Gamification – Themed Conference – Cherry Popped

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GamFed Steering Committee member Rasul Majid reports back on attending Gamification World Congress 2015, Barcelona, Spain

Having just landed at the El Prat airport in Barcelona, I had a feeling of wonder and excitement come over me, as any tourist to a famous European city would most likely have.  Getting off the airport bus at my stop in town, the first thing I noticed was how open people were to sharing their physical affection with one another.  Rarely in China would you ever see anyone above 50 years old holding hands with each other walking down the street.  In Barcelona it was the norm.  In China, you don’t see same sex couples do more than lean against one another in the metro as a show of solidarity to one another.  In Barcelona, there were full-on lesbian make-out sessions happening by the bus stop.  Viva la Barcelona.

Museum ArtsMy wonderment was taken to the next level as I ascendedMuseum Water the stairs up to the National Museum of Arts, which was a direct neighbor to the conference venue.  What followed was more daydreaming couples, a certain air of appreciation for life, in the backdrop of stunning views of the city from the hillside.   I may never leave.

Museum Statue

A couple hours later, back down to ground level, I patiently waited outside the apartment building for my Airbnb host.  His profile said he was an experienced Airbnb landlord – pretty much started hosting since the platform became live in Spain back in 2011.  As I sat on the bench, contemplating an exciting next few days ahead, a young gentleman approached me and started speaking Spanish.  Poor guy.  I must look a little like a local.  I told him I didn’t understand but he persisted to keep talking on and pointed to a place behind me as if he was lost, looking for directions.  I stood up and looked over.  Sorry buddy, no idea what you’re saying.  Why are you still talking?

For some reason, I suddenly had the urge to look behind me.  Something about the entire situation suddenly felt… off.  As I turned and looked down, my backpack, which was right next to me on the bench, was gone.  I looked up and I could see the back of another man speed-walking away – about 10 meters from the bench.  I immediately got up and yelled out to him – my adrenaline accelerating my legs into gear.  He dropped the bag and scurried off.  I ran to retrieve my backpack and turned to face his previously yapping accomplice who had naturally, already disappeared from sight.

It’s funny, you live a certain way for a certain amount of time and you instinctively get used to things.  Our everyday experiences shape our general impressions.  But impressions are just that – impressions.  They are a made-up version of a reality that we oftentimes subconsciously create in our mind.  I’m not sure what my image of Barcelona was up to that point but this experience was a kindly jolt of reality where previously there was some imaginary dream vision.  Some could say that they have an image of what China is like based on what they read or what their friends say.  Good or bad, no one really knows until you are actually there – to live those moments yourself.

I think this parallels greatly to introducing new ideas, new concepts, new abstractions from the norm.  The gamification industry is currently at its earliest stages and some have already dismissed the entire concept as a “fad” or worse, some sort of marketing ploy.  It takes a lot of work to bring forward new ways of thinking against tradition – to “go against the grain”.  Especially in today’s world where everything is so connected digitally, one good use case may help to convince one person halfway across the world of its potential but one failed use case will most likely deter 10 people from ever thinking about it again.  One step forward, ten steps back.

I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to be a part of GWC2015.  After two years of self-study, research, and trial-and-errors, this was the first time that I could say I was given the chance to explore the formation of a relatively brand new field of behavioral design while it develops into something real on an international level.  Sure industries like game design, loyalty, and psychology have been around for a long time but the potential combination borrowing elements of these fields and mixing them into one – this is what makes this budding topic so exciting.  I believe this to truly be a game-changing reset of tradition in parallel with the growth of new technology.

Day 1 – Community Day

The first day I attended was Community Day located at the main conference hall venue.  The first speaker reiterated the idea that gamification is currently actually not even a thing and in some sense doesn’t really exist in most peoples’ minds.  So trying to talk about something in that context can be a challenge.  She went on to discuss how important structure is to help promote the subject moving forward.


Speaking of structure, one of the more currently structured methods of gamification design and implementation comes from the Octalysis Group.  MD Joris Beerda gave a quick overview of their framework and touched on an interesting use case of gamification in training for FOREX trading.  Making learning finance fun!  Examples like these where somewhat boring or tedious subjects can be made more engaging by implementing strategic game design – I believe this has huge potential.  I look forward to finding out about the end results of this platform from users.

Next was a mixed-gender panel presentation with speakers from various countries and industries answering questions from GWC co-organizer Rodrigo about the current state of gamification.  Our own GamFed Chair Pete Jenkins gave some insightful feedback on whPanelat some past clients have expected from what they perceive as good gamification design – one particularly unique request was to incorporate the reward to pet an elephant for encouraging a particular behavior!  Other panelists chimed in with their client requests to include human body part collection in their gamified design and yet another panelist was asked to gamify the client’s office cushion.  Personally I think these are great examples of out-of-the-box ideas!  Although, implementation is another story.


Next was a talk by a Spanish gentleman about how he gamified his classroom – one of the more commonly accepted areas where gamification has shown highest levels of engagement and potential for development.  The curious outcome was the fact that the so-called “achievement cards” designed for incentivizing good behavior – mostly related to approved time off – were in the end, never used by the winners!  The act of collecting the cards was reward enough for the users.  Impressive example of designing a meaningful journey which ultimately trump the actual end functionality of the rewards.

Dutch game designer Horst Streck had an exciting presentation on gamifying water consumption awareness for a client in the UK.  I spoke to Horst separately before his talk and he emphasized the importance of breaking down problems to its element and finding the simplest solution possible – often much easier said than done.  I think this should be a mantra for gamification designers moving forward.  Overuse of PBLs to try and “sell” the concept of gamification can do more harm than good.  Instead, focus on the psychology and motivations behind the desired actions and build up from there.  He outlined highlighted examples of great game design embedded in large multinationals – Nike, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Deloitte, Cisco, Samsung, among others.

Company Logos

I’m starting to think that many great gamification designs involve a sort of “quiet but effective” UX – those where users may not realize that there is any gamification designed in it at all.  As I learn later, gamification can range from being embedded to look exactly like traditional games and look nothing like traditional games but have elements strategically designed within a system.  In all depends on the users.

Next was an inspired talk on gamification from Africa.  The organizers put together a 48 hour hack-a-thon in Ethiopia which brought together people from various tribes to sit down and work together to solve a problem using gamified design elements.  Within two days, the winning team was able to design a working prototype of a system which helps Ethiopian tribes to better understand one another by “living the life” of neighboring tribes.   Communication thru gamification – think SIM City for ethnic tribes.  Absolutely inspiring.  And even more exciting was the positive feedback received from the local community about such a platform.  Engaging learning from 3rd world Africa!

GenderAn Coppens from Belgium then gave a spirited talk on gamification from the lenses of gender neutrality.  Specifically the message was to be aware of the difference in your users’ gender biases.  Of course there are cultural nuances to take into account but I thought this was an insightful look into what motivates humans from the competition-driven male angle versus the more sensitive, yet loyal female angle.  Design your gamified experiences accordingly.


Another inspiring speaker was Thijs de Vries from the Netherlands who looked at the topic from a fitness perspective.  The premise of his talk was really about asking about what areas of life we can actually gamify.  Can you gamify running?  Can you gamify sports?  He cleverly broke down the process of “gamifying” to really dive into what the word even means.  This talk opened my mind to experiences we see every day which have gamified design within them – we just never step back and look from a game designer’s lens.  The best example:  Soccer is gamified running.  Then he went on to present a nifty flow chart asking the core question of:  Just because you CAN gamify something, SHOULD you?

DinosaursNext up was Michiel van Eunen another Dutchman (and GamFed Steering Committee member).  His presentation “Gamification for Dinosaurs” was extremely valuable as he dove into suggestions on how to describe gamification design to more traditional, conservative, (older?), decision-makers in organizations.  Very insightful and very thought-provoking.  You can tell that he has personal experience trying to convince “dinosaurs” that this is the future of engagement.  He goes thru step by step how to explain the importance of designing to prioritize customers first before the organization (reverse thinking)… a way of strategy that many organizations still (bafflingly) don’t quite understand.


The talk themed “Gamification + VR = Heart” went into the future of gamification design and how it will align with Virtual Reality. The speaker gave example of using gamification and VR to help combat arachnophobia – their personal fear of spiders.  People wear their VR headset and are then put in a seemingly normal virtual situation – at work at their desks.  Then gradually spiders appear and users are given points for how they interact with the spiders on screen.

Last speaker was an American educational technologist who is creating a gamified open-source platform for educators.  Basically injecting a fully-customizable way to motivate student learning thru gamified widgets.  The concept was quite mind-blowing especially given the relative ease of implementation – something like adding 15 lines of code within the system’s already existing technology!  Very cool.

Day 2 – Main Conference Day

The main conference day kicked off with a bang.  One of the industry’s most active gurus Gabe Zichermann flew in from San Francisco and gave the keynote speech.  He did not disappoint.  As should be from someone of his caliber, Gabe spoke on the current state of gamification and what needs to be done to foster continued growth for the future development of the field.  He called for the community to level up and for gamification to become a more reliable, predictable system; suggesting we be more like “Behavioral Engineers” as opposed to more-commonly used “designers”.  Gamification as a whole is no longer the “pretty new girl next door” and it has come time to show the true substance of what it can offer the world.

GabeGabe also urged us to ask ourselves as practitioners, why we are advocating the use of game design to begin with.  This could be the key to answering how gamification develops moving forward – to take advantage of current opportunities, to truly make the world a better place, because we genuinely love games… were just a few examples to consider.  This was an important point because there did seem to be some frustration amongst the dozen or so thought-leaders in the conference that poor gamification design is giving good design a bad name.  Understanding why a potential partner or vendor is providing this service could be key to making sure you are partnering with the people with the proper intentions.  This was an inspiring, thought-provoking, and highly relevant talk; covering topics which could ultimately make or break the acceptance of the industry in the near future.

The next talk was regarding Gamification and the Internet of Things (IoT).  The speaker re-iterated what we can all sense is happening around us which is that as more and more devices become digitally networked, user experience will also undergo a revolution and gamification is playing an increasingly important role.  As technology gets ever more intimate with our lives as humans, the design of the way we communicate with it becomes ever more intertwined.

YukaiOctalysis founder Yukai Chou took the stage to summarize the Octalysis framework and touched on what he sees will be the future of gamification.  While he says the actual term for the practice could fade over time, there will always be a need to understand how to motivate behavior and people will always play games.  With years of experience and knowledge of the industry behind him, it was amazing he was able to fit in so much information in such a short time.


ResearchMarigo Raftopoulos from Australia had one of the more well-researched presentations that was shared with the conference – summarizing the results of over 300 game-based projects and 25 international surveys into a 30-minute talk.  On the enterprise level, the theme seemed to be that as a practitioner of gamification, you need the ability to wear multiple hats in order to convince stakeholders of the validity of the design:  business strategist, game design thinker, and integrator of multiple areas were a few examples.


Mike WuAfter the lunch break, data scientist Michael Wu started his talk with the popular concept of “Flow” state and urged us to remember that the best games take users on a delicate journey between boredom and difficulty.  He also shared his patented design for gamification spectrum which outlined an interesting methodology of rewards based on what length of time designers expect users to engage with the gamified platform:  short game versus long game.  It’s wonderful to see more and more structured frameworks come out as the industry develops.


RomanRoman Rackwitz took stage in one of the more passionate talks of the day.  Without the aid of any PowerPoint slides, he interacted with a so-called “angry crowd member” actor who argued with him on stage.  Roman used the opportunity to vent his frustration on the state of the quality of current gamification vendors as a whole.  As one of the pioneers of the industry from Germany, you could sense his frustration in service providers who presumably are selling low grade products which end up failing which has the double effect of losing customer confidence of the industry while giving gamification a bad name overall – all to take advantage of a “trend” and make some quick money off of unsuspecting buyers expecting miracles.  Slapping on a basic reward system to an existing platform without any substance behind it is not good gamification.  I was happy to have the chance to speak with Roman afterwards and could really sense his dissatisfaction with some providers claiming their affiliation with the gamification industry.

One of the last speakers was Andrzej Marczewski from the UK.  He used a unique approach to his talk – describing loyalty in the context of his local town butcher.  While there have always been multiple options to choose from – some closer to his home and others cheaper, he wondered what about his current butcher made him such a loyal customer.  Why was he willing to spend more money and time to buy from one butcher – why did purchasing from one butcher give him more utility than others?  This was an interesting analysis that had a good lesson to would-be designers.

The day ended and everyone left for dinner.  A few hours later, conference attendees reconvened at a nearby local club where the GWC 2015 Award Winners were announced.  The third floor of the venue had a private section sealed off for GWC with a private DJ getting the crowd moving.  At least a handful of dance-off battles commenced and lively conversations continued ‘til the wee hours of the night.

GWC SponsorsThe two days were very well-organized especially considering the people that put everything together were volunteering their time.  In the end, there was a great lineup and variety of speakers, amazing opportunity to network with people from all industries, and a great conference overall.  I am looking forward to GWC2016!

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Community Tree

*Note:  There were so many great speakers, it was difficult to pick and choose which to include in this article.  I apologize to those that were left off and emplore readers to check out the official website at to get a rundown of the amazing talks given.  Also, apologies for those speakers who I DID include in the article whose intended purpose of their presentations were not fully represented.

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