A chance to reward people for sustainable behaviour

Gamification, or playful design is the method to apply positive elements and mechanics of games to fields that are not related to games. A great example of playful design in the area of urban planning would be the commercial game SimCity, where players intuitively understand the inner works of macroscopic urban design, if the game were created for that reason. Without reading one line of theory, players understand complex dependencies between zoning, commuting, taxes and pollution.

Let’s apply this idea to the area of consumption and sustainability where the dependencies are often not that obvious or immediate. Playful elements such as quick animations make complex relations quickly accessible to the users.

How can playful design make complex topics such as sustainability and data engaging?

Tell a story –  add characters

Complex topics and theory are hard to grasp. Data is very abstract and inherently complex. So, it is best explained by examples or anecdotes. And examples and anecdotes are best explained by empathic characters. It’s easier to follow when a tomato or another fruit introduces you to a data topic than if the text is shown on the screen without context.

Explore, step by step

Similar to huge game worlds, the vast amount of data might be overwhelming for an arriving person. It’s why when you think about your prototype or minimum viable product, you should already incorporate strong and self-explanatory onboarding and interactive tutorials. A user wants to explore the data and playfully interact with it. Think of it as a flight simulator where the player can see the world from above, one area at a time, not everything at once.

Encourage trial and error

Typically, the user of your prototype or product will make mistakes. They will navigate to a potentially uninteresting area in the dataset or rearrange, edit or delete something by mistake. Try to allow the user to use your app, your website wrongly and guide them back to the envisioned path that is fun. An «undo»-function is a very powerful function to add to your product. It’s a message to the user such as «you are welcome here. And don’t worry– if you should screw up something, it’s just one click away to undo.»

Instant rewards

Give your users a task and reward them as soon as they have done something meaningful. Even if you don’t give tasks, reward the app users and website visitors with so-called «achievements». In gaming, achievements are goals that you can achieve by playing the game in a normal way. However, if you are hunting for achievements, then you might adjust your playstyle, replay levels and score additional points and achievements.

How playful is data and how much fun is sustainability?

Data by itself is abstract and hard to access. The noble goal of every engineer is probably to empower and enable as many people as possible to benefit from technology. So, try to make the flow enjoyable, the user experience fun and the user interface easy to understand. Look at your favorite games and try to understand how they designed the flow, the user experience and the user interface.

Go with the flow

The flow is the moment you are completely immersed in the experience and completely unaware of your surroundings. This is achieved if something is so engaging and so easy to use that it is challenging, but not frustrating nor trivial. It’s the right balance that you constantly have to consider. After 5 minutes of app use, give them an advanced task. After they have used a certain feature, suggest they use another feature. When they have discovered a settings view for the first time, ask to to play around with the settings.

Supportive user interfaces (UI)

Have a look at games that are complex and check out which elements they show in the main screen. The number of user interface elements that they show. And also, what they have possibly hidden from the players.

Visualize progress

Progress bars are the most prominent way to show progress in a visual way. An extended variant of progress bars are widgets for experience points (XP). Experience points are rewarded for all kinds of activity and achievements on an ongoing basis. A subtle animation or acoustic effect explains that you have done something right. The ongoing growth on an XP scale indicates that you as a user are making progress, that you have acquired new abilities and skills.

It’s easier when you are not alone

Over the last couple of years, the most successful games are the ones that bring players together. It is a natural motivator that humans want to join and collaboratively experience adventures. In some games, this is done together in a collaborative way. In others, it is purely competitive. The best games have a combination of this. In your prototype, you can encourage collaboration with specific tasks such as «scan together with all app users all fresh produce that are in the database», or, «who is faster in scanning 10 products».

Related examples

Recommendation for practice

8 ways to use gamification and playful design in your project

Try to include the 8 following points in your prototype or minimum viable product and you will have a winner 🙂

  1. STORY: Invent a character that explains what the app or the website does.
    Collection of ready to use free vector-based characters
    Fancy way to create humanoid characters
  2. PROGRESSION: Start simple, reveal additional complexity step by step.
    Customer Journey Map is a handy tool for progression
  3. UNDO: Allow the user to make mistakes. Consider an «undo» functionality.
    Read about games that use the undo button and why.
  4. QUESTS: Implement a system with tasks, quests, and achievements that users can unlock throughout the experience.
    A guide on designing sidequests
    A MasterClass with Will Wright (paywall)
    Ideas and prompts from fantasy games
  5. FUN UIs: Look at games and the user interface (UI) they use.
    UX mistakes with handy guides what to avoid in UI design by Jonas Kamber
  6. FLOW: Keep all in the flow by introducing new tasks that are right for their momentary skills.
    TEDx talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
    Writeup of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow
    Template to check the flow of your product
  7. XP: Add an experience points score to your prototype to reflect progress, ability and skill.
    A good reader on experience points
    You can learn from RPGs
  8. COLLAB: Add elements to your prototype where participants collaborate and have a reason to XP: participate in the community.
    A Canvas for Participation-Centred Game Design

About the authors

The Zurich-based game studio Gbanga’s vision is to create fun, immersive digital games of a broad range of genres and game experiences that are individually tailor-made to the players context, mood, taste and preferences.

Since 2007, Swiss-based game studio Gbanga, Millform AG creates mixed-reality games that entertain a world-wide community of players. The games are mass-customised and individually tailor-made experiences based on the players context, mood and preferences.

Gbanga, Millform AG has received international awards for innovative and lucrative gamification productions that have been developed in budget and delivered in time, including advertising games, B2B gamification projects such as sales tools and GPS apps that produce walk-in customers.

This blog post is part of our partnership with Swiss retailer Migros for their hackathon challenge at HackZurich 2021. The challenge investigated the space of playful exploration of the sustainability data from their tens of thousands grocery good items. We wanted to keep it online as a handy guide for all creative and inspiring developers out there.