The Game of Life

A 'gamified,' world will award 10 points for proper tooth brushing and a bonus for the most pats on the back.

Computer games have been known for decades now as the bitterest enemies of efficiency; after all, when the icon for the World of Workcraft or Angry Birds is easily accessible on the screen, it's tempting to ignore one's daily work. But must the fun of virtual games stand in opposition to the real world and the tedium of routine?

Voices in the community of game developers believe that these two worlds don't have to collide. Many of them have recently been talking about "gamification" - a combination of computer game elements with other worlds, which the developers say can inspire activities outside the borders of technology.

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"The idea of gamification is to take the mechanics of computer games, like those of other games, and combine them in areas which have never been considered fun," explains Dudi Peles, a game developer and lecturer in game development studies at the Beit Berl Academic College and the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.

The goal is to negate the dichotomy between enjoyable leisure activities and work, and as a result make activities that are difficult or boring into more attractive ones. In her book, "Reality is Broken," Jane McGonigal - who lectured on the subject at last year's TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design ) conference - claims that one of the problems with life is that it doesn't reward us the way computer games do. If it were possible to make use of the advantages of computer games in the real world, we could make the world a better place.

Peles says that game elements have already been worked into different areas, such as, for example, the accumulation of points or stars with credit cards, but over the past year they have gained momentum because of the many digital applications that have adopted gamification, even if they don't make use of the concept itself. The most familiar example is, of course, Foursquare, a location-reporting network that has become very popular. "The problem with a social network based on location is that people won't report their location without a reason," Peles says. "How can you make them do it? You enter a game element and give points and note the accomplishments of those who report their location several times from a particular place, 'take control' of it and become 'mayors.' Today Foursquare is the largest location-reporting social network."

Another application which makes use of gamification is Epic Win, which lists tasks and includes role playing; in order to advance levels and improve his or her virtual image, the user must complete the tasks.

Peles also spoke about the Israeli navigational application Waze, which gives live information about the condition of roads received from motorists on their way, as well as telling how to navigate from place to place.

Yuval Shmuelevitz, a founder of the company, says that the points and levels in the application attract a significant number of users, who enjoy being awarded them. "There's no doubt that the game is not the only goal. But it definitely adds a level of interest and an element of competition, and increases involvement," Shmuelevitz says.

Rat race with points

But the forecast is that gamification is still far from realizing its potential. One of the most important points about the concept was mentioned in a lecture by Jessie Schell, a game inventor and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University, at the D.I.C.E. (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain ) conference a year ago. Schell spoke about a long line of developments in the game arena that no one had predicted, including Facebook, who few prophesied would become so popular. In the future, he claimed, when nearly all things in our lives are equipped with sensors and connected to the Internet, people will get up in the morning to brush their teeth, and the brush will sense whether you did it or not. You did? Well done! You get another bonus. Did you brush your teeth every day of the week? There's yet another bonus for you.

"Who cares?" Schell asks. "The toothpaste and toothbrush manufacturers."

Schell has taken his theory even further. The cornflakes box in front of you on the table after you've brushed your teeth will contain a chip that weighs the amount of cereal you've eaten, and compare it to that eaten by a competitor. Obviously a winner will be declared at the end of the meal and awarded points. And that's not all. An application will count the amount of hands we shake in a day; or an application will count trips on public transportation and turn them into tax perks.

Two weeks ago the Mofet Institute held a conference on the subject of computer games in the educational environment.

During a lecture he gave there, Peles said that he himself has used gamification in a course he teaches, and he says the results were impressive. Attendance went up from 84 percent to 100 percent, the amount of homework handed in rose from 74 percent to 98 percent and the involvement of students in e-mails rose 500 percent, he says.

Games scholar Dr. Ronit Kampf reports similar results after adding game elements to her courses, which she says were unqualified successes. "Of course there's no intention of making the game the goal, but it is a means to make learning more enjoyable," she emphasizes.

Baruch Yaakobi, principal of the experimental Ein Hayam school in Haifa, which has been totally reorganized on a game basis, also spoke at the conference.

The addition of games to the learning environment touches on a criticism of Jessie Schell's talk at the D.I.C.E. event. Over the past year since that lecture, the concept "gamification" has become a buzzword that is attracting no small amount of fire. There are those who argue that the new idea oversimplifies concepts and processes which have existed for a long time, and like other fashions, attempt to take over an old idea that no one had yet bothered to market.

Others say that gamification simply does not work. It doesn't matter how many excellent grades, points or shoulder pats we're given, it won't make certain activities more enjoyable.

An activity doesn't become more fun or attractive this way, says technology reporter Ryan Kim in GigaOM.

Kim adds that the problem is that because the trend is becoming stronger, in many cases the points and marks become their most important aspect. He directs our attention to the fact that the game that was intended to make simple acts easier itself becomes a rat race in which there is always someone ahead of us.