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The history of gamification, an inspiring ride | 1970-2021

Gamification in its purest sense has been around since the concepts of work and learning, so the history of gamification is both long and intricate. The idea of altering a task into a game or layering game elements over it to make it more engaging is as old as play itself.  

“Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn.”

Winston Churchill

We can’t go through it all, but in this bite-sized slice of gamification history, we’re going to focus on the key areas of gamification in modern society — digital gamification.   

1970-1979: VCRs and video games 

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Steve Jobs

1970 – Logo

A computer programing language, Logo was developed by Seymour Papert, Wally Feurzeig, and Cynthia Solomon. It was also a game-based learning program to teach players the basics of coding by directing a turtle-shaped cursor, called the Logo Turtle, to draw lines.  

1971 – Hitting the trail

Oregon Trail is synonymous with the birth of edutainment video games. The game found in classrooms even today aided in teaching American geography and history with players making their way across the country during the 1800s. Oregon trail is a classic and pivotal pillar in the history of gamification.

1978 – Birth of the social video game  

Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle developed MUD1. It was the very first Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) game, paving the way for the collaborative and massive online games of today.  

1980-1989: The rise of digital heroes

“Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock-n-roll.”

Shigeru Miyamoto

1980 – What makes things fun to learn?

Thomas W. Malone, a professor at the Sloan School of Business in MIT, asked this question in his academic paper, What makes things fun to learn, a study of intrinsically motivating computer games and made gamification history. This was one of the first notable academic papers showing that children can learn from playing video games.    

1984 – How to enjoy work as much as play

Charles A. Coonradt writes a book called The Game of Work: How to Enjoy Work as Much as Play, which helps industries and organizations around the world imagine ways to make work more enjoyable and to power-up fun, engagement, and productivity.  

1985 – Carmen who?

The Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego video game releases and players chase thieves across the world. All while being quizzed with randomly generated questions about geography. 

  

1987 – Aliens and algebra

Moving from history and geography to algebra and addition, the edutainment gaming landscape crossed the arts-sciences divide with the release of Math Blaster.  

1989 – Urban planning 101

The first passive-engagement edutainment game was SimCity originally developed by Will Wright. The game focused on urban planning but also created an interesting new trend in video game design as it was a game that you couldn’t win or lose, an unheard-of concept.  

  

1990-1999: Mainstream mayhem

“The irony is we thought we were behind the curve, that the industry had already peaked, and we were just trying to catch up.”

Sid Meier

1996 – Market booming

The video game industry grows to around $15 billion worldwide. While this number primarily includes games focused on entertainment, a slice is dedicated to edutainment and serious games dedicated to learning or skill development. 

1999 – Simulated life

Whyville, the first life-simulation video game which combined everyday life with education in an online setting to make gamification history.   

2000-2009: A gamer’s world

“That’s what games are, in the end. Teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.”

Raph Koster

2002 – Serious games

The Serious Games Initiative was founded by Ben Sawyer and David Rejecsk. Together they worked to bring together communities in the private sector, academia, and the military who were using training and simulation programs for various non-game purposes.  

2003 – Term time

Nick Pelling coins the term gamification. Pelling is a British-born computer programmer and inventor who set-up a consulting firm called Conundra which promoted the gamification of consumer products.   

2004 – Games for change

Games for Change is an online platform for different games to help people understand complex social conflicts and drive social change. Darfur is Dying allowed users to experience the life of 2.5 million refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan to increase user awareness and hopefully spur them to action.  

2007 – Gamification platform

Bunchball releases the first gamification platform, but they don’t call it that as the term was not in common usage at the time.      

2008 – Gam’e’ification

Bret Terril becomes credited with the first written and published use of the word gamification. Initially, without the “e” dropped from “game” this word would quickly become gamification as it is today. The article is still available in his online blog, Bret on Social Games

2009 – New horizons

Foursquare City Guide, an app allowing users to discover unknown places. Users could check in to a location to collect badges and earn titles. Foursquare combined the digital with the real making it a critical moment for both the history of gamification and mobile learning.

Jane McGonigal develops the Live Gamefully method. She incorporated 7 psychological strengths designed to build emotional resilience and reduce stress into a game’s framework.

 

2010-2019: Welcome to Industry 4.0

“A Millennial who goes through [a] grueling hiring process to join a forward-looking or leading-edge organization, only to be handed a dog-eared binder of benefits and policies on day one and told to sit and read it, will probably be out the door before lunch.”

Jason Suriano

2010 – The great gamification disruption

Speakers across the world spur gamification to new heights by giving talks on its potential to benefit personal and professional lives. These presentations, specifically one by Jesse Schell from the DICE Conference, go viral! This was a year in the history of gamification where academics and business leaders rallied together.

  

Gartner adds the term gamification to its annual Hype Cycle, transforming the concept into a new buzzword for the masses.    

Gamification is accepted by most industries as a common term. Like many new terms, the definition of it fluctuates based on the opinion of industry leaders.

2011 – Reaching the masses

TIQ Software, then known as Rocketfuel Productions, teams up with Discovery Communications to bring edutainment games to the masses both at home and in museums across North America with their game Seek Your Own Proof.  

Jane McGonigal releases her book Reality is Broken, which explains why games make us better and how they can help change the world.    

Gamification begins to become popular in areas outside of self-development and education, aligning with the digitalization of Industry 4.0.  

Seek Your Own Proof promotional image to show an important moment in the history of gamification.

2012 – Mobile learning

Duolingo launches, driving mobile learning and gamification to the next level with their language education app.  

2013 – The gamification of happiness

The release of Happify helps push gamification for better mental health into the realm of reality, first with their browser-based content and then the launch of their gamified app.

2015 – Next level training

Gartner estimates in Forbes, that employee-focused gamification now exceeds customer-focused gamification applications in the corporate world. This shift is an eye-opening moment in the history of gamification as companies begin using digital gamification for recruitment, onboarding, and employee learning and development.  

Fitness apps on iOS and Android, now total over 165,000, many of which use elements of gamification.

2017 – Byte-sized

Jason Suriano releases his book Office Arcade, which details the benefits of gamification as a means of maximizing an HR department’s results by gamifying employee engagement, training, and talent development within the corporate environment.

Office Arcade by Jason Suriano book cover a vital moment in the history of gamification.

2020-2029: ???

“Mobile phones are misnamed. They should be called gateways to human knowledge.”

Ray Kurzweil

2020 – A new normal 

Online gamification, to engage users as they work or learn from home becomes even more important as COVID-19 rages across the planet. 

Video games break quarterly records, earning over $10 billion in the first quarter of the year in the United States.

The gamification market is predicted to reach more than $32 billion worldwide by 2025.

What 2021 and the future beyond hold for the history of gamification is still yet to be written, but it should be one amazing journey.

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