the game designers to take over?

Success stories are already coming to light as designers and developers figure out how to leverage the many passive sensors found in our rectangles. The iPhone 6 is home to a fleet of sensors, some of them able to obtain data from their users without any user input. These sensors include the forward facing camera, the rear (selfie) camera, an accelerometer, an ultrasonic (distance) sensor, a light sensor, a magnetic compass, and a GPS receiver.

It is this array of sensors that allows developers to turn these rectangles in “pedometers.” A pedometer, as I call them, is any device that passively gathers data from its user, and then visually displays that data back to its user.

Nike+ has seen great success with their pedometer, a run tracker that uses the user’s rectangle to passively gather GPS data before displaying it back to them visually. Sleep Cycle app has taken advantage of the rectangles’ accelerometers, passively tracking sleep cycles based on human movement before visually displaying the data back to the user. It is a very simple formula being repeated to much success. Passively gather data from your user, and display that data back to them visually. The next natural step, as Nike+ can attest to, is to make the data social, and therefore competitive, which fuels a revolution of virtual competition that continues to blur the line between IRL and the IOT (internet of things).

Platforms like Bracketeers are allowing competition to be infused where it was not possible before. By leveraging the platforms, brands can increase their user/customer engagement by adding hours of “content” through competitive formats. With Brackets specifically, an audience can vote for competitors-as-content in matchups, over rounds, and ultimately determine a champion.

Remember for most it’s about the journey not the destination.

From March Madness to the Fantasy Football Leagues found on multiple platforms, competition and gamification creates an entirely different ecosystem for which ‘players’ to exist, play, and progress. Take human resources and your own career development, gamification can be a powerful tool to facilitate progression. So if you are considering using gamification to change the behavior of others, remember that these principles also work on Player 1.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”