[Guest Post] “Gamification: The Stakes for Content Design”, by Neus Lorenzo

A kitten, a ball and a beach …

04 kitten and ballA kitten chasing a ball of yarn; 03 angry birda beach tourist at a pinball machine; a bored train-traveller, killing Angry Birds on a smartphone … what do they have in common?

Yes, of course, all of them are playing.

You say you don’t want to play? Many animals develop activities that seem to have no other intention but to play and have fun. Are they productive? Surely yes, if they help individuals be healthier and species to survive.

Games were serious tasks for athletes in ancient Greece, for gladiators in classic Rome, for professional guilds in medieval times, and for many industries in modern times. Games are now used to establish rules for co-operation in an environment where entertainment dominates the web. Now that humankind has entered an era of dematerialized digital expanded reality, it seems obvious that virtual games are also going to become part of our regular learning skills. No wonder the virtual game industry has grown exponentially, creating a multi-billion dollar market!

05 discus playerStill not interested in playing? The statistical data on total monthly retail revenue of the U.S. video game industry in January 2013 amounted to 834.7 million U.S. dollars, with an increase of 9% in comparison to January 2012[i]. Have we got your attention now?

Intentional acts are commonly oriented to immediate practical outcomes such as eating, looking for protection, mating, nesting, defining territory, but playing is a more subtle way of ensuring long-term survival skills. Among animals, playing is a training activity for youngsters, a learning process that reproduces collaboration and interactive hunting, or fighting scenarios that will be useful in the future. However, the ability to create game scenarios that follow rules and negotiated conditions is a specifically human, sophisticated behaviour.

Skill-building games

Skill-building games are part of human cognitive development, connected to systematic and planned learning for individuals and organizations. Since the 20th century, social interactivity has been seen as part of human strategies for cognitive development (Leo Vygotsky, 1978[ii]) and for discovery learning (Jerome Bruner, 1960)[iii]. In teaching and learning situations, role-play, cooperative games, and challenging problem solving have become natural activities. Two of today’s main cognitive theories, constructivism[iv] and connectivism[v], see social gaming as directly connected to children’s development, professional training, or organizational growth. It is present in sports, music, and media industries, and it is broadcast and shared through the net in the global village.

UNESCO’s modern educational approaches (Delors et al, 1996 [vi]) point at knowledge development, procedures, and attitudes (individual and collective) as the main domains that should be considered systematically for building human skills in order to know, to do, to be, and to live together:

01 Figure 1

Fig 1. Human skill-building domains, according to UNESCO.

Learning, training, and playing follow these fields of development with aims and rules (to know), strategies and tactics (to do), personal experiences (to be) and collective performance (to live together). In a way, experts in game design have most in common with cognitive scientists and educators.

In our entertainment-oriented society, game design, tools, and strategies have inserted themselves into every content industry. Not only that, gamification (term coined by Nick Pelling[vii] in the 1980s for “using game design thinking in non-game situations”) has invaded different economic areas to make them more engaging and attractive. It seems to be everywhere, in this society of competition and consumption.

Gamification is useful to improve:

Games have passed from being institutional learning tools and training strategies, to become an integral part of our everyday lives. Gamified virtual environments provide spaces to perfect the use of expensive machinery, simulate environments without real-life risks, or offer informal training opportunities.

Yesterday’s mechanical joysticks have been replaced by motion-sensitive controls, eye tracking devices, and even brain-controlled systems. Interested in learning how to drive? A neuroheadset can provide a safer mode of training[viii]. Volkswagen is conducting experiments with an autonomous electroencephalography system, designed for gaming, to control cars[ix]. Wireless neuro-signaling acquisition and processing mechanisms, based on brain control, will eventually allow blind people to drive autonomously, at least in designated areas.

An emerging area for gamification

Gamification is already part of the content design picture. New interfaces such as touch screens, wireless reading control, robotic tools, or gestural input and output, come mainly from the digital gaming business (e.g. the Wii). Gamification can provide inspiration and user engagement, as in NASA’s proposal to Send a postcard to the Mars Curiosity Rover[x]. It can also be the source of malicious bait, leading internauts to click on dubious links to unknown prizes, veiled demands for private data, or unexpected questions that track personal preferences in order to target us with SPAM. More than ever, transparency and fair play will be meaningful for middle and long-term audience acceptance, because there are areas of life where gamification can be highly risky: professional reputation, emotional balance, psychological health. These are examples where gamification should be undertaken only under strict control of knowledgeable professionals.

Game theory (how people act and react under competition or collaboration) is used in Gamification for marketing, teamwork design, industrial ergonomics, media, web analytics, or politics[xi]. Although Gamification has its own internal limitations, it might offer a huge field of applications for content industries.


Gamification that searches to identify users’ behaviours for Big-data analytics may not provide useful information:

Mere competition may not be the best way to encourage motivation, concentration or collaboration, which are also needed for networking and team management. Scientific studies have already demonstrated that cooperation is often the best option in the mid- to long-term.

Winning all the time is not the best way of maintaining the essential group cohesion that we need in order to go on playing, and too many prizes or rewards makes them unattractive and worthless. In any case, the main objective is not just to capture users’ attention, but to carry them through the content offer, satisfy their needs, and convert.


In the content industries, we need to understand how Gamification can enhance engagement and commitment. Using UNESCO’s approach, a pyramid of mounting engagement can help us to clarify the value of our messages:

02 Figure 2

Fig 2. Engagement and commitment, aligned to skill-building domains.

To know:

To do:

To be:

To live together