Gamification trends for 2021
It has become somewhat of an annual tradition for me to write up what I see as the main trends for gamification in the world of work. If we look at predictions, forecasts, and everything that involves a bit of combining the knowns and the unknowns, 2020 told us that we won’t get it right all of the time. But we have some certainties, and then some uncertainties to enter into the mix. When I look back at my 2020 predictions, they still held quite well and some are carrying over into this year due to a delay rather than being irrelevant in my view. Let’s look at 2021.
Gamification has become mainstream
We largely have the lockdowns to thank for that. In an indirect way, it’s a by-product of the whole COVID-19 crisis. And why do I say that?
Well, actually, a lot of the world of work has gone online. Whether we like it or not, we are doing our meetings online, our learning online, our collaboration online. In order to encourage and nurture people through different cycles and sequences, more and more often, gamification is seen as a way and means to doing that.
In the industry, we knew that gamification applied to all those situations and that it could be of great help. We have been evangelising, myself and many others in the industry that yes, gamification can indeed help you nurture the behaviours you want more of. It helps you achieve more together and collaborate, as well as hit goals that maybe when you have face-to-face meetings, you don’t need the actual gamified prompts as much. Although they also work in the physical world of work, in my view. Some of our best results still come in the hybrid form of both online and offline blended together.
So, the first trend is that it is mainstream. And what does that have as an impact? Well, in fact, a lot of organisations, when they are looking for new tools, new software, will be looking for gamified elements in it. In order to have that level of motivational design included in software tools that they are rolling out towards their people. Whether that’s for productivity, for collaboration, for learning, for all sorts of marketing sales and other efforts. We see it across the board. We saw it in the projects we’ve done in late 2020, so the latter half. And also the requests that are coming in even as early as this year. It is much more prevalent and has less of the early stigma attached, which is a good indicator that gamification has become mainstream.
Games are the go-to distraction and entertainment method in lockdown
The second trend is that in times of, I suppose, fear and uncertainty, we took ‘en masse’, to games and gaming to divert and cope with the world. If you haven’t listened to the podcasts I did a few weeks ago, where we looked at whether gaming was bad for children. We clearly got answers on the fact that actually, games can provide coping mechanisms for children. I would extend this, that games can provide coping mechanisms for adults as well.
What else did we do? There’s only so much Netflix, so much television, and so many books you can read any given time before, I suppose, your mind wanders and goes somewhere else. Games provided a distraction. And when you looked at the data, as in the statistics, it was amazing to see that across all age groups, gaming was in the top five of activities. Even directly behind searching for what is COVID-19 in some cases. So I think it’s something we cannot overlook.
It also means that people are using games to really actively distract themselves from reality, and giving that escape to themselves. As employers, and with gamification in mind in the workplace, we need to be mindful that people will have a need to divert away from work. Because work and life are sort of blending together where there is no longer a boundary of physically going to work, but actually maybe sitting in your kitchen, sitting in your bedroom, your living room, and working. The divide that was there, by physically going into a place, has now been replaced by maybe playing games to create a boundary for where work starts and where work ends.
I know as a remote-first organisation, we’ve worked like this for a number of years. And to me, it always showed that if you are thinking of engaging people in different continents, it’s always good to have gamification and games to create a connection. Because when we hire a new team member, one of the questions I will always ask is, what’s your favourite game and what games do you play? Why? Because A, it’s important that they have an interest in it if they want to work for us. But B, games give us that connection that, let’s say, talking about work doesn’t give us. It’s a common interest that basically people develop. If you’ve played a game together with your team, or if you’ve had an outing together, you create that same kind of team spirit. And that’s exactly what games can do for organisations.
I would say that incorporating games and gamification will be further in-house in our hybrid working world.
Nurturing work practices with gamification in a hybrid working world
The hybrid working world will actually demand more gamification and games. And that is to encourage basic collaboration, productivity, completion of goals, achievement. And then the related rewards, recognition that comes with that. And even just simply knowing how well you are doing compared to your best self can be a good measure to keep someone motivated when you can’t see your colleagues face-to-face in an office, or where part of the team is maybe self-isolating. Where, for example, the visual statistics that you may see in offices around sales, call centres, et cetera, are no longer visible on a wall and there’s no manager really sitting beside you, or in the same physical space that is encouraging you forward or asking you to take that call. It’s now data and game mechanics that are doing that job, that are telling that story.
I think that’s important, that for the hybrid workplace where some people are in office, some people are working remotely, the connection is made through the game elements, the visual dashboards, the visual prompts that basically connect people together.
Gamification of well-being
What I would also say, and this is trend four in my view, is that the importance of using games and gamification for wellbeing and tracking workplace wellbeing will become vital in 2021. Why do I say that? Well, a lot of us have had to deal with grief and are probably going to have to deal with grief, hurts, and loneliness to some extent, and isolation. Not everybody copes well with being alone, being isolated, being locked away, and only being able to speak to a small number of people.
I know I used to travel at least once a month. I would say two or three times a month most months. And I have to say, having been in one physical location for nearly 10 months now has been an amazing adaptation, but I also at times have felt it mentally. We need to use gamification to keep yourself motivated, to keep yourself in high spirits, especially when things are not necessarily going your way, and you have no physical way of influencing it in person, you have to rely on something that can be managed remotely.
I think that mental wellbeing is something that more and more companies, especially those who have employee engagement and caring for employees as part of their value set, I think that’s where the next generation of gamification will come in.
We have already seen gamification in let’s say, productivity, collaboration, HR, and learning. But the next space is in my view, and this year specifically, is in the health and wellbeing space for companies. Gamification has already earned its stripes in the mental health world, as in, it has been used, and is being used by practitioners in psychiatry and psychology. For example, creating a distance between what one is thinking and visually expressing it inside a game or a virtual world. And then, the approval of games that for example, help with ADHD, which I wrote about last year, which also was a first in 2020.
I definitely believe that gamification and wellbeing will work well together if implemented from the perspective of providing care and providing that opportunity to flag that I’m in trouble type for an employee. Because with all of us in remote teams, daily connection with your teammates is important. Also knowing that your manager cares and that the company cares, will be that difference maker between basic loyalty towards an organisation or disengagement from an organisation. I believe it will actually be something that people will value and probably decide whether to stay or leave companies for.
When we are no longer physically engaged or physically going to a place, it’s easier to disconnect. The reason why I say that is if you look at behaviour on social media, for example, as soon as it’s a visual or a text-only, like a Twitter only, for example, it’s any medium where you as the comment giver are not physically there, or physically seen, makes it a lot easier to come out with very negative, very harsh comments. Obviously, with a small number of characters and probably limited context in some cases, we can see that spiralling out of control quite quickly. So the lack of connection that is felt is what makes it acceptable, even though it isn’t, to give, let’s say, trolling comments or nasty feedback to the different people.
I also feel that social media has shown us the nasty dark side of not having that physical face-to-face connection. Because when you put a troll in front of the person that they’re actually attacking, very often they will not dare to say what they actually said online. There have been several experiments done to that effect where they read out the comments they read to the face of the people that it was intended for and they did feel remorse. You have of course outliers that don’t, but by and large, most people felt embarrassed and horrendous about it. So, I think from a workplace perspective is something we definitely need to be mindful of and watching.
I think in a hybrid work environment, it is definitely something to monitor. First of all from a communication perspective that connections are nurtured and secondly that wellbeing will be high on the agenda, and I think it should be for every organisation. Most organisations will have had people who’ve been impacted by COVID themselves, or their family members, and they may have lost loved ones through COVID or through the other things that haven’t been looked after in the health sector because of it. We definitely have a situation that will drive health and wellbeing up to the top of the corporate agenda.
Artificial intelligence and gamification to track the narrative and mood
Last year I said, AI and gamification will marry together for adaptability and adaptivity.
But I actually think this year, artificial intelligence can help in monitoring the narrative, monitoring the emotional states of people. Where I see gamification and artificial intelligence heading this year is that we will use more of it, for one. And for two, is that we use it to actually flag where there may be potential problems from a mood, from an emotional perspective. We see a lot of HR tools with a mood tracking functionality and mood tracking ability in them. IBM Watson and other AI tools have the ability to read the mood from a paragraph of text and when deployed in monitoring communication channels across a company they do come back with meaningful insights.
We also see it in a lot of apps for mobile phones, where you can enter your daily mood. I mean, my meditation app, which actually I believe is a really good example of good gamification. The Calm app, if you haven’t tried it, have a go at it. What I like about it is that whilst it prompts me to enter my mood, it is totally voluntary, and it is totally up to me to decide whether I want to or not. It leaves me my sense of control to do it. And every time I do it, I do get a pat on the back for doing it. So, it’s not something that is compulsory.
From a workplace perspective, keeping gamification and mood tracking voluntary should be seen as a best practice rather than an actual trend. Most workplaces will be tempted to want everything to be compulsory. We have seen that with learning gamification, we have seen that in a lot of HR implementations, we have worked on. The request is always to make it mandatory. We usually have an uphill battle to persuade them to agree to a completely voluntary form of gamification. I believe the negatives outweigh the positives when choosing mandatory over voluntary. One of my last posts for last year was around enforced gamification and how it can actually be a limiting factor. I recommend reading that one also.
But I think artificial intelligence from the perspective of where the algorithm detects language, detects moods and detects it more and more accurately, that’s where gamification can come in to then nudge the person to take positive action steps towards either putting their hand up and flagging, Hey, I’m in trouble, I need help. Or nudging them to, what’s your corrective action. As in, what are you going to do that makes you feel better? How many things today have you done that will make you feel better? I think that’s where I would love to see gamification go on. I think it ought to, especially given the year that we have just experienced.
I also had it as a trend point in 2020, that there would be a focus on climate and sustainability. I don’t think that one came true for 2020. Pretty much by and large because of lockdowns. Saying that the lockdowns did prove to be beneficial in reducing air and noise pollution. However, we do see climate change is still impacting and… Bushfires, flooding, extreme weather conditions are still happening all around us, whether there is a COVID or no COVID.
For most cities, there’s an active agenda towards zero emissions. I believe that a lot of the work we are doing and seeing is around gamification of climate change and specifically nudging towards climate action, and that’s positive action as opposed to just simply tracking it. We see more and more trackers, more and more interest in knowing what kind of carbon footprint we leave are the types of things and how we can personally contribute to reducing carbon emissions. Also, I believe that long-term behaviour change, nudging towards sustainability and towards positive action, will become mainstream. It will become very important for what I see in gamification for climate change. So although I think last year the trend didn’t quite come true, I don’t think it has been erased raised from the agenda.
I actually think once lockdowns are fading out and the vaccine is probably finding its place into the larger community, and therefore reducing the risk of spreading, I think the next big hit hot topic will be back on the agenda and that will be climate change and sustainability. I believe climate change and sustainability will remain high on the agenda for 2021 in all things gamification and where gamification is very likely to be implemented from city, to nation, to corporate levels.
Big societal issues
The bigger societal issues, and that would be my next trend, is that the bigger issues like unemployment, poverty, food supplies, and inequality is where I think the next focus of gamification and serious games should be. Although it’s probably where the budget should be also prioritised towards actually delivering the services. But with large-scale unemployment large-scale reduction of incomes because certain industries have been hit so hard, and people have been made redundant all over the place.
I think we will see the ongoing effects of that from 2021 onwards. I don’t think it’s going to stop. So as much as I would love to say gamification can do something, well the reality is unless you have shelter and food, gamification is the last thing you would want to notice. But for those of us that are in a privileged position of having a job, having an income, having enough food, and a shelter, we are the ones who can help the ones that are not so well off. It is in our support of those lesser well off that gamification and serious games can come to play and create en empathic impact which will hopefully then stimulate action.
I see more NGOs and charities looking at ways of how can we make this work? Maybe even communities where funds are made available to basically tap into applications like mobile apps, or even communities on social media networks to basically provide a bit of good for the community. Because I do believe that the backlash of what we have experienced is that we will head into smaller groups, smaller communities and that we basically will learn to support one another in smaller groups again like we used to do back in more tribal times.
I believe that attracting notice and empathy of who’s in trouble, who needs help, can be aided by gamified systems. By potentially a give and take barter system where although you might be hungry, you may still want to contribute your skills for gaining your food. There are things I think gamification can add to the picture, but it should be aimed at those who are still affluent, who are still in work and who can afford it, rather than those who are without because that’s the last thing they want to do is play. The first thing they want is to make sure they are covered for the basics. That’s a big distinction there.
But I think from our perspective having, let’s say, one charity project each quarter would be something to be looking at and see, how can we help, and how can we do something positive that will help people forward. It is definitely on our agenda as a company.
Virtual worlds and environments in addition to blended reality
The prevalence and this is more of a design feature, is that the prevalence of virtual worlds is also growing. This has come about from some of the harsh critics of process gamification where you just add gaming elements to specific processes who are basically advocating instead of adding game elements to a process, bring people into a virtual world and have them explore things there. Virtual worlds allow for more enhanced narrative and more explorative gameplay, whereas gamification of a process is much more linear and limited.
Saying that the two can co-exist neatly beside each other. The next big argument will likely be which one is more effective. I reckon that research will tell eventually that in some situations, the virtual world is indeed the best way forward. And in other situations, it’s actually a gamified process.
I’ll give you an example of how this played out in our home environment. We were looking at ways of exercising because the gyms are closed. And looking at how can we do this in a fun and gamified way? So we looked at systems like Zwift, for example, which basically have you take part in all sorts of races and race against other people in a virtual environment. What we chose was an app called Kinomap where you have a more lifelike experience where you follow someone else’s real video footage portrayed on the screen. You can beat your best self, or you can beat the people that have been on that same track. It is maybe not as gamified as a Zwift system, but for us, the link to reality was important.
It brings me back to what I have maintained all along, I think it is the blend of the virtual and the real world where the magic lies for both gamification, augmented reality, but also 360 video, and virtual reality to some extent. Because not everybody is comfortable blocking themselves from reality in total. I believe the blended experience is most important.
I also think that virtual worlds are bigger and bigger, and technologies have enhanced so much that it’s easy for people to afford. Most computers can handle it, even though mine starts wheezing like crazy when I do launch virtual worlds. As long as you have enough bandwidth and power in your machines for immediate memory, I think it works very well and can work very well.
The question there is often a question of preference. How do you like to consume your content? But also a question of, how virtual does your virtual world need to be? Does it need to be something that’s lifelike or something that is clearly not lifelike? And what will be the impact of either or? And do we then show up as ourselves, or do we show up as an avatar version in whatever form or kind? Robot, animal, animoid, humanoid, you name it. It can be done. So, that’s another interesting question. And from a corporate perspective, I know from the projects we’ve done is that there are brave organisations that allow anybody to show up as anything. But in a lot of places, you still want to be seen as the person that you are.
And actually, if we look at the experience of social media again, the platforms that allow us to not be ourselves tend to have more… Yeah, let’s just say negative impacts by fake profiles, fake people, with fake names. So I think having a link to a real person, a real avatar has its merits, but that’s just my personal opinion.
Another trend I mentioned last. Voice-enabled gamification will become more and more important. I think most of us have had an Alexa, or Siri, or an Echo, or a Google assistant helping us at some point. They are proving invaluable for me in my shopping lists, but also for gamification and for the remote workplace. If we think about the hybrid organisation, having a gamified bit of feedback where somebody actually… And that could be the voice of your manager, it could be the voice of your colleague cheering you on, or saying “Hey, well done.”
Whilst you can’t physically be in that space, I think that could be a cool feature. In an office environment, it’s a non-runner unless you have a work environment where, for example, computers are not possible and where other noises may also be present. Factory floors, for example, manufacturing areas could be a good place where voice-activated gamification may actually be the best option. Whereas in an office space where more of the, I suppose, mental and word processing, and calls and everything need to be taking place, there may be more space for one-to-one in your headphone kind of feedback. But beyond that, having talking devices all over the place may not function so well.
2021 a transition to gamification everywhere, let’s keep an eye on keeping it human-centred
I think 2021 will be a transition year globally. I think from COVID to non-COVID and what remains to be seen is how permanent the remote office will become.
But thanks to the remote office environments becoming much more acceptable. And for some, probably an ongoing reality, I think that’s where gamification will fill gaps that previously may not have been considered. I think it has sped up what it can do. I think from a human connection, the distraction factor that games bring are good, are positive, and should be recognised as such. But also, their potentially healing benefit and collaboration benefits because… I can’t remember who quoted it or who said it to me, but people that play together stay together. And I see that in families, but I also see that in teams. If you’ve ever played with people, I mean, I’m still in touch with people I played sports with. Still have a connection with people I’ve played games with.
These things are happening. If you have children, I would urge you to play with them on a regular basis as well, because it’s their way of coping with what’s going on around the world. Don’t take it away from them, let them. And yes, have fun in the process.
This sums up what I think are the big trends for gamification going forward. Any of the previous years, I think I was focused more on the design and I suppose the tech elements of it. I still mentioned artificial intelligence and virtual worlds as something, but I think this year it will be much more thematic as in the themes that we will be addressing with gamification.
I do see a big space for it in the world of work, and in the world of life in general. If you are making apps, making platforms, I don’t think you can ignore it anymore. The one thing I’m hoping and wishing for is that in 2021, we do pay attention. That it becomes a force for good. And that we steer clear of the unethical practices. That we keep our designs transparent for all users, both the admins as well as the end-users, because we don’t want to create that negative space. There’s plenty of that around naturally speaking in the current climate. I hope for an ethical, positive impact here, that gamification can bring that to the table.