10/2/23 · Research

The keys to gamification: when play becomes a tool for success and learning

Researchers analyse the success behind gamification-based apps such as Duolingo
Good practices have been identified based on the scientific literature and a survey of professionals from the sector
Industry professionals warn in the report against generic that are applied indiscriminately and without undergoing a sufficient process of reflection in each specific case (photo: Robo Wunderkind / unsplash.com)

Industry professionals warn in the report against generic that are applied indiscriminately and without undergoing a sufficient process of reflection in each specific case (photo: Robo Wunderkind / unsplash.com)

Gamification is the use of game design elements in non-play contexts. Apps such as the Duolingo language learning tool or the Zombies, Run! fitness tool are the clearest examples of this approach, but the creation of game-based experiences as a whole goes far beyond digital applications and is already being applied to a multitude of projects in the fields of health, tourism, human resources and events, among many more. In view of the consolidation of this sector, what are the keys to successful gamification? Joan Arnedo, a member of the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and director of the Master's Degree in Video Game Design and Development, together with University of Barcelona researcher Òscar Garcia Pañella, has put together a list of good practices based on the leading research and a survey of companies and professionals from the sector.

Recommendations such as understanding the user in order to design tailor-made experiences, applying the right mechanisms for each aim, and not losing sight of the importance of good stories are some of the practices identified by the researchers in their report Anàlisi de bones pràctiques de gamificació a Catalunya 2022-2023 [Analysis of good gamification practices in Catalonia 2022-2023] produced for Department of Innovation and Digital Culture at the Government of Catalonia's Ministry of Culture.

Profile of the sector

The report also provided a picture of the profile of gamification professionals. The results of the survey show, for example, that gamification in Catalonia is mainly carried out by companies, most of them small and medium-sized (53.1%), with self-employed professionals accounting for 34.4% of respondents.

In terms of their experience, over 80% have been working in the field for five years or more. This, added to the companies and self-employed professionals who have been working in this area for at least three years, results in a percentage of more than 90% who have worked in the field for three years or more.

The type and range of fields of application developed by these professionals is very broad, demonstrating the huge interdisciplinary nature and potential of this area. Having said that, the fields of culture (museums, tourism, etc.) and education lead the way. "As a result, a second phase, based on the conclusions of the report, will produce a guide on using these good practices in education as a systematic way of producing simple gamification designs," said Arnedo, researcher with the GAME group at the Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences.

Gamification needs co-creation

The first requirement when designing a good gamification experience, according to the conclusions of the report, is to focus on the needs and aims of users: you need a deep understanding of their motivations and not just of the organizational or business needs behind the project. "A key aspect of gamifying is understanding the user. So, you cannot design from your ivory tower. You need to interview future users or see what they like. You can't tell them what they should like: it's exactly the other way around!" said the researcher.

Regarding this good practice highlighted by the professionals surveyed, Arnedo also pointed out that "in order to gamify, you need to co-create. In other words, to do things with people with very different opinions, tastes and profiles. Because using story-telling, applying game elements and mechanics, adding good aesthetics to the mix, adapting content and putting everything on a balanced and usable technological platform is not something you can take on alone."

Applying psychological knowledge to design

Another recommendation relates to the importance of understanding and applying research on human psychology and game theory. The report thus reflects the feeling of professionals that sometimes their work is considered frivolous because it deals with games. "Somehow, in spite of video games having become mainstream, gaming itself is still considered a frivolous activity, and people think anyone can design a game, that you don't really need a professional. However, making good experiences is not trivial and requires sound knowledge about what motivates people," said Arnedo.

In fact, the results of the report are proof of the training that professionals in this sector have, as good practices applied to this industry are very much in line with those identified in academia and scientific research. "There is often the impression that industry and academia are entirely separate, or that academia is all theory, far removed from the real world. This alignment also indicates that the basic design principles currently used are science-based, which is very important as a seal of quality and shows that gamification requires a very significant knowledge base in psychology and an understanding of existing game mechanics."

A good story to bring the experience to life

Another fundamental aspect of good gamification, as mentioned by respondents, is the need to always include a narrative or story that runs through the entire experience. For Arnedo, the report confirms that it is essential to go "beyond pure game mechanics and include a metaphor or storytelling". To explain this, he gave the example of a classic mystery board game and one of a more modern card game: "If you take away the metaphor of murder and leave only the logical deduction exercise, Cluedo is not quite the same. Likewise, Exploding Kittens is special because it's about cats (that explode...), beyond the effects of the cards."

Much more than points, badges and leaderboards

Industry professionals also warn in the report against generic or simplistic design solutions, that is, those that are applied indiscriminately and without undergoing a sufficient process of reflection on their value in each specific case. A prime example of this is Points, Badges and Leaderboards (PBL). "They are a very common triad of game mechanics in this context, to the point that some people believe that gamification and PBL are synonymous without looking beyond that. This is a big mistake," said Arnedo.

In fact, the experts surveyed insist that you don't need to use all possible game elements: "It's enough to use the right ones based on the motivational profiles for which the game is being designed, the expected behaviours and the business objectives specified." They also emphasize that gamification should be applied only when appropriate. "We have to be honest and admit when gamification may not be the best solution because the problem to be solved is not motivational," he said.

Continuous assessment and monitoring

Another good practice is testing the proposal to be developed with prototypes and end users as soon as possible, as the report highlights that "gamification is an iterative process".

The professionals surveyed also pointed out the importance of identifying both quantitative and qualitative metrics and indicators to assess the experience right from the start of the design process. In addition, this monitoring must continue over time in order to refine and improve the experience.

This UOC research supports Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 3, Good Health and Well-being; 4, Quality Education, and 9, Industries, Innovation and Infrastructure.

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The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.

Over 500 researchers and more than 50 research groups work in the UOC's seven faculties, its eLearning Research programme and its two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The university also develops online learning innovations at its eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC), as well as UOC community entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer via the Hubbik platform.

Open knowledge and the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu.

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