Back in 2008, I wrote about being driven in a Toyota Prius taxi. I was struck by how the car created feedback for the driver and he responded by altering his driving to improve fuel economy.
A screen on the centre console had a graphical representation of the wheels, engine and battery. When the driver accelerated hard, it showed energy being conducted from the engine to the wheels. Gentle driving showed the battery powering the electric motor, and braking was illustrated by energy flowing back to the battery.
The energy flows directly represented the economy of the driver, and the result was a game. My driver had half an eye on the screen, and was constantly striving to maximise his score. Fuel economy had moved from a worthy but irrelevant issue (he's not paying the bill) to a little game that could leaven the dull routine of city driving.
As digital media has become a greater part of our lives, games have emerged as a key tool in influencing behaviour, helping to inform and develop skills.
We've seen this particularly in education, where sites like Mathletics and Manga High now teach children geometry, logic and maths online by playing what they regard as games. Until recently, however, gaming has been slow to spread outside education.
That could be about to change. The catalyst? Mobile, which has spawned innovative companies looking to make life's ordinary tasks more fun.
If you're a slave to a task list that never seems to get done, you might like Epic Win. Styled like a classic role-playing game, it borrows the mechanics of the RPG to motivate you. As you complete everyday jobs, you gain experience points, uncover loot and level-up your character; the app (at present, only for iPhone) adds a fun layer to the mundane, making the washing-up a competitive sport.
If Epic Win brings game mechanics to the ironing, Seth Priebatsch has an altogether bigger agenda. His company, SCVNGR (pronounced 'scavenger'), aims to build a game layer on the world, allowing organisations and individuals to build challenges, games and rewards for people who participate.
Where Foursquare has always struggled with the 'so why should I do that?' question, SCVNGR lets users challenge their friends, and businesses build loyalty schemes on the platform, based on a selection of gaming mechanics that the company has identified.
'Challenges' ask users to answer questions, upload photos or scan a QR code. 'Rewards' allow businesses to incentivise the collection of points, controlling what they are awarded for, how many times they can be redeemed, and for how long. Meanwhile, 'Treks' enables a series of challenges to be connected, building a treasure hunt for customers.
Small businesses and individuals can build loyalty schemes for free; bigger companies pay. Via their iPhone or Android app, users get a series of games based on the places they visit.
Priebatsch acknowledges that game psychology was behind loyalty schemes like Air Miles and coffee-shop cards. 'They just suck,' he says, adding that the 'last decade was about social, the next will be about games.'
Given the popularity of online games he may be right. Every week, we spend almost 350,000 years playing them; since World of Warcraft started, some 6m years have been spent in the game.
As the Prius designers knew, if they were to change people's behaviour, they had to make it fun. How better to do that than by introducing a game layer?
Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist
30 SECONDS ON ... SCVNGR
- SCVNGR describes itself as 'part awesome location-based mobile game, part really powerful mobile gaming platform'. Its pitch is simple: 'Go places. Do challenges. Earn points and unlock rewards.'
- Individuals and enterprises can build on SCVNGR by adding challenges and rewards to their favourite places.
- The site has a five-level pricing structure, ranging from Archimedes - the 'getting started' option, which is free and allows up to five game elements to be active at any one time - to Hawking, the 'everything and more' option that allows enterprises to run 100 game elements at the same time for $1080 a month.
- More than 1000 institutions in 20 countries are building on SCVNGR, but its activity is still concentrated in the US. Clients range from Diageo to Yosemite Farm Credit Union, and include brands, universities, museums and cities.
- Investors include Dreamit Ventures, Highland Capital Partners, Google Ventures and Balderton Capital.
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk