Gamification, Grand Challenges and the (Dis)Connected Society
Gamification, Grand Challenges and the (Dis)Connected Society
The last few months have been something of a “Road to Damascus” period for me which has resulted in opening my eyes to
some new insights on Gamification and its importance, not only in the application areas where it is being seen as a “hot topic”,
but also in its fundamental role in all our lives and its potential for addressing some of the grand challenges that we face in
building a sustainable and safe future for our future generations.
The Paradox of the (Dis)Connected Society
We live in the most technologically connected society in the history of mankind. My generation has been fortunate enough to
witness the quantum and dislocating developments in communications technologies that now enable billions of citizens to
connect to each other with increasingly sophisticated information content in text, audio and video. Each of our billions of daily
communications with each other influences the future in some way, often without our knowing the consequences of our
actions. Therefore the most connected society in history is also simultaneously the most disconnected in history and it is this
paradox which I believe is the root cause of many of the growing problems we face in business, health, environment,
education and relationships.
Throughout history before the Information Society, we lived more connected lives in which our actions and their
consequences were much more closely related. Stronger and more stable relationships were at the heart of a hierarchical
society in which cause and effect were closely linked. These times were what I would describe as a symmetric society in which
power was related to status and assets. Large organisations grew organically and household names and brands had an
enduring relationship with their customers built up over many years.
Today we live in a very asymmetric society in which individual citizens with very few resources can wield disproportionate
power with lasting costs and consequences for the whole of society. I am conscious of the significance of this situation every
time I pass through airport security and have the hassle of taking out toiletries and laptops out of my luggage. The cost of
these relatively new security features must run into billions of pounds every year and all because of the actions of a handful of
individual terrorists who sought to influence society to their own vision.
The military and security forces regard asymmetric warfare in trouble spots like Iraq and Afghanistan as very serious threats
and, in many ways, conflicts which can never be won.
Gamification and Society
Life itself is a massive, persistent and pervasive game in which all citizens are forced to take part, playing the game to the best
of their abilities and hoping that rewards and achievements will in some way be related to merit. Unfortunately, the more
technologically connected we become, the less likely it will be that we can “earn” our rewards through our efforts and the
more likely it will be that our rewards will be more closely linked to our ability to play “the game of life”.
In any game, there are three very important roles which we can either choose or be forced to adopt :-
Spectators finance the game and are affected by its outcome but have generally very little influence on the result. They
observe the action, voice comments and opinions, learn from their observations and form tribal allegiances but, apart from
helping to make the game sustainable through their engagement and financial contributions, are most likely to be powerless
when it comes to reaping the rewards of their investment. Spectators are almost totally at the mercy of the other two roles in
the game. Most citizens in most of daily life’s games are spectators, often by choice as, in that role, spectators can share the
excitement of the action without any risk to themselves. Spectators will increasingly be the least rewarded individuals in any
game and the most vulnerable to the actions and decisions of players and Games Masters.
Players influence the outcome of the game and are willing to take the risk of investing their time and energy in developing the
necessary skills to shape the future results of the game to their own ambitions. Being a player is a much higher risk option for
most citizens in the game of life but players dedicate themselves to trying to improve their control of all the elements which
can affect the outcome of the game. The best players have a higher probability of the greatest rewards.
The Games Master
The Games Master is the most powerful influence on the outcome of any game. Their understanding of the game mechanics
and processes, the players and the spectators enables them to manipulate the game in favour of themselves or those they
represent. The best Games Masters will increasingly be the most sought after and well rewarded individuals in society.
Some Topical Examples
There are many examples to be found in everyday life – here are a couple :-
The X-Factor Style Game
As many ageing celebrities will attest, the road to stardom, for them, was often long and arduous. Watching the Morecambe
and Wise documentary film recently was a classic illustration of how years of hard graft and determination combined with a
little serendipity was required to make these two beloved comedians a household name. Today we have game shows that can
apparently offer a short cut to stardom whilst making a few individuals a small fortune.
Spectators love to watch other people playing games that they themselves can identify with but lack the courage or the skills
to take the risk of being a player in. Giving spectators some control of the outcome of X-Factor, however small that control
might be, is very important in not only engaging an audience but also in financing the game through the premium rate phone
calls used in the voting process.
In games like X-Factor, the players are not just the contestants, but also the celebrity judging panel so that the successful
contestants have to influence the panel who in turn influence the spectators. The celebrities who judge these competitions
gain massive publicity and exposure as well as big pay cheques for their “expertise” and insights.
The Games Master
Simon Cowell is the inventor of the “X-Factor” and a supreme Games Master. It is he who not only developed the game
concept, but also manipulates the game, players and spectators through his astute knowledge of the game mechanics and
psychologies of the other parties. The net result is that he earns absolute fortunes and is effectively being paid to bring fresh
talent into his Agency.
Professional Soccer is very big business worth billions in revenue from a variety of sources both on and off the pitch.
One of the reasons for the lasting success of soccer and its commercial growth is that the majority of spectators have
experienced playing the game, even if only at the level of having kicked a ball at some time in their lives. There are so many
variables that go into the successful control of a football that when anyone experiences the satisfaction and pleasure of
making the ball go where you want it to, this sweet moment of a feeling of control is burnt into your memory to become a
lifetime motivation to either repeat the experience or witness others with the same sweet skills.
I can still recall a moment 50 years ago when, as a 14 year old playing in senior local soccer on my home town’s football
stadium, I curled a free kick into the net – I bent it like Beckham and the memory stayed with me forever.
Spectators of soccer exhibit tribal loyalties and their lives often seem to revolve around the weekly match where their hopes
and dreams rest on the action of a few individuals. Spectators pay handsomely for tickets and merchandise and the income is
distributed to the handful of individuals on whom their dreams and aspirations rest.
Most soccer players, at the lower levels of the game, play for the intrinsic pleasures of the game and the satisfaction of their
own performances and the success of the team. At the very highest levels, players can receive monstrous salaries for, in terms
of work, modest levels of effort. Player salaries at the top level are an example of the growing asymmetric nature of society.
Some players, just as some celebrity panellists in X-Factor”, also adopt a dual role as would-be Games Masters where they
seek to influence their own agenda through manipulation of the game mechanics and psychologies of the game. Carlos Tevez
and Wayne Rooney are recent examples of players who seek to manipulate the game beyond their performances on the pitch.
The Games Masters
The best Managers and Coaches are supreme Games Masters with an ability to manipulate the outcome of a game in their
favour so that the result very often bears little or no relation to the merits or efforts of the players. The best coaches like Sir
Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have an ability to not only motivate the players and shape the tactics but also to indulge in
“mind-games” that affect the opposition.
Societal Grand Challenges and Gamification
There are many challenges facing society over the next few years in the realms of healthcare, environment, education, security
and governance. I argue that it is the (dis)connected society that is at the root of the majority of these problems which can be
traced back to the breakdown in traditional fundamentally important societal relationships between power and responsibility,
rights and responsibilities, cause and effect, merits and rewards, customers and suppliers etc........
In my opinion, gamification’s greatest contribution to tackling grand challenges is its potential to rebuild those relationships
that are most important for a sustainable future.
Gamification engineers the rules and parameters that affect gameplay and the outcome of games. The best games not only
engage us but also provide a sense of control over the outcomes so that the rewards of the game of life become more
proportionate to skill, effort and merit.
Good gamification also transforms spectators into players or at least empowers spectators to experience a sense of control
and understanding, such that spectators can modify their actions and behaviours to influence the outcome of the game in a
I have personal experience of at least two of society’s grand challenges and have been exploring how gamification
technologies and practices might be applied to address these challenges.
Author in May 2013 – 106.7 Kg Author in August 2013 – circa 92 Kg
Over the last few years I had become obese. I used to describe myself as “technically” obese, partly because I didn’t see myself
as obese although I recognised that my weight proportionate to my height was a problem and partly because it didn’t sound
quite as bad as just obese and certainly a lot better than morbidly obese. I really had no motivation to lose weight, being in
good health and enjoying life to the full with friendships, travel and a varied lifestyle. I also love food and have to confess that I
cannot resist the temptation of a free buffet.
I had reached the stage where I was getting up several times in the night to go to the bathroom and had difficulty in bending
down to tie up my shoelaces. Despite all this, life was good and I was happy to continue the same way, despite the warning
The game of life intervened at several points beginning in early May in ways which led me to explore the gamification of my
own health, transforming me from a spectator to a player and games master. The results have been eye-opening not only for
myself but also, potentially, for the future of healthcare and other grand challenges.
The games interventions in my life were not life threatening incidents that forced me to change my ways, but were a series of
serendipitous coincidences including :-
A lunchtime meeting in London where I learn about the 23andme.com DNA analysis service
Seeing photos of myself on stage in a Neil Simon play
A friend asking how they did the stomach padding for the same play
Another friend telling me people think I am fat
Reading about the Jawbone UP device on the BBC web site
Crashing my friend’s car in France and facing a bill of 2600 euros
Being on my annual naturist holiday in France
Facing substantial travel costs for upcoming conferences
Having a strong interest in the impact of technology in business and society
A chance visit to Leicester City Centre where a Diabetes UK stand was showing
All of these incidents, by themselves, would not have motivated me to embark on using myself as a living laboratory to gamify
my weight and health, but, taken together, acted as a catalyst for transforming myself in ways I would not have believed
possible in a very short timescale as well as opening my eyes to the potential of this approach to addressing grand challenges.
Jawbone UP Daily Analysis Trend Graphs
Gamifying my Weight
Like many other people, I have tried diets in the past, and even went to weightwatcher sessions which did prove effective in
reducing my weight initially but faded after I stopped attending. Looking back, the main problem was that although I knew
about calorie control and the value of exercise, I really did not really have the information or understand enough to be able to
control my weight.
What made the gamification of my weight problem a practical proposition was the accessibility of devices that could
effectively monitor the influencers in “the weight game” and visualise and track them for me so that I could learn the skills to
move from spectator to player and even, potentially, games master.
I purchased the Jawbone UP bracelet which I now wear 24/7 and use to synchronise data with a free iPad application that also
makes it easy for me to track what I eat. As a consequence, I am now able to monitor a whole range of factors that affect my
weight and health and explore how I could change my routines to achieve my “weight game” goals.
After 3 months, I have already lost 15 Kg in weight, feel very well and have amazed my friends. I now have learnt enough to
have devised my own formula for my personal weight loss that makes it easier to hit my targets.
Relevance to Grand Challenges
The significance of what I have been able to do with my personal health has, I believe, significance to many other grand
challenges in society which, if adopted, could make a contribution to a more sustainable future.
Firstly, a combination of accessible new technologies has enabled me to “re-connect” myself to management of my own
weight and health so that I am no longer a spectator at the mercy of daily routines and temptations that were becoming a
danger to my health and longevity, but were also an abdication of my responsibilities to society. Like most of us, I have come
to accept free healthcare as a “right” without any responsibility for any consequences of my lifestyle. Now I am able to
exercise my responsibility to society for some aspects of my health which, hopefully, will result in not only personal benefits,
but also reduced costs to the health system.
If a significant percentage of citizens were empowered and motivated to use gamification and technology is this way to re-
connect themselves by gamifying those aspects of their lifestyles which impact the grand challenges, we have a massive
opportunity to shape a more sustainable and safe future.
Clearly there are many issues and concerns about the use of gamification to shape society but the challenges to our future are
so severe and imminent that we may be forced into a position where we have no choice but to make mandatory what I have
chosen to do voluntarily.
A slide presentation of these ideas can be downloaded from http://www.slideshare.net/dwortley/sgsc-2013-keynote-
For consultancy, workshops and more information on gamification, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Immersive Technology Strategies