Gamification in the Arts: Fad or Future?

Gamification is an increasingly popular engagement strategy. How can organizations use gaming to focus on audience members as players?

Punch cards from UMS's experimentation with gaming
Gold Star Club sticker cards from UMS’s experimentation with gamification.

I’ve really enjoyed taking classes on Coursera lately (if you’re looking for recommendations, I liked this class on Internet History. Now I’m finishing up a course on Gamification. It’s taught by Kevin Werbach at the University of Pennsylvania. His definition of gamification is: the “application of digital game design techniques to non-game problems, such as business and social impact challenges.”

There’s a lot of buzz about gamification and games. On the one hand, there are thinkers like Jane McGonigal, who thinks about how games could be used to solve big challenges, like peak oil or health and wellness. On the other hand, there are thinkers like Ian Bogost, who calls the current iteration of gamification “exploitation-ware.” A lot (and excellently) has been written, too, about how arts organizations could take advantage of gamification. This post by Jackie Hasa on Createquity is a great primer on arts-specific cases for gamification, from using the alternate reality game model to engage audiences in partner venues, to using street games to transform rigid spaces like galleries.

Gamification isn’t right for every organization and context

One of the things that struck me from Kevin Werbach’s course is this advice: Gamification isn’t right for every organization and every context. Gamification can be complex and time-intensive for staff. When executed well, gamification is much more than points, badges, and leader boards.

I am taking the course because I’m thinking about how we might make use of gamification or game elements at UMS to augment our interactive online initiatives. Though I can be a skeptic about gamification, I’m also an optimist about harnessing national trends like gamification for the arts.

I believe that small experiments with big ideas are an essential part of tackling adaptive challenges (the kind of challenges that don’t yet have set procedures, recognized experts, or evident responses).

Thinking like a game designer

Here is the second powerful bit of advice from the course: Think like a game designer. This directive might seem either abstract or unhelpful, but at the core of this advice is a simple strategy. When considering gamification, instead of thinking about your community as consumers or even as audiences, think of them as players.

Although there are many examples of gamification successes, it seems some organizations shy away from gamification because of the time commitments required, while others take the cookie cutter approach of points, badges, and leader boards.

What if, instead, organizations took the middle road and thought about small experiments that start with our players at the center? What kind of players are part of our audiences? What kind of games might they like? Does this simple shift in perception reveal anything about our current practices or projects?

A small experiment

We implemented a very small experiment in gamification at UMS this spring. During our season launch event, we gave out UMS Gold Star Club sticker cards. Attendees could take on various challenges to collect gold stars (we collected information about participants via these cards as well). The prize for the collective four was a copy of our self-produced documentary “A Space for Music, A Seat for Everyone.” Gold star challenges included picking up our season brochure, watching our season announcement video, high fiving our student volunteers, or participating in a silent dance party featuring artists from our new season (two stars were awarded for this challenge, in order to encourage people to step out of their comfort zone).

Though the event was open to the public, we reached out to our subscribers and key constituents directly, so our attendees skewed older, and we weren’t sure what to expect from the experiment. We discovered that, on the whole, attendees loved the structure of completing challenges. Attendees completed them and even asked for more. The experiment was fun and informative. Now that we know that there’s an interest in this kind of incentive, we plan to explore further. This experiment was low cost, low staff-time, with a shift in perception at its core: we decided to think of attendees as players.

I’d love to hear about your big or small experiments with games. What has worked for you? If you haven’t played with games yet, what are some reasons that you haven’t tried it yet?

Anna Prushinskaya explores the possibilities of technology for the performing arts at UMS (University Musical Society) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She first became interested in technology and the arts through the world of publishing, where she's still involved as Midwest editor at Joyland Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @anyavp.