Making the world our playground

| Rense Kuipers

Should we simply accept that playing is just for kids running around and teenagers with video game consoles? Or can gamification help bring out our ‘inner child’, when games blend over to our adult world? Researchers Robby van Delden and Robert Wendrich discuss the concept of gamification.

In 2009, the stairs of the Odenplan subway station in Stockholm got a makeover, turning into fully functional piano keys. It was supposed to encourage people to take the stairs, instead of the escalator next to them. And according to the makers, it increased the number of people taking the stairs by 66 percent, proving to them that a fun experience can change behaviour for the better.

Ground rules

‘Playing can put a smile on our face and increase our feeling of well-being. I believe that’s the major upside of gamification,’ says Human Media Interaction researcher Robby van Delden. ‘There is however a big difference between playful experiences and gamifying the world around us in a good way. At the moment, this research area is still making its first strides and we don’t really know how gamification affects people’s motivation in the long run, even in the case of a simple playful concept like the Stockholm piano stairs. I do think we overestimate how long something like that remains a truly fun and compelling experience.’

'Mobile developers are happy when people play their games for more than a month.' 

Van Delden thinks differences between playfulness, gamification and persuasion need to be taken into account. ‘Games are fundamentally objective based and outcome oriented. So there are some ground rules you need to abide to as a designer, when you want to apply gaming elements in real life. Think of context, features, variety and personalization. Elements that work on a playground will most likely not apply to a nursing home. And you need to keep an eye on the expiry date of a game, since a lack of variety will ultimately bore people. I think mobile developers are happy when people play their games for more than a month. That’s how fleeting it is.’


The researcher still sees people on the streets playing Pokémon Go. ‘That’s a good example of gamification done in a right way. Say what you want about Pokémon Go, but the app got people moving and connecting with each other. The sports app Strava also applies the concept well. By using gamification features like King of the Mountain, it encourages cyclists to improve their personal or other bests.’ Still, Van Delden wants to have more insight into the behaviour of people when using gamified elements. ‘The more we know as researchers, the better we can explore interventions, so designers can create better gamification experiences. In the end, they are tasked to create elements that embody us to make our lives more joyful.’

'We seem to forget that the world is our playground and that we love to play in it.'

According to design engineering researcher Robert Wendrich, playing is about using our direct environment. ‘Embodiment is key in providing something that alleviates the restrictions we face as human beings. The same way we use a hammer to build and a computer to help us think, we can play to help us activate, relax or learn. And why not? Too often, we seem to forget that the world is our playground and that we love to play in it.’

Receptive environments

Wendrich poses questions on how to unlock our ‘inner child’. ‘That’s what I find interesting as a researcher: how can we create something in a playful way, from a non-structured environment? We live in a VUCA world; we’re surrounded by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. As humans, we’re afraid of chaos; we try to structure it and bend it to our will, because our basic attitude is that we’re afraid to come up with bad ideas. That’s why we think we need our world to be coherent. Which goes directly against the inner principles of playing and creating.’

To add to that point, Wendrich refers to Measuring the World, a book by German writer Daniel Kehlmann about world explorer Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. ‘Von Humboldt went out to explore and see the world with his own eyes; Gauss stayed at home and searched his mind to think about the world of space and time. These extremes are fundamental for everything we do. Not saying that one is better than the other, but when we want to play, we need environments that are receptive to the possibilities of playing and exploring.’

Finding a happy medium

The main challenge, according to Wendrich, comes down to intuitiveness and intention. 'I do believe in incentives in gamification. That’s what gets people activated. But the question is: who are you incentivising? Nowadays, we have to deal with two basic groups of people: digital natives and digital immigrants. The natives are used to new technology and video games, while the immigrants have to learn something they’re completely unaccustomed to. So when we’re thinking of gamification, we’re going to need our immediate space to be intuitive and hybrid. If we want everyone to start playing, we have to find a happy medium.’


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