The Gamification of Life

“The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.”
Charles Kettering

When I was born, there were no personal computers, no Internet, no cell-phones, no wikipedia, no google, no web-sites, no blogs and no facebook. It is difficult to understand how anybody could communicate effectively or get much done at all.

Today is my 44th birthday and the World has changed completely.  I am in awe of the technological inventions that have occurred in my lifetime, and I am amazed to see how my kids absorb all this technology into their lives as if thousands of years of evolution had prepared their brains for this.

The next couple of decades will likely see even bigger changes than I have seen in my lifetime. One of these changes may be the gamification of life. Not only are we likely to see people spend much more time in increasingly sophisticated virtual worlds, but we will probably also see game features break out of the virtual world and enter every part of our real lives.

Jane McGonigal, a game designer and researcher at the Institute for the Future, thinks this is a good thing. Indeed, she has calculated that we should be increasing the number of hours spent playing from 3 to 21 billion hours per week if we want to survive the next century on this planet. Here is her brilliant TED talk explaining how games make us better persons.

Education is the most obvious area for massive gamification over the next decade or so, as children are designed to learn through games and play. With the amazing technological capabilities we now have available (as evidenced by massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and FarmVille), I can’t believe teachers are still writing endless phrases on the blackboard, requiring the kids to copy and memorize them.

I personally disliked history classes in school, but I warmed considerably to the topic when reading Ken Follett’s amazing books (The Pillars of the Earth, etc.) and I am sure I would absolutely love the topic if I learned it through a massively multiplayer online game, where I could interact with historical characters and try to influence history.  Being immersed in a topic through a game is surely a better way to learn things than copying abstract sentences from a blackboard.

Absolutely everything can be made fun through games and gamification: One of the most boring activities I can think of is to help other people solve their programming problems, yet has managed to make thousands of people solve millions of programming problems for free, by turning the task into a “game” where you can earn reputation and karma by solving difficult and important programming problems. Foldit has made thousands of ordinary people work on protein folding to help develop cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s and HIV/AIDS. With a little creativity you can also get people to throw their garbage in the trash can, use stairs instead of escalators, and reduce speeding.  The topic is clearly not important. Some of the most successful games of the last few years are about relatively boring work like farming (FarmVille, Farm Frenzy), waitressing (Diner Dash), and child care (Nanny Mania). It is the game thinking and game mechanics behind the activities that make all the difference.

If we can harness the power of games, we can make work dramatically more satisfying, we can modernize our antiquated education systems, we can direct creativity towards solving the World’s most serious problems, and we can engage and connect people who currently feel excluded due to physical, psychological or economic disadvantages. We can also limit our tendency to buy ever increasing amounts of stuff just to show off, as there will be other much more interesting ways of showing status in a gamified world. In summary, through games and gamification we can potentially fix most of what is wrong with the World at the moment, and growing older doesn’t sound nearly as terrifying in a gamified world.

Do you think gaming can help make a better world? Or are they just a distraction? Leave a reply below.

Lykke E. Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia.

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  1. Thanks for another wonderful article. The place else may just anybody get that kind of information in such a perfect approach of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I’m at the search for such info.

  2. Please be advised that I have a new e-mail address. The e-mail address is

    • Thanks for letting us know, William. I have changed your subscription. Best regards, Lykke

      • William W. Bauser

        Dear Lykke,

        I have an idea that I published in a paper that I delivered at Oxford regarding gamification with civic engagement. By any chance would you have a lead for a developer of my idea?
        Best regards,
        Bill Bauser

  3. William W. Bauser

    Good Day Lykke
    First of all, although I am a day late, I wish you a happy birthday. To the question of gamification of life and to whether games add to the dimension of decision making, I find myself descenting. For the decision making process being addressed by games or models is to have a bounded rational to which limits critical thinking as well as innovation by the bias of the boundaries of the game or model. I would rather see individuals being able to be moderators of their own thinking through their capabilities rather than manipulators of mental or physical thumbs.

  4. Quite an interesting topic that you bring to us Lykke, “Gamification” has definitely entered in the modern way of life, whether we are aware of it or not. I believe it is most likely to stay in our lives and gain further importance as we become more dependent on technology, here is why.

    You refer to a couple of simple but catchy examples, like FarmVile, Diner Dash and others, but gaming has made several advances in other areas. Football for example, nowadays the link between fifa13 and Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) 2013 and real life is so elaborated that companies actually hire the real player to records their movements, digitalize them and introduce them in their games, including facial expressions. Furthermore coaches refer to these games in order to understand their rivals tactics, capabilities and responses.

    Football is not the only game that has reached this level of sophistication, NBA2k13, NFL Blitz, are other sports experiencing the same phenomenon of gamification. Considering the economic output that sports provide to developed countries, we cannot simply think gaming is just a distraction. The sports industry certainly does not.

    Unfortunately like many other technological advances in human history it can be misused. In the recent months the amount of attacks done by US drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen have increased, analyst even call it Obama’s [not so secret] drone wars. Where am I trying to get with this? Drones are nothing else that remote control armed aircrafts. At the same time, modern warfare nowadays is driven to a level of sophistication in order to make them more realistic, creating a generation of soldiers that feel war is just another video game. The people behind these machines are literally playing a game, bombing targets half of world away, without any repercussions to them selves, but their actions have serious repercussions to geopolitics overall. Military is certainly not using gamification as a distraction; it is becoming the frontline weaponry.

    Gaming is definitely here to stay and influence our lives; whether it is used to make our world a better place to live is or not is entirely up to the use we give to it.


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