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Gamification taking over our lives, study finds

A new study says "gamification" — the use of game mechanics, feedback loops and rewards to spur interaction and boost engagement — may play a central role in all aspects of our future lives. Does Portal ring any bells?
Gamification 05 18 2012Enlarge
A visitor plays the computer game 'World of Warcraft' at the world's biggest high-tech fair, the CeBIT on March 4, 2010 in the northern German city of Hanover. Some 4,157 companies from 68 countries are displaying their latest gadgets at the fair taking place from March 2 to 6, 2010. (Nigel Treblin/AFP/Getty Images)

Gaming mechanics like leveling up and loot rewards could soon play a more central role in the daily lives of the average person, whether at work or at play, according to a Pew Research Center report on the “gamification” of our world.

Beginning in 1974, with the creation of Dungeons and Dragons, and up through this week’s highly-anticipated launch of Diablo III — loot, leveling up and boss fights have become a daily obsession for millions of people across the globe. 

Gamers are no strangers to the addictive qualities of game mechanics and neither are game developers, who are raking in billions of dollars in revenue generated by an obsession with leveling up with friends. Now, tech industry analyst and stakeholders are suggesting that similar mechanics will begin embedding themselves into our daily lives.

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“While some people dismiss gamification as a fad, neuroscientists are discovering more and more about the ways in which humans react to such interactive design elements. They say such elements can cause feel-good chemical reactions, alter human responses to stimuli — increasing reaction times, for instance — and in certain situations can improve learning, participation and motivation,” read the Pew Research Center study, which was released today. 

In the study, 1,021 tech industry stakeholders and critics responded to questions about the gamification of daily life and whether or not the future will begin to look more and more like a game. 

“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...,” over half of the respondents agreed.

While gaming has already taken hold in educational circles, it is also beginning to developi into its own specific research methodology. And it's having major success. In 2011, for example, researchers at the University of Washington deciphered the crystal structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus "retroviral protease," an AIDS-causing virus in monkeys, by using “Foldit,” a puzzle game about protein folding. After just 10 days, players produced an accurate 3D model of the enzyme, something that had eluded scientists for 15 years. 

Apparently, furthering AIDS research takes half as long as it does to get a full set of PvP gear in World of Warcraft.

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“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.”

But as “gamification” begins creeping into the lives of the average non-gamer, some respondents involved in the Pew Center study warned of a scenario where gaming mechanics could be used for more sinister motivations.

“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.”

The ultimate gamification scenario is not unfamiliar to the average video game fan. Enslaved by Artificial Intelligence in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, many gamers have been forced to solve puzzles with the promise of rewards like cake at their completion for the purposes of research. However, in this scenario from Portal, the test subjects are forced to undergo testing indefinitely under the orders from their sadistic robotic overlords.

Perhaps Portal isn’t too far off the mark.

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