Cognitive Gamification, Part 2: Why Games?

Why do people like playing games in the first place? Evolution provides an answer.

63% of American Household have at least one person that plays video games regularly (3 or more hours per week), according to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2016 Essential Facts Report.

It’s clear that a large number of people enjoy playing video games, and games in general, but it’s not clear why. Playing games is a counter-productive activity. It takes time away from useful activities like actual work, or studying, or housework.

So again, why do people enjoy doing a counter-productive activity?

Evolution provides an answer.

We like playing games today because, fundamentally, they allow us to practice those skills — eye-hand, exploring, gathering, strategic, and social — that gave primitive man a survival advantage.

For example, throwing a rock at a tree stump honed eye-hand coordination skills needed for hunting. Searching for and collecting things like shiny rocks honed the exploration and pattern-recognition skills needed for gathering. Finally, trading shiny rocks with others honed negotiation and other social skills.

There are many more examples we can imagine, but the point is this: those primitive people that enjoyed playing games were the ones who survived to pass on their genes.

In short, we are Wired by Evolution to enjoy games.

Today, most of us no longer need to hunt or to gather our food, so playing games seems like a counter-productive activity.

Nevertheless, the widespread playing of video games in modern society can be understood as a pre-adaptation for survival, co-opted for business.

Further Reading

Bird feathers are an example of a pre-adaptation for warmth, co-opted for flight. For a fascinating read on adaptions, pre-adaptations and exaptations, see:
Gould, S. J., & Vrba, E. S. (1982). Exaptation—a missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology, 8, 4-15.

Cognitive Gamification, Part 1: Definition

If only the hard things in life were fun, imagine how successful everyone would be. Gamification provides hope, but it has limitations.

Cleaning your room. Learning calculus. Exercising daily. The mere thought of doing these things gives you that horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Don’t kid yourself. When you’re faced with an activity that’s boring, difficult, or repetitive, the first thought that comes to mind is: “Isn’t there something else I should be doing?” Aka procrastinating. We all do it, and we do it a lot! But failing to procrastinate, the next thought is always: “Why can’t this be more fun?”

That question gets to the very heart of what’s known as “gamification”. Simply put:

Gamification is the process of taking an un-fun activity and making it fun by adding gaming elements.

Gaming elements include score-keeping, competition, cooperation, collectibles, and redeemables, to name but a few.

Some recent examples of gamified activities include:

  • Nike+ FuelBand, a hardware wristband and a smartphone app that gamifies exercise through score-keeping.
  • Pokemon GO, a videogame that gamifies exercise, albeit unintentionally, via collectibles.
  • Duolingo, a multi-platform app that gamifies language learning via interactivity.
  • Starbucks Rewards, gamifies purchases via redeemables.
  • Microsoft Rewards, gamifies the use of Microsoft software, such as Bing Search or the Edge Browser, via redeemables.
  • America’s Army, a videogame developed by the US Army that gamifies combat maneuvers via a combination of videogame elements.
  • My own research on pair programming, gamifies computer programming via cooperation.

This list makes it clear that many different things can be gamified, but can any activity be gamified? The answer is yes, but there is no guarantee that the gamified activity is an improvement over the existing activity.

We need principles to guide the gamification of activities.

Cognitive gamification is the application of principles from cognitive science to transform unfun into fun activities.

In part 2, we’ll explore the evolutionary basis for why people like playing games.