Supermarket chain Sainsbury's was recently caught red faced with a poster encouraging its staff to get customers to spend more on their shopping.
It caused an irate yet strange response on Twitter with many outraged by why a supermarket would want customers to spend more. Surely that is the whole point of shops: try every trick in the book to get us to part with our money?
What their posters did reveal is the increasingly popular trend of ‘gamification’— of rewarding, incentivising and motivating people to achieve a goal. In this case it was aimed at their staff.
While there is nothing new with rewarding people when they do something good, today, many of these ideas are being fed from an altogether different realm: the gaming industry.
Ever since Sony launched its PlayStation games console that helped popularise gaming, adults and children alike now spend millions of pounds and thousands of hours each year playing games. With so many people playing so many games, it is no wonder that psychologists, policy makers and businesses have taken a keen interest in what makes playing games so compelling.
Notwithstanding their immersive quality, people of all ages through playing games can be very adept at attaining goals, gaining rewards and in the case of some games, players actively cooperate with one another for altruistic ends, such as to explore and build new virtual cities. Gaming — especially played on mobile phones — is also generating huge revenues for game producers through in app purchases too.
For a business or a politician who struggle not only to connect with their constituents but also to enthuse them in their agendas, gaming offers a compelling glimpse of how to rectify their problem through incentivising people with goal setting and rewards.
Take the popular mobile social media app Foursquare. It helped popularise how to encourage its many millions of worldwide users to achieve goals by competing with one another by collecting ‘badges' each time they visited a place with their mobile phone. Since its launch, Foursquare has spawned many other apps and businesses who have copied its ideas for themselves.
For example, the coffee chain Starbucks saw an opportunity of how to incentivise their customers by rewarding them with free coffee each time they checked in at one of their cafes using Foursquare.
Gamification can work in other ways too. For example, when writing, I sometimes use a little program installed on my computer called Focus Booster to keep me from being distracted. Its idea is very simple. After pressing a button, it alerts me when twenty five minute have passed, letting me know I can take a break.
In academia too, encouraging competition between researchers is well founded and often used to try to push better outcomes. By setting teams against one another, they can push themselves harder, because of the risk of not wanting to be beaten by their opponents.
While marketers and customers have forever engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse — each trying to outwit the other — the prevalence of gamification techniques today suggests something entirely different is going on. In particular it is being used to explicitly reward people for exhibiting good behaviour when up until now, such attempts have historically failed.
For example car manufacturers and insurers are beginning to work together to offer young drivers lower insurance premiums if they keep within the speed limits, don’t speed away from traffic lights, and use their gears more economically.
By using tracking devices attached to their cars that monitor engine performance combined with GPS satelite data, each driver can get immediate feedback via their car dashboards or mobile phones (and is sent back to their insurers), all to help them save more fuel economy, be kinder to the environment and be a safer driver.
All of this, as Kam Star, chief play officer at games and behaviour consultancy PlayGen told me, means being able to measure and respond via an interface 'has made it possible to frame and reward actions in a way that was not possible before.’
30 games released before Christmas
30 games released before Christmas
The $500 million ‘shared-world shooter’ from Bungie has arrived. Release date: 9th September 2014
2/30 Hyrule Warriors
The first of a few big upcoming releases for the Wii U, Hyrule Warriors will see Link hack-and-slashing in Hyrule. Expect a closer likening to Dynasty Warriors rather than a typical Zelda game. Release date: 19th September 2014
3/30 The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
The open world adventure which follows a detective with paranormal powers used to solve crimes promises suspense, mystery - and gorgeous graphics. Release date: 25th September 2014
4/30 FIFA 15
The best-selling sports video game franchise in the world is set to return with Lionel Messi as the cover star, all 20 Premier League stadiums and scarily lifelike players. Release date: 26th September 2014
5/30 Forza Horizon 2
Exclusive to Xbox One and 360, racing fans will get to see the roads of southern Europe – with three times more driveable areas than the 2012 original. Release date: 3rd October 2014
6/30 Super Smash Bros
Coming first to the 3DS, players will be able to smash the shell out of Nintendo characters such as Yoshi, Link, Fox, Mario, Mega Man, Pac-Man, Pikachu, Fox, Peach and Donkey Kong. Release date: 3rd October 2014
7/30 Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments
The UK’s favourite detective takes a Dostoyevsky turn, as he must make moral choices when he finds the culprits. Release date: 3rd October 2014
8/30 Alien: Isolation
There’s no doubt about it, this looks really scary. Set in 2137, 15 years after the events of Alien and 42 years prior to Aliens, the game follows Amanda, who is investigating the disappearance of her mother Ellen Ripley. Release date: 7th October 2014
9/30 Project Spark
For creative minds, Xbox's Project Spark offers players a blank canvas to draw on content to make events, games and music. Release date: 7th October 2014
10/30 NBA 2K15
2K Sports aim to make their new basketball release more authentic than ever. With Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder as the cover star, Crew mode will be coming back, and MY League introduced. Release date: 7th October 2014
11/30 NBA Live 15
Up against NBA 2K15 on the same day is this basketball title from EA Sports, who scanned 70% of NBA players for added realism. Release date: 7th October 2014
Exclusive to PS4, this racing release will see top speeds and atmospheric conditions - plus PlayStation Plus subscribers will get a free version. Release date: 10th October 2014
13/30 Skylanders Trap Team
The third release from the ridiculously popular-with-kids franchise will include traps where players can catch the bad guys and play as them. Release date: 10th October 2014
14/30 The Evil Within
In our preview, it’s been described as ‘a survival horror fan’s best worst nightmare’. Release date: 17th October 2014
15/30 Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!
The third game in the Borderlands series, and a prequel to the 2012 game Borderlands 2, and will see new weapons such as anti-gravity, freeze, and oxygen tanks. Release date: 17th October 2014
16/30 F1 2014
Based on the 2014 Formula One season, this racing game from Codemasters will feature the new Sochi Autodrom. Release date: 17th October 2014
17/30 Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes
The other popular toys to life series will see superheroes join the team, including Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man. Release date: 18th October 2014
18/30 Fantasia: Music Evolved
Based on the music from Walt Disney's 1940 animated film, your body will control the rhythm and sounds. Release date: 21st October 2014
19/30 Bayonetta 2
The sequel to Nintendo's 2009 game sees Bayonetta battling the bad guys with smart combat and sharp graphics. Release date: 24th October 2014
20/30 Sunset Overdrive
The colourful comic style offering exclusive to Xbox One combines the feel of Sum 41/Tony Hawk with a random mix of mutants and energy drinks. Release date: 31st October, 2014
21/30 WWE 2K15
Sting, Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin will appear in the next wrestling saga, which will next have story mode My Career. Release date: 31st October, 2014
22/30 Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
The 11 year-old military first person shooter series is about to become more futuristic, with characters that look more realistic than ever - plus, Kevin Spacey stars as the bad guy. The downloadable content for will be released first on Xbox Live. Release date: 4th November 2014
23/30 World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor
The fifth expansion to MMORPG World of Warcraft will will raise the existing level cap from 90 to 100 and will introduce player-built, upgradeable garrisons - plus a tribute character to Robin Williams. Release date: 13th November 2014
24/30 Halo: The Master Chief Collection
Consisting of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2, Halo 3, and Halo 4, this is obviously one for Halo super fans. Players will also get access to Halo 5: Guardians beta. Release date: 14th November 2014
25/30 Assassin's Creed: Unity
Set in Paris during the French Revolution, for the first time, four players can take on missions in multiplayer co-op, and there's also a new stealth option, which contrasts well with the fluid movement of the deadly Assassin. Release date: 15th November 2014
26/30 Far Cry 4
Set in a region of the Himalayas, you get to ride on an elephant with weapons, and invite friends to join you to play via PlayStation Plus, even if they don't own the game. Release date: 18th November 2014
27/30 Little Big Planet 3
Sackboy's got some new friends this time round in PlayStation's puzzle platformer, each with different skills opening up a range of different, and cute, challenges. Release date: 19th November 2014
28/30 Dragon Age: Inquisition
Bioware's RPG sequel to Dragon Age 2 will let players explore more than ever before - and there are several different major endings depending on your decisions in the game. Release date: 21st November 2014
29/30 Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric and Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal
The latest outing for everyone's favourite hedgehog sees the first released on the Wii U, and the second for the 3DS. The two games form the final part in Sega's partnership with Nintendo, following Sonic Lost World and Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Release date: 21st November 2014
30/30 Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire
The 3DS remakes of the 2002 Game Boy Advance titles Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire will be a must-have for Pokefans. Release date: 28th November 2014
Another area where gamification techniques are being used is in education. Many teachers and university lecturers openly admit they struggle to keep their students engaged. Some use digital tools such as duolingo that help pupils learn languages by being rewarding them with points on how good they are at memorising words.
But the case for gamification in education isn’t so clear cut. A recent study conducted with 10,000 pupils on whether parents could incentivise their children to study for their GCSEs with either a cash reward or with the promise of a school trip found that neither had a positive effect on their academic attainment. Dr Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation behind the research said in an interview, while incentives can increase “effort", the overall impact on learning was "low.”
Dr Shirley Dent, a communications specialist and founder of Spark Mobile and as someone who is critical of gamification told me, the problem with it is that it is less about having a 'head-on argument’ and is more about 'seeking to change behaviour with a few gamer's tricks.’
Are techniques like gamification becoming popular at a time when there is little consensus of the right way to teach children, where teachers increasingly rely on tools to keep their pupils interested? Tellingly, Collins conclusion from his research was that the “most powerful driver of achievement in schools is great teaching”.
While gamification techniques do get people to change their behavior, perhaps the real question is whether offering up incentives is a technical way of avoiding the need for a forthright debate. Or as Dent went on to tell me, 'let gamers get on with gaming and politicians get on with convincing us through a proper rational argument.’
Air miles, shopping loyalty cards, playing the lottery, to collecting money for charity by competing to take the most steps or walk the furthest, are all examples of how play is an everyday part of our lives. At work, training sessions that involve playing games or being rewarded for good behaviour or attendance, are commonplace practice.
Playing games — whether for fun or otherwise — do show that people of all ages are more than able to attain rewards, solve problems, and work towards a higher goal. But whether play is the best way to experience the world remains to be seen.