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Earlier this year, an angel fell from the sky onto the tiled floor of Victoria Station, London, and began interacting with commuters. It was a beautiful piece of augmented reality by Axe as part of their Excite promotion. It was also a visible marker of where the virtual world is headed: terra firma.

From virtual playgrounds like Facebook to online games where players buy and sell virtual real estate, it often seems that technology is on a trajectory deeper into virtual space. Yet according to game theorists like Jesse Schell, Jane McGonigal and Gabe Zichermann, the opposite is happening. Virtuality is beginning to step into reality, one game at a time.

“There’s all these ways that games are creeping into places we didn’t think about,” says game designer Jesse Schell during his DICE Summit 2010 presentation.

From loyalty cards to frequent flyer miles, most people interact with their favourite brands on some kind of ‘playing field’.

Gamification is used as the buzzword for this application of game mechanics to everyday life. You may not have heard the term before, but you’ve most probably been experiencing it for years – whether earning wellness points and improving your Vitality status with Discovery, or filling your Kauai loyalty card with stickers to earn that free smoothie.

Gamification occurs when games infiltrate the real world and impact in some way, small or great, human behaviour. Gabe Zichermann, author and trailblazer of gamification for advertising, describes it as “non-fiction gaming”, where “game thinking and game mechanics are used to engage an audience and solve problems”.

By applying the elements of a game, such as experience points, badges, leaderboards and virtual currency, to mundane tasks, these tasks are made more appealing and engaging.

The implications for gamification are profound, and not limited to advertising. Both online and offline learning could benefit from adopting game-like principles to transform the rigid grade dynamics of traditional school systems. is one such example where achievement points, medals and fans have been introduced, in an effort to boost participation and interaction.

Interactive design companies, such as Cape Town based Formula D interactive, have also begun to harness this potential. According to director Michael Wolf, Formula D is currently designing an online game for South African energy provider Eskom, which explains different energy sources and allows the general public to make real-world choices to solve energy problems in an interactive, virtual environment. “We are amazed about the unfolding potential of online games in the context of learning, public relations and customer relationship management”, says Wolf.

But whether gamification is all fun and games remains to be seen. In a recent article, authors Brachman and Levine show how al Qaeda has used gamification in their community websites to garner support and encourage participation.

Although this is an insidious application of game mechanics, it is not unexpected. In fact, as the authors note:

“What drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition.”

Perhaps this is the key to understanding the power and potential of gamification. Game emotions are universal, no matter the game. In the play to win, gamers become expert collaborators and problem solvers. It is these qualities that game designer Jane McGonigal believes can be harnessed in the real world. “Games are a powerful platform for change”, says McGonigal. They can – and should – be used to solve real world problems.

As gaming breaks into the real world, the definition and scope of gamification will continue to evolve. Whether it takes root in education, activism, advertising or entertainment, gamification is here to stay, and play.