A brief history of gamification

Gamification took off in 2010, becoming a huge buzzword in 2011, getting some ridiculous seed funding (I’m looking at you Badgeville) in 2012, and now in 2013 (apparently the year of gamification, sorry snake),  it’s interesting to see how the term and concept continues to change. This blog post takes a quick look at the history of the term and what we might expect from it in the future.

Here’s a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) for those of you who just want an overview:

  • Gamification describes the framing an activity like a game to make it more motivating. The concept of gamification isn’t new, but the term describing it is.
  • 2002/2003: The term was apparently first used to describe Nick Pelling’s work
  • 2008: The first documented use of the term gameification was used in a blog post by Bret Terrill
  • 2009: Foursquare released and the gamification “blueprint” of badges, leaderboards and points is born.
  • 2011: The term becomes really popular. It’s added to Gartner’s hype cycle.
  • 2012: People become dubious about gamification. Gartner release another post saying a large number of gamified application will fail by 2014.
  • 2013: Foursquare announces it’s phasing out the gamification elements

Before Gamification (< 2010)

There has been a long history of using fun and play to motivate people and make work seem more enjoyable. Scouts could obtain the Eagle rank back in 1911, and even Mary Poppins had cottoned on to this, as evident from the lyrics in the famous song “A Spoonful of Sugar“:

In ev’ry job that must be done
There is an element of fun
you find the fun and snap!
The job’s a game

However the term gamification has only been a recent addition to our vocabulary. Before the term existed many designers and researchers were already exploring the role of play and fun in computer applications. Malone in the early 80s created heuristics for designing enjoyable user interfaces and Draper in the late 90s looked at analysing fun as a candidate software requirement.

As user experience became a more solid field in the 90s and 2000s there was further work and research in this area, with people considering the role of fun and play in user experiences – have a look at the book Funology: from usability to enjoyment (with it’s amusing – and meta – preface) from Blythe, Overbeeke, Monk & Wright released in 2004. The idea behind this use of playfulness in software was that rather than making interfaces simply usable, they could also be fun to use as well, eliciting positive emotions and feelings through things such as sound, graphics, challenge etc., thus enhancing the experience the user had with the software.

More recently though, a number of  applications have appeared which instead of just using playful elements, have instead directly translated elements from video games to the interfaces. Chore Wars is one of these, released in 2007, it embodies a chore assigning software application inside a dungeon and dragons style interface, complete with dungeon master, experience points, monster battles and loot. Bunchball launched the Nitro platform in 2007 that allows organisations to integrate game mechanics into social networks, mobile applications, and websites. Although not specifically mentioning the gamification (but adopting the term later) this platform was indicative of the trend that was about to hit. Then in 2009 the highly successful Foursquare application was launched. Foursquare is a location sharing social network that also happens to include videogame-like elements, namely points, badges, and leaderboards, and these became a blueprint for future gamification designs.

It’s hard to place an exact date on when the term was first appeared but using some super research skills (and a google search engine) reveals that the term was coined around 2002/2003 by Nick Pelling when describing his work as a consultant for making hardware more fun. It wasn’t until later in the 2000s though when the word started to gain more attention. Sources have indicated that one of the first documented uses of the term was in 2008 when “gameification” was used in a blog post by Bret Terrill, who was covering discussions in the lobby at the Social Gaming Summit. He heard the term used in regards to “taking game mechanics and applying to other web properties to increase engagement”. The term was picked up by other blogs and slimmed down by dropping the ‘e’, becoming “gamification”. It wasn’t then until 2010 until the term really took off (see image below).

gamification google trend search.png

And he said, let there be gamification! And in 2010 there was gamification (source – Google Trends).

Gamifi-what? (2010 – On the rise)

In 2011 Gartner added gamification to their hype cycle (see below) and 2010 was definitely the year gamification was on the rise in terms of its cycle.

gartner hype cycle gamification.png

The Hype cycle – more information about this on Wikipedia

In 2010 the term became more and more popular, being adopted by companies such as Bunchball and Badgeville to describe the platforms they had created for integrating game elements into sites. More sites and applications were released that integrated game elements such as the Epic Win app. Gabe Zichermann published a book this year on Games-Based Marketing and became an early evangelist for the word, adapting it for the marketing world. In the academic world Sebastian Deterding was one of the first academics to talk about it, but also warning of it’s potential pitfalls. Jesse Schell’s Dice presentation and Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk helped to spur this area on as well.

And so in 2010 the term gamification started to gather interest and a following… but what exactly was gamification?

Gamification, bull💩… or bullseye? (2011 – At the peak)

If anything 2011 was the year of gamification, gaining much more notice in both industry and the academic worlds. The year began with the annual Gamification Summit in January 2011 headed up by Gabe Zichermann. Gartner spurred the popularity of gamification by saying that “More Than 50 Percent of Organizations That Manage Innovation Processes Will Gamify Those Processes” and they also added gamification to their hype cycle. And boy, hype was high, gamification platforms became more and more popular, receiving a lot of seed funding throughout the year.  The term was being used left, right and center… but what did this term actually mean?

Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham published a book entitled Gamification by Design (which was criticised by Sebastian Deterding who provided a very detailed breakdown of the book). In this book Gabe and Christopher defined gamification as “The use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems”. The term was gaining interest in the academic world as well. The Gamification Research Network was established after a workshop was run at the CHI 2011 conference entitled “Gamification: Using Game Design Elements in Non-Gaming Contexts“. Towards the end of the year Sebastian also contributed to an academic definition of the term – “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”.

So game design was clearly central to the word gamification however some game designers really did not like the word at all, potentially due to the fact gamified applications thus far, like Foursquare, didn’t really resemble games. Instead these more so resembled reward and feedback systems, not games, because they were missing clear defining elements of games, such as challenge and story.  Margaret Robertson described it as ‘pointsification’ instead and said it could go “take a long walk off a short pier” and Ian Bogost called gamification bullshit.

Nonetheless gamification was popular and continued to grow throughout the year. Gamification parodies were madecomics were created that referenced it and it’s possibly distopian future. It was clear that gamification was here to stay.

Badges, badges, badges, badges… mushroom! (2012 – Into the trough)

In 2012 people began to grow wary, and weary, of gamification. The gamification “blueprint” was getting old – there were only so many badges that one could unlock. Interestingly Gartner released another article saying that by 2014 “80 Percent of Current Gamified Applications Will Fail to Meet Business Objectives Primarily Due to Poor Design“. It may be that gamification was heading into the trough of the hype cycle, however Bunchball argued that bad gamification still worked to a point. And it didn’t seem like funding was slowing down for gamification platforms. This year it was announced that Badgeville had secured $25 million in funding, indicating huge interest and confidence in the platform’s ability, and the concept of gamification.

There were some nice surprises as well, Zombies, Run! being one of them. A mobile app that instead of using badges, points and leaderboards to motivate users instead created a rich narrative around the user, motivating them through story, zombie chases, item collecting and town upgrading. Now this felt more like a game.

The year of gamification… design (2013 and beyond - Climbing the slope.)

And so we begin 2013! I’d like to think we’ve passed the trough of disillusionment in the hype cycle, but somehow I feel it still lingers. Badges, points and leaderboards still seem to be the gamification blueprint and will likely be around for some time, however with foursquare admitting there’s too much of an emphasis on gamification in their product, this might change things. Gamification feels like it’s maturing, with more of a focus on the importance of design and the experience being created.  Another CHI workshop will be run this year, focusing on exactly this – Designing Gamification: Creating Gameful and Playful Experiences – and it will be really interesting to see what comes from this.

I’ll leave it there for now, but if you think I’ve missed anything, or have something incorrect, then let me know as I’d like to keep updating this post as a reference point for anyone interested in gamification.