Games that make the world a better place

Jan Storsgard

Gamification takes the techniques of the games industry and applies them to goals that benefit society. It’s a methodology that's effectively modifying behaviours for the better – and without us really noticing.

Life is a game

For Jan Storgards, life is a game. The director of REACTOR, an EU-funded three-year project, describes his mission as 'to gamify everything'. But if that sounds like a rather less than rigorous for an academic, don’t be fooled. Gamification is a serious and exciting sector.

Jan explains that it involves 'using methods and technologies of the games industries in different contexts', addressing difficult societal problems, using games for more serious aims – ones where entertainment is not the end goal. It may be to nudge people into improving their health, or increasing their involvement with local culture, say.

One fantastic real-life example is a game called Foldit, created by the University of Washington. The game saw players all over the world competing to work out various protein structures, using a puzzle-type online interface. Within ten days of its launch, it had succeeded in deciphering a vital crystal structure for an AIDS-causing virus, M-PMV, that scientists had been trying to work out for 15 years.

Or think the hugely successful Pokemon Go game, credited with increasing the number of steps that teenagers are taking by a significant amount, without the players even realising it. As Jan says: 'It works better if it’s hidden in the process.'

[We're about] using games for more serious aims – it may be to nudge people into improving their health, or increasing their involvement with local culture

Other successful applications include the emergence of wearables (think Fitbits or Apple watches) and the creation of 'augmented' climbing walls, where indoor climbing walls have illuminated sections highlighted to mimic the reward and motivation of gaming, making serious things fun.

The theory is that game-based rewards produce dopamine in your brain, the chemical signal associated with pleasure. As more dopamine is released the more goals in a game you achieve, the player is encouraged to become increasingly motivated as they become more successful in their gaming.

Jan’s own background makes him ideally placed to now 'combine everything' he has learned so far into his role at ARU. He was first inspired as a youngster in Finland in the 1980s by the Sinclair Spectrum computers – so was thrilled, on arriving at ARU, to find out that a building here was named after its inventor Clive Sinclair – 'my hero!' He formed his own wearables start-up '20 years ago, when nobody knew that this kind of technology existed'. After being involved in the Finnish games industry boom, Jan moved to academia for a PhD in games development, working with 'many tech start-ups' and ultimately ending up here in Cambridge.

Using technology to improve the human experience

So what is REACTOR? 'It’s two things: we try to innovate new ways of using games technologies and improve the human experience – that’s a software thing. And then it’s an actual project over three years.'

Twenty years ago, nobody knew that this kind of technology existed

The EU project, which started in July last year, aims to engage with 100 SMEs, creating a cluster of applied gaming and providing the inspiration and support for companies developing products.

In March, REACTOR hosted its Big Games Challenge, which chose to focus on culture and heritage, exploring ways that gamification could help people to 'talk better about local heritage, make people enjoy their visits to museums and so forth'. Jan is now discussing with companies and organizing development weekends providing business, technology and user-design support.

Jan thinks that being located at ARU, at the heart of Cambridge, has been key to the project’s successful uptake so far. 'Cambridge is very open to the message,' he explains. 'I’ve been here enough years to know that here it is actually quite easy to get connected. People here really innovate to make something together.'

As to the future, Jan is certain that the role of gamification is only set to increase. 'Because of the younger generations growing up with games, it’s a very, very cool time to make new things.'

So from health and well-being to shopping, from cultural experiences to logistic systems, it seems like gamification is going to be prevalent from now onwards. Whether it’s encouraging you to aerate your lawn or rewarding you for eating your five a day, these techniques will be modifying our behavior – for the good – for quite some time.

Real-world gamification wins

  • Mobile game Pain Squad is a role-playing police game that motivates children with cancer to log and manage their pain levels.
  • CrowdRise gamifies charitable giving, encouraging users to donate by awarding points, badges and position on a leaderboard.
  • RecycleBank encourages recycling by awarding points, redeemable for actual goods in US stores like WalMart and BestBuy.
  • Duolingo serves a dual purpose: users can learn a language for free, earning ‘skill points’ as they progress, while at the same time their answers are helping to translate websites and documents online.

You may also like...

  • Playing the long game: Jan's journey from Finland to Cambridge's Silicon Fen
  • REACTOR events are open to sole traders, SMEs or social enterprises who would like to get involved in the applied games sector in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Register online