Gaming your system

From what we buy to how we behave, our play instinct is a powerful force

Whether it’s collecting cereal box tops to win prizes or taking part in the Pepsi challenge, games used to influence behaviour have long been a favourite marketing tool.

But as digital technology becomes increasingly integral to almost every corner of our lives, the opportunity to influence, predict and monitor human actions through games has exploded.

 Picture yourself in the throes of a tense meeting at work — one that’s big on finger-pointing and short on ideas. As competition heats up and pressure mounts, you feel your stress levels start to rise — and threaten to boil over.

But then you remember the trusty little patch you’re wearing, and you know you’re going to be fine.

While it might look a little like a quit-smoking patch, this one gathers 24/7 physiological information from your body to analyze everything from how you’re coping to how well you’re sleeping.

It then downloads the data to an app, which in turn feeds back the strategies you need to deal with difficult situations, avoid health problems, get on with your life and, ultimately, flourish.

Think it sounds like science fiction? Think again.

Part of a sophisticated Waterloo startup platform called FlourishiQ, the patch (and its accompanying app) is just one of the many ways gamification is being used to modify human behaviour.

“The platform gives you insights into how you’re doing on a daily basis,” says FlourishiQ founder and CEO Hardy Premsukh. “The purpose is to empower you with enough daily insight to improve your life and (in the case of the work scenario described above) say to yourself, ‘maybe it’s time to look for a new job.’ ”

There’s already a patent in place for FlourishiQ— and Waterloo professor Lennart Nacke, who’s working on projects stemming from the patent with other professors, post-doctoral fellows and students from the Games Institute, describes it as a visionary product that will help people improve their lives.

“We’re interested in what kind of strategies we can build around that data and how we can reflect on that data to improve their life and daily habits,” Nacke says.

So what exactly is gamification?

Strictly speaking, it’s the process of applying game theory and techniques to non-game situations — usually to build engagement, participation or loyalty.

With real-world activities and motivation (rather than gaming) at its core, gamification is used in education, commerce, health, entertainment and more. It’s deeply embedded in our lives and, know it or not, we interact with it on a regular basis.

When used as a marketing technique, it motivates consumers to act in a certain way. The most pervasive example of this is the points-and-rewards system that encourages more and more purchases, but only through loyalty to a particular brand.

Used as a healthcare tool, gamification encourages patients to follow treatment regimes. And as a personal wellness tool — think Fitbit — it uses game principles to help people reach their fitness and nutrition goals.

It’s also used in the workplace to get employees to behave in a desired way.

English professor Neil Randall, who heads up the Games Institute — the University’s cross-disciplinary hub of gamification research and technology — says gamification is a tremendous way to learn and engage oneself in things that can improve our daily lives.

The institute was formed recognizing that games are, by their very nature, multi-disciplinary. They must be programmed, of course, which brings engineering and computer science aspects into play. But what’s actually happening on the screen covers disciplines ranging from English, history and psychology to computer science, engineering and health sciences.

“The whole principle of gamification is that games at their core are basically examples of strong user experiences,” Randall explains. “From a digital standpoint we have nothing better than games for keeping people engaged with computer technology.”

By bringing together Waterloo’s deep strengths in computer science, language, psychology, digital arts, software engineering, health and more to create new knowledge, applications and opportunities, the institute has helped position the University as a gamification leader.

Neil Randall

“Increasingly, our research has turned to what we call purposeful games … We know that games draw, fascinate and compel — and we are determining ways to use their capabilities to enhance the processes by which we live our lives.”

NEIL RANDALL, professor of English and director of the Games Institute


 “University of Waterloo’s strength is that we’re not based in just one department or one discipline,” Randall says. “We’re based in all of them because that’s really what the world of games is all about.

“Increasingly, our research has turned to what we call purposeful games. These are games designed to help people with disabilities, diseases or mental health issues, games designed for problems surrounding aging, that help organizations change the way they do business, that help educators teach and students learn. We know that games draw, fascinate and compel — and we are determining ways to use their capabilities to enhance the processes by which we live our lives.”

Games with purpose

Right now at Waterloo, there are several games in development that could have enormous social benefits.

Students are working with the Canadian Mental Health Association on gamification techniques that help the user find safe spaces in urban areas and situations where they might feel overwhelmed.

Another game, Spirit 50, tries to incentivize exercise as a way to improve the quality of life for older adults as they engage with technology. It’s already in the process of being commercialized.

Leninart Nacke

“Gamification helps us embrace the positive ideas behind games and really helps us leverage that. It’s about understanding the power that games have over us and using them to make you the best person you can be.”

LENNART NACKE, professor of human-computer interaction and game design


The Games Institute and Nacke’s Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Games Group are also helping to build a mobile app that’s a day-to-day wellness program. It’s all about what the user is eating, how they’re exercising, whether they’re getting involved in cultural activities, among other things — and gamifying the program is a way to make people keep coming back to it.

“Gamification helps us embrace the positive ideas behind games and really helps us leverage that,” Nacke explains. “It’s about understanding the power that games have over us and using them to make you the best person you can be. It’s more intrinsic than extrinsic motivation as well. It’s not about gold stars. Self-improvement is the greatest driver for humans — we all want to become a better version of ourselves.”

The dark side of gamification

But of course, as with most things, there’s also a darker side.

“I love games and I’m passionate about them, but games are finding their way into far more parts of our lives than they ever did before — and the other side of this is that they can be bad for you,” Randall says.

“We all know about people sitting in their basement becoming addicted to video games. What we don’t see are the ways in which all the systems in the world are using our personal information.

“Data and information about us are being captured all the time and we don’t necessarily know it. We are cogs in the wheel. We’re also players in this game that everyone from governments to companies have designed. Any time you allow your data to be captured, you’re being gamed in the sense that they are playing with you and their victory is to get you to keep doing it.

“The more we learn about that and understand those systems, the better the chances are of not allowing that to happen. The point is you can’t really avoid it any more. All you can be is cautious.”

As in all online media, Randall suggests, it’s important to be fully aware of all personal data you are allowing the service to access and realize that, in most cases, you have no idea where this data is being stored and how it is being used.

Learning through failure

Despite these risks, Randall says that games hold fascinating life lessons, in part because many games are based on repeated failure.

“You have to keep failing to eventually get good at it,” he says. “One of the reasons that games are re-playable is the fact that you don’t get it right the first time. The reason you keep doing it is you realize you can always get better at it.”

Beth Coleman

“With the Games Institute, we now have a context in which students who play games, study games and make games are moving fast and furiously toward looking at important societal ways that we can use this knowledge.”

BETH COLEMAN, professor of digital media, co-director of the Critical Media Lab and author of Hello Avatar


According to Beth Coleman, a professor of experimental digital media and an executive member of the Games Institute, games can and do make people better and more productive.

“With the Games Institute, we now have a context in which students who play games, study games and make games are moving fast and furiously toward looking at important societal ways that we can use this knowledge,” Coleman says.

“It’s not just toward making the gaming industry better and richer. The most exciting work the students are doing in this space is games in society where people are thinking about how real-world issues can be addressed by some of the tools we’ve learned by playing games.”

Coleman points to education, particularly for young children learning the basics of reading and math, as an excellent use of gamification.

“If you’ve got kids who’ve grown up playing with an iPad or other device, they associate it with something they can control and also something that they enjoy,” Coleman says. “You take that same platform and put on a program such as early reading, and this takes the platform and the procedures that kids identify with play and (turns them) toward learning.

“And what if we bring play into work? What if that same energy and freedom associated with play — where it’s not a scary thing if you fail — brings in the playful aspects of lessons? It’s a confidence builder around how one can keep learning. Those are all qualities that the best gamification brings.”

Ginny Dybenko

“Where you can take feedback from pushing a button or monitoring your steps or whatever it might be to modify behaviour … we really believe that’s the future of everything going forward.”

GINNY DYBENKO, executive director, University of Waterloo Stratford Campus


Image credit: Thinkstock Photos. Avatars: Andrea Sweet. Graphic: Monica Lynch

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