By Jasmine Phua, Director, Operation Process, Gumi Asia Pte Ltd
About a decade ago, there was serious games. Similar to e-learning, their structured educational counterparts, these games aimed to educate users about certain topics in a fun way. Some aimed to teach users about pollution or poverty, others taught specific skills. It never really garnered traction as big game makers were not willing to invest money into making serious games they thought gamers may not even want to pick up in the first place.
Why didn’t serious games succeed? It simply wasn’t fun enough. Sure, I care about poverty in some countries, but not enough to sink hours of my spare time playing a game when the message can be understood after reading the game description and where I knew the intention was to guilt me into doing something about it. The developers or sponsors of these serious games cared more about getting their message across than about how fun the game was for players. On the other hand, playing a regular AAA game with some social message element included would be more palatable for players since the game was aimed to be fun in the first place. But I don’t really know of one that spurred users towards real social change for the better.
Today though, we see an evolvement, especially with the advent of fitness apps and wearables, internet connectivity and social networks. Instead of full-fledged serious games, we see a trend of small apps that allow regular users (not just gamers) do something fun for a few minutes, while being educated in a certain topic.
The reach of these types of apps or mini-games are further enhanced when combined with existing partners that already own a big database of users to expose these apps to. Coupling that with the addictive nature of a good game design greatly increases the chance of educating the large audiences to create real social change on a scale that we wouldn’t have been able to do with serious games alone.
Here are some interesting examples from around that I was particularly impressed with not just because they were fun mini-games, but because they either carry a social message, or encouraged a lifestyle change.
Keep is one of the top grossing and most downloaded fitness apps in China. For a small monthly fee, you can get access to a large number of training videos packaged to target different training or health needs. There’s nothing super new or exciting about a fitness app, I’ve been a user of MyFitnessPal for many years now. All I’ve been using it for (when I was most diligent) was to track my weight and food intake. What makes Keep different among others is its interesting time-limited challenges and activities that Keep organises. As a Keeper, you can join one of many ongoing challenges with interesting and applicable names. In the feasting months of December and the New Year, they launched the 7-day “Post Feasting Boot camp”, “Winter Warm- Up Boot camp”, and many other interesting short term events with short and specific goals. Completing these challenges allows you to brag to other Keep friends, receive badges, a report analysis and sometimes physical items to win in lucky draws.
We see a trend of small apps that allow regular users do something fun for a few minutes, while being educated in a certain topic
Alibaba the online shopping and banking giant also brings us some elegant mini apps that strive to improve society as a whole. Within their Taobao app and Alipay app, users can play mini games that bring them on visits through different parts of China. In Taobao, the daily steps tracked on the user’s phone is used to take them on routes through famous landmarks across major cities in China. Users can track their own steps or get help from their friends, a great way to promote China’s tourism and culture in a fun way. Another app within Alipay allows users to donate their activities towards planting trees or helping endangered animals. There are also walking challenges where users can put their money into a pot to commit to walking a certain number of steps the next day or wake up by 8 am, challengers who manage to fulfill the challenge will get to split the pot. Those who don’t finish their challenge will lose their money. All this can be done directly within the Alipay app.
On a smaller scale, several innovative companies in Singapore are also incorporating gaming elements in their apps to appeal to the gamer generation.
Circles.life a second tier telco formed just two years ago creates activities to appeal to the younger audience. Daily polls are released on weekdays. The single question poll itself is simple, but users who vote with the majority can win 200MB of mobile data which is immediately added to their phone plan. Compare this with regular telcos where the average user interacts with the telco only when buying or upgrading their phone or plan and at the end of each billing cycle when they’re served a bill. Circles.life makes every excuse to ensure that users constantly interact with their app, and receive positive reinforcements for each interaction. For a small effort, this seems like a great and cheaper way to increase brand loyalty, and virality for a latecomer to the competitive telco market.
The AIA Vitality programme is an initiative by AIA Insurance to promote healthy living. While most of the programme is pretty traditional - users receive discounts and perks for health check-ups or fitness classes, one of the features they have gets pretty active participation. It’s a weekly challenge, which awards digital gift vouchers for completing a weekly fitness target. Using wearable trackers, users have to either walk at least 10,000 steps a day, take fitness classes or track their workouts to earn points towards the fitness target. For gold members and above, users can team up with other users to win extra gift vouchers.
After going through these examples, you may be wondering why these apps deserve mentioning. Some of these can hardly be called games because they are so simple. The first consoles came out in the early 80s. The average traditional gamer is in their late 30s and the younger generations are not just gamers but also is growing up in the era where smart phones and constant internet connectivity is part of their life. The generation of people that we are reaching out to expect instant gratification, quick rewards and speedy interactions. I guess even the older generation wants that, it’s just that they didn’t have the means then, but they do now.
Most people want to lose weight and become more fit but we don’t get past getting a gym membership, and the occasional salad. Most of us have been repetitively educated about the benefits of being more healthy but probably don’t really care when we have a choice between watching TV or going to the gym. Apps like Keep and AIA vitality programme help us to focus on the small rewards (weekly gift vouchers, fun events) while getting us to do the activities that are required to keep us fit.
I believe that the traditional game (think video games played on the PC or console) will always have a place in our gamer hearts, but they will likely remain a form of entertainment, something more immersive than watching an epic movie. These game-like mobile apps though can help to transform boring and repetitive tasks, or social messages into life improving habits through gamification. The purpose and their end results are different and if we try to design the experience to match the purpose rather than try to design it based on stereotypes of how we think games should be, then I think we will be able to make great life-changing “games”.