How gamification could revolutionise conservation

By Adrian Dellecker, Head of Strategy and Development at the Luc Hoffmann Institute 

Gamification: adding game-like mechanics on top of the real world in order to increase engagement and effectiveness. Gamification is far more ubiquitous, and powerful, than generally acknowledged or understood.

I’m a casual runner, and I know firsthand the power of gamification because of the ‘Nike Run Club’ app I’ve had on my phone since May 2011.

The Nike app keeps track of your runs, average pace, total kilometres, heartbeat, etc. But it does far more than that. It assigns you ‘levels’; it keeps track of your records (fastest pace, longest run time, furthest distances) and issues you badges based on performance, such as for the number of consecutive weeks or months you’ve gone running.

The end result is that the app encourages you to run without explicitly asking you to. It taps into your internal competitive spirit, and an intrinsic reward system we humans have. I love running, but sometimes I need that extra nudge: am I really willing to break my 8-week running streak if I don’t go today? Can I beat my record of kilometres per month? Can I run a kilometre faster than last year? Even my status of being a “Member since May 2011” is a badge of honour. I’m not bound to jump to another app lightly. Smart move by Nike.

Gamification occurs daily in other more mundane settings: when your supermarket issues points per purchase or trophies for certain behaviours. Or your local coffee shop gives you the first two stamps free on their loyalty card (this is called the ‘Endowed Progress Effect’).

Gamification has the potential for massive, positive global impact. If, like I was, you are new to this concept, the brilliant TEDx talks by Jane McGonigal, Yu-Kai Chou and Kerstin Oberprieler are the best places to start learning more.

Gamification hacks the brain

Gamified environments can significantly affect and influence behaviour. Importantly, these often tap into an intrinsic reward system (as opposed to one that is extrinsic, like relying on money or other direct reward): simply feeling good about completing tasks and having clear goals. Games share common features that help participants derive pleasure: an overall objective that provides a sense of purpose; straightforward rules that place limitations but give way to creativity; a feedback system to continuously inform players of how they are doing (including compared to others); and voluntary participation. And, as Jane McGonigal wrote in her book Reality Is Broken, “game developers know better than anyone else how to inspire extreme effort and reward hard work. They know how to facilitate cooperation and collaboration at previously unimaginable scales”.

A few visionaries, including those linked above, have talked and written about the potential benefits of games and gamification for impact. But gamification for good has also been put into practice: games have been tried in education (e.g. DragonBox), health (FoldIt), energy conservation (e.g. Opower, since purchased by Oracle), for example, to good success. Recently more than 171,000 gamers completed 47 million ‘mini game tasks’ equivalent to 36 years’ worth of categorising cells to help fight COVID-19.

The potential of gamification for good in conservation

There is reason to believe that gamification plays a particularly important role in the future of nature conservation, too. In part, I believe this is because this sector suffers from an inherent engagement issue: while the increasing majority of people live in urban environments, nature is ‘out there’, out of daily reach, and wild animals even more so. The digital world can act as a bridge, but only if it can help to create, or awaken, a link of empathy between humans and animals. Alenda Chang put it well when she said: “Game environments may invite affective and ethical engagement, not only with other people, but also animals, places, and even things.” 

Games and gamification can thus help carry human empathy for animals in far away areas, offering a perfect medium for nature conservation.

One possibility for gamification within conservation would be  a step evolution of the old and tested for ‘adopt an animal’ fundraising schemes so many NGOs depend on. Traditionally, these symbolic animal adoptions rely on single or recurring donations in exchange for a plush toy, an adoption certificate and/or some sporadic and general updates on the species. These are not linked to a specific animal the sponsor can relate to. Digital tools and gamification can help build individual personality profiles of specific animals, to which people could relate on a daily basis.

Good storytelling is also key, as is a visually compelling environment in which people adopting animals can feel empowered to make decisions. Internet of Elephants, a company based in Nairobi, does this very well, notably with their Satellite Stories and Stories from the Wild (the story of Fleur and Valentine the lions is particularly touching).

Imagine a digital space where people can track an animal’s whereabouts, get to know their habits, their migrations, their offspring’s birth, their difficulties, their death. A space that transforms a species from an abstract, faraway concept into a relatable, individual being. Gamification can bundle certain aspects of their wellbeing – the area they have to roam in, their security, their food supply – and engage their sponsors in their needs and daily life. Donations in this scenario are no longer donations: the situation becomes more akin to owners caring for a family pet. Unfettered by a faceless intermediary, the link is direct, offering a newfound proximity between sponsor and wildlife.

The technology exists to track not only the GPS coordinates, but also the habits and wellbeing of individuals. Packaging this into relatable profiles and actions may hold significant potential not only for fundraising, but for empathy and action. Think of a situation in which an adopted species is threatened by land encroachment, water pollution, drought, a new law or policy, or by a massive new infrastructure project. People could not only feel the threat, they would also feel more empowered to act.

Getting involved

The idea of gamification has opened the door to a whole new world of potential action for the conservation of nature and human empowerment. Perhaps, if well designed, millions of individuals all over the world can be converted from passive donors into consumers of conservation services their animals require. Perhaps these millions of people can even give voice to the animals’ needs and wants, and act as a new frontier of their conservation.

These prospects have motivated the Luc Hoffmann Institute to embark on further interrogation of the power of gamification for good in the conservation sector. We hope to test assumptions, gather wide ranging views, analyse unintended consequences and maybe even test a prototype of such a gamified environment. 
If this resonates, I encourage you to take action: investigate, experiment, see where gamification is already powerful in your own life. I believe in crowdsourcing new insights and approaches, and it is my hope that this thinking may spark further ideas and insights (or warnings). I would like to hear from you if it does. If you are interested in this conversation or wish to contribute, please get in touch with me at adellecker@wwfint.org and connect on LinkedIn.