Elon/Pew study on “gamification and the Internet”

A new Pew Internet/Elon University survey points to significant growth in the use of game elements in online activities.


(Media coverage of this report: Forbes, MSNBC, Techjournal, NBC Latino, Gamification Research Network, MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media & Learning Project, RedOrbit.com, Benton Foundation)

“Gamification” and the Internet: You may be playing without knowing
Game mechanics, feedback loops, rewards becoming more embedded in our daily lives

A new Pew Internet/Elon University survey of more than 1,000 Internet experts, researchers, observers and users points to significant growth in the use of game elements in online activities.

Roughly half of those responding to the survey said the use of game mechanics, feedback loops and rewards to spur interaction and boost engagement, loyalty, fun and/or learning will gain ground between now and 2020. While many of those surveyed said there will be limits to the growth of gamification, the top tech experts generally believe that game elements in some form will become more prevalent in the everyday activities of many of the people who are actively using communications networks.

“The development of ‘Serious Games’ applied productively to a wide scope of human activities will accelerate simply because playing is more fun than working,” observed Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future.

As Leibhold noted, gamification is not simply about status, community building and marketing. Gamelike approaches to education and problem-solving are being adopted in new ways. A prominent example took place in 2011, when researchers at the University of Washington made headlines with their game Foldit, which generated a crowd-sourced discovery of the secret behind a key protein that may help cure HIV. The game drew 46,000 participants whose gameplay took just 10 days to solve a problem scientists had been working on for 15 years.

“In addition to their uses for crowd-sourcing solutions, game-style approaches are expected to continue to make inroads in training, personal health, business and education,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. “The experts point out that game mechanics offer advantages in encouraging specific behavior and generating measureable feedback.”

Some background on gamification trends today: Technology consultancy Gartner has projected 50 percent of corporate innovation will be “gamified” by 2015. Another consulting firm, Deloitte, cited gamification as one of its Top 10 Technology Trends for 2012. Elements of game mechanics are being employed nowadays in training, marketing, education, and wellness initiatives.

However some of the experts in this Future of the Internet survey warned that game mechanics may be harmful in some ways. “Some experts said people can be manipulated by game elements because they can be used as instruments of propaganda,” said Janna Anderson, director of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and a co-author of the study. “Some also said people are often not aware of corporations’ and governments’ uses of gamification data and patterns to gain intelligence, and some said games pander to people’s already over-met desire to be entertained, to the detriment of other activities.”

This is the third report generated from the results of a Web-based survey conducted in fall 2011. It gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public. (Details can be found here: http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/expertsurveys/)

Following is a wide-ranging selection of respondents’ remarks:

“As more and more ‘intelligence’ is injected into a ‘gamed’ response, it gains more and more ability to impact whatever it is applied to…With the sophistication that can be inserted into interactive responses, game-like approaches will be applied across an increasingly wide sphere of human endeavors.” – Charles Perrottet, partner at the Futures Strategy Group

“Gamification may be the most important social and commercial development of the next fifty years. Commercially, we may be seeing the end of the marketing orientation, possibly marking the beginning of the ‘game orientation.’ This will touch all aspects of the organization as it is applied to sales, production, management, and other areas of commercial practice. Socially, gamified technology will evolve and humanize many of the artificial interactions we currently endure—check-in’s, like’s, shares, and their kin will all ‘just work’ and drive new waves of innovation in our technology.” – Ross Rader, general manager at Hover and board member of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority

“Playbor (play plus labor) and weisure (work plus leisure) will be ubiquitous.” – P.J. Rey, managing editor of the Cyborgology blog

“If everything was a game, no one would have a reason to invent; any metric corrupts, as people shape their behavior to ensure that they come out on top…Excuse me, now, while I check whether I’ve been mentioned on Twitter.” – Susan Crawford, founder of OneWebDay and former Obama White House technology policy expert

“It’s a modern-day form of manipulation. And like all cognitive manipulation, it can help people and it can hurt people. And we will see both.”– danah boyd, researcher, Microsoft and Harvard’s Berkman Center
“Authentic human connection does just fine without rewards, levels, and badges. We’ll be seeing more of that.” – Jerry Michalski, founder and president of Sociate, consultant for the Institute for the Future

“Companies should take responsibility for the tremendous power they wield in society. I fear they won’t, but I hope they do. Then of course, you can also say I hope consumers—people experiencing gamification on the ground—are also aware (as best they can be) of the games they are engaging with, what are their purposes, who developed them, why, and so on. We’ve all got to be very critical when fun can mask trouble.” – David Kirschner, research assistant at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

“Gamification has little use in cooperation, and that is the area of social software that is least realized at this time, and which I predict will be the highest-growth area in the future.” – Stowe Boyd, consultant and author

“Game mechanics will indeed be part of the lingua franca, but it will be seen as what it is—another tool of commerce trying a little too hard to wring personalized interactions out of mass behavior.” – Mack Reed, principal at Factoid Labs

“Serious games will continue to remain mostly in the long tail rather than the fat head of the game market until serious artificial intelligence emerges.” – John Smart, president, Acceleration Studies Foundation

“By 2020, anyone who ever used the term ‘gamification’ will be embarrassed to admit it.” – Alex Halavais, associate professor, Quinnipiac University

“People will increasingly expect game elements in a wide range of activities. Game-development tools will enable most people to gamify many aspects of life and work, in digital, physical, and blended environments.” – Cathy Cavanaugh, associate professor of educational technology, University of Florida

“In light of advances in neuromarketing, there is no reason to believe that the most powerful economic entities are not going to use that knowledge—rewards, feedback loops—to spur interaction, boost loyalty—especially brand loyalty—and provide neural pleasures when consumers and customers do what they’re told. I do not see any positive in this development and am concerned about the use of that knowledge not only by economic entities but by political ones as well. In addition, the ability to self-induce pleasure at the neural level through the use of computer programs will further eliminate the need of others and the pleasures they can spontaneously provide, hence further deskilling us in those social psychological skills necessary to experience pleasurable interaction with other people.” – Simon Gottschalk, sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas

Respondents were allowed to keep their remarks anonymous if they chose to do so. Following are predictive statements selected from the hundreds of anonymous comments from survey participants:

“Humanity likes to be drawn into games as ‘distraction.’ If more of what is made available is presented in game-like environments, more people will be involved, possibly creating crowd-sourced solutions to social, economic, and ecological problems.”

“Interestingly, there are dozens and dozens of dystopian science fiction stories, from the recent Hunger Games to crusty old classics like Rollerball (the 1970s version) that are about how gamification leads to a society where we treat humans like disposable game avatars… Given all our anxieties about gamification leading to a Hunger Games world, I think people will be suspicious of game mechanics being introduced into other areas of their lives—especially in work and government contexts. That’s just my hunch, based on what I’m seeing in pop culture.”

“For high-functioning knowledge workers, gamification is likely to be perceived as an insult to intelligence.”

“Humans are highly prone to addictive behavior. The science of understanding and exploiting this will increase over time.”

“Our current society is not properly educated to make best use of the information at their fingertips. Game-oriented designs and user interfaces can help people access facts and better understand things that might be interesting or useful.”

“Gaming functionality will continue to grow and be used in more and more facets of our lives. People will receive training on the job, be exposed through education and development programs, have the ability to learn about areas that are important to them using this technology and social strategy. It will allow people to understand complex topics faster and with more nuances, and make the learning process more anticipated and less to be feared or avoided. New ideas will spread faster as the ability to educate more people becomes easier and quicker.”

“It will be so pervasive, we won’t even think of it as gamification; it will just ‘be.’”

“People are easily manipulated through gamification, so it is likely that this will play a signification role in shaping society. Humans are not solitary creatures and therefore the social feedback that they receive through ‘games’ gives can give them the motivation to do most anything. Throughout history society has tried to bypass the human connection with technology, but really we need both to survive.”

“It is possible that people will fully buy into having their day-to-day behavior conditioned by electronic treats, like tall hamsters; no one who observes contemporary national politics could claim that Americans have too much native intelligence or innate dignity to submit to this sort of obedience training. But I cling to the hope that we are better than that.”

“I fear we may be so ready to dumb down to the lowest common denominator that anything requiring attention and thought will be bypassed for the ‘feed me’ option.”

“For better or worse, it’s becoming expected for normal activities to be fun, and people (especially Generation Y, downward) are used to being rewarded for every little thing they do.”

“Lyrics to the song ‘A Spoon Full of Sugar’ from the Disney film “Mary Poppins” were the only answer supplied by one respondent: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun—you find the fun and snap! The job’s a game. And every task you undertake becomes a piece of cake—A lark! A spree! It’s very clear to see that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down—the medicine go down-wown, the medicine go down. Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in a most delightful way.”

The findings reflect the reactions in an online, opt-in survey of a diverse set of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics who were asked to choose one of two provided scenarios and explain their choice. While 60 percent agreed with the statement that higher education will evolve rapidly between now and 2020, as networked computing offers new options, a significant number of the survey participants who selected that scenario said the true outcome will be a little bit of both scenarios, and many said while they chose the first scenario as a “vote” for what they hope will happen they actually expect the outcome will be closer to the second scenario.

53% agreed with the statement:

“By 2020, there will have been significant advances in the adoption and use of gamification. It will be making waves on the communications scene and will have been implemented in many new ways for education, health, work, and other aspects of human connection and it will play a role in the everyday activities of many of the people who are actively using communications networks in their daily lives.”

42% agreed with the alternate statement, which posited:

“By 2020, gamification (the use of game mechanics, feedback loops, and rewards to spur interaction and boost engagement, loyalty, fun and/or learning) will not be implemented in most everyday digital activities for most people. While game use and game-like structures will remain an important segment of the communications scene and will have been adopted in new ways, the gamification of other aspects of communications will not really have advanced much beyond being an interesting development implemented occasionally by some segments of the population in some circumstances.”

Note: A total of 5% did not respond. The survey results are based on a non-random online sample of 1,021 Internet experts and other Internet users, recruited via email invitation, conference invitation, or link shared on Twitter, Google Plus or Facebook. Since the data are based on a non-random sample, a margin of error cannot be computed, and the results are not projectable to any population other than the people participating in this sample. The “predictive” scenarios used in this tension pair were created to elicit thoughtful responses to commonly found speculative futures thinking on this topic in 2011; this is not a formal forecast. Many respondents remarked that both scenarios will happen to a certain degree.

The Imagining the Internet Center (http://www.imaginingtheInternet.org) is an initiative of Elon University’s School of Communications. The center’s research holds a mirror to humanity’s use of communications technologies, informs policy development, exposes potential futures and provides a historic record. Imagining the Internet is directed by Janna Quitney Anderson, an associate professor of communications.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (http://wwwpewInternet.org), directed by Lee Rainie, is a nonprofit, non-partisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It produces reports exploring the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care and civic and political life.