Kira Downer is a phenomenon and a delight to talk to. A self-described gamification designer (so described because she wasn’t allowed “fun” in her job title), winner of the Gamification+ prize for ‘Best Use of Gamification in a Business Context’ at the 2018 Brighton Business School Excellence Awards for her essay on personal branding, and one of the organizers of the Annual Gamification Europe Conference, Kira is ranked among the top 50 gamification gurus by Rise Global. In a chat where she often had me in splits, Kira opened up about her journey in gamification, how she learned most of what she has by being thrown into the deep end of the pool, and the projects she is currently focussed on.
The interview is edited lightly for coherence and length.
Rakshith: Kira, thank you for doing this. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get introduced to gamification and what has your journey been like?
Kira: The course I am doing had an elective called “Gamification in Business”, and I thought, Business and games, those are my two most favourite things in the world. So to combine them, apply them, and then be able to make money from it, seemed like the best idea ever! So I chose that module and that’s how I met Pete Jenkins.
It was in November 2017 that Pete and Vasilis Gkogkidis hosted the Gamification Europe conference in Brighton. Though I didn’t go to that, it was sometime after that, that they decided they wanted someone to come into their office and sub-title the YouTube videos from the conference. I thought that would be fun. I was literally getting paid to do research. I would be watching videos, learning, and that could help me pull my grade up. That was when I first started working with Pete; that was in January 2018. Around May that year, the possibility of a 3-month internship with Gamification+ came up. It was everything I thought it would be!
Because of the course I am doing, we do a year’s work – it’s called a sandwich course – in between. So my internship turned into my placement which was incredibly helpful. I spent most of my internship sort of, organizing the conference. So, yeah, I would say my gamification career really did start with the conference, putting it together behind the scenes, meeting people, and that was very exciting.
Rakshith: Since you bring up Gamification Europe, thank you so much for putting up the videos on YouTube. It’s been a very educative experience, just watching them and learning from them.
Kira: You’re welcome.
Rakshith: So, can you tell me a little bit about your experience of putting together this conference, of such scale and interacting with gamification professionals from around the world? For someone who was fairly new to gamification, how did you do it?
Kira: It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had! I didn’t quite realize initially how big the community was and how diverse. At the conference, we had people from South Africa, Venezuela, Mongolia, and Malaysia. It was incredible to see how people loved it and loved what they did.
I am a student and an aspiring entrepreneur. I say aspiring because I haven’t done anything with entrepreneurship yet (laughs). But it taught me so much about how to liaise with, like you said, professionals, speaking to them… it was all just an incredible life experience to have.
Kira: I also learned a lot about the social media side of organizing a conference. When I started, I would say, I was ok at social media. But having to do it every day for the conference, it makes one a lot better. I heard it from someone else, this phrase I am going to use now; but it was, “let quantity lead to quality”, and that is what happened in my case. It’s hard to quantify everything I learned from the conference, but my biggest takeaway would have to be the networking opportunity this conference provided. There were about 200 people attending. So, as I said before, to go out there and meet the people I had only seen online or on LinkedIn; to actually have a conversation with them and learn from not only their knowledge but also the way they treated me, is something you can get only in a conference like Gamification Europe.
Rakshith: That sounds wonderful! Can you describe, in the run-up of putting together a conference of this scale, what does a typical day look like?
Kira: My main job was helping to build the 3radical sponsored app that we introduced at the conference. I spent a lot of time building – I am not sure of the technical term but – the backend, I think it is called of the app. I was putting in all the information that would be available to the attendees. I also spent a lot of time managing the attendee list. There were some challenges too. Despite the time I spent making sure the attendees’ food needs were catered to, the venue neglected to accommodate some pivotal requests. Another task, in the run-up to the conference, was to constantly update the copy on the website. For example, the early bird offer had to be replaced once the date had passed. So my role was to ensure that everything that future attendees would be seeing was up to date, correct, and helpful to them.
Rakshith: And, was it a conscious call this time to release the videos, one every week?
Kira: Okay, so the 2017 conference had been filmed and uploaded to YouTube. I saw that all the videos had been uploaded in one massive batch. I sort of understood why they did that because there were only two of them managing everything at that time.
But my perception of uploading one video a week was that those who missed the conference and the attendees who did go would not be, sort of, bombarded with 20 odd videos at once. And therefore they do not have to decide which one would be most useful or valuable to watch. So hopefully, releasing one video a week, gives people a chance to watch and really understand one video a week, because some of the videos are quite long.
Rakshith: Since you are studying and applying gamification at the same time, for someone starting out in gamification, what would you recommend as a roadmap for learning gamification?
Kira: Because the industry is young, and at the same time quite big, for someone just starting out, I would recommend some of the books that are out there because while gamification sounds all fun and dandy, there is a lot of sound theory that guides it. So some books by Jane McGonagall, Andrzej Marczewski and others are a great resource to provide a grounding in gamification. There is a link to download it on the resources page on our website here.
Since gamification is a tool that has a number of applications and can sort of, be applied to anything you want to do, these books and research papers can help you learn the basics. My resources were primarily Research Gate, Google Scholar, and the videos on Gamification Europe.
And as you study and learn, sort of, the theory behind gamification, I would advise that you find a project to apply it to. Because I learned a lot developing the app for the Gamification Europe conference and also while working on my workshop for personal branding. I’m still working on ideas for the latter.
Rakshith: That brings us nicely to your future projects. What are the projects you are looking forward to in the next year?
Kira: Well right now, I am working with Gamification+. And so, I am working on the planning for this year’s Gamification Europe conference. This year’s conference will be in Berlin, Germany, and Pete was there recently to scout for a suitable venue. This year’s conference will be in Berlin, Germany, and Pete was there recently to scout for a suitable venue. We have recently launched the sale of early bird tickets on Eventbrite. We are also brainstorming themes for this year’s conference. So that will be a major project and I’m excited about that.
Another one is my research on the gamification market. It’s an analysis of the gamification market and the niche that Gamification+ can occupy within the market. So I began by conducting a survey whose purpose was to measure the needs and requirements of organizations interested in using gamification services. (The results of that survey have since been published and can be found here.)
Rakshith: That’s really interesting. I understand you are also creating a workshop on personal branding. Is that something you can talk about now?
Kira: Yeah. So that’s aimed at students primarily though I suppose others might find it useful too. But a lot of the time, especially with students, the use of social media is just for fun and it’s not really used as a tool for professional development. And from my own experience especially with LinkedIn and with putting together the Gamification Europe conference, I feel like social media can be used for much more than just connecting with friends and sharing your social life. So this workshop is my attempt to help students use social media better – to plan the content you want to put up on your social media, how to create content, and how to effectively distribute it. And of course, the idea is to use gamification as a tool to motivate participants of the workshop to understand and use social media effectively.
I also started a project called #selfiewithkira on Instagram – it’s essentially a project where I take a selfie with strangers which is one of the things I started to get out of my comfort zone.
Rakshith: What do you think GamFed can do to contribute to the growth of gamification?
Kira: GamFed has some of the most experienced gamification professionals in the world. It’s a great platform to exchange ideas and shape the perception of the industry among those who wish to use gamification. So I think creating awareness about gamification and creating a repository of this knowledge that we have within the community is a great first step.