It's Not a Game: It's Gamification

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In her video, Jane McGonigal describes how she created a "game", Jane the Concussion Slayer (JtCS) to help her both deal with her depression and suicidal thoughts as well as to encourage the behaviors that would accelerate her recovery. The word "game" is a misnomer here -- when you think of a game, you (rightly) think of experiences created with the sole purpose of entertaining. A game designer sits down with a blank sheet of paper and creates something from nothing, and that thing is fun, and it has names like World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Angry Birds, and Minecraft.

I don't think that even Jane would argue that JtCS was fun, and it wasn't meant to be. It was meant to drive a behavior change both in Jane and the people that she "played" with, to help them address the reality of her brain-injured life. And while it used some mechanics from the world of games -- like a narrative, working together to accomplish goals, and unlocking "power ups", it wasn't, in and of itself, a game. What it was is a prime example of "gamification."

The name itself implies this -- you have something that already exists -- a behavior change program, a website, a loyalty program, expense reporting software, etc. at the core, and it is being transformed, gamified, with the addition of game mechanics. -- Rajat Paharia

Gamification is not about creating games at all. With gamification, your core experience (in this case, a behavior change program to recover from a concussion) is the centerpiece and the game mechanics go around it. The name itself implies this -- you have something that already exists -- a behavior change program, a website, a loyalty program, expense reporting software, etc. at the core, and it is being transformed, gamified, with the addition of game mechanics. Jane gamified her recovery.

Businesses of all types are seeing the value of gamification to motivate behavior change -- whether it's getting consumers more engaged with their favorite TV shows, brands or sports leagues, or motivating employees to perform better at sales, service, collaboration, and training. In keeping with Jane's theme on extending your life, some of my favorite examples are in the health and wellness space -- in particular one called Zamzee, which aims to combat the tween obesity epidemic.

Zamzee is a product of HopeLab, a non-profit founded in 2001 by Pam Omidyar, with the mission to use the power and appeal of technology to improve the health of kids. The Zamzee product has two main components -- the first is a wearable activity monitor that looks a lot like a USB flash drive, that uses motion sensors to determine physical activity. Kids run around all day while wearing their Zamzee meter, and then plug their meter into the USB drive on a computer. All their physical activity data is uploaded to, the second part of the Zamzee system, which is a website designed in accordance with HopeLab's research about what motivates kids to get active and stay active. The site includes many gamification elements -- including Fast Feedback (you see the results of your activity as soon as you plug the monitor in), Transparency (you can see all your activity statistics over time), Goals (to give participants a purpose), Levels (to provide milestones and a way of earning status and unlocking additional powers), Community (you can see others who are participating, and what physical activities they're doing) and more.

The Zamzee experience was recently evaluated in a randomized, controlled study with more than 1,000 kids conducted by HopeLab with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That research showed an average 59 percent increase in activity among kids using Zamzee compared to a control group. According to HopeLab, that increase is the equivalent of each kid doing an additional 45 minutes of nonstop pushups each week. Or scrubbing floors for 3 hours a month. Or chasing wild pigs for 6 minutes a day. Moreover, the increase in activity levels was sustained over a six-month period. It also slowed gain in "bad" cholesterol and helped control blood sugar levels among participants.

The use of gamification in the health and exercise space has exploded in recent years with the availability of low-cost sensors (like Zamzee) and the ubiquity of smartphones with their own embedded sensors. From big companies like Nike, with their Nike+ line of products, to device startups like Fitbit and application providers like Strava -- consumers are now able to quantify their physical activity and performance, strive to achieve milestones, compare themselves against others (and their own previous activity), and participate in communities of like-minded enthusiasts. And as sensor technology gets smaller, cheaper, better and more real-time (as well as ingestible, like the sensors from Proteus Digital Health), the immediacy of the feedback and the quantity and granularity of the data will give us more insight into our bodies and our health than ever before. Big data about user's bodies and physical activities, combined with motivation and gamification enable behavior change programs to reach into the real world and create meaningful health outcomes.

To wrap it up -- the best way to drive a meaningful behavior change, is not to think about games, but to think about gamification, and how you can take the mechanics from games and apply them to your experience to engage and motivate your participants.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.