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.