Gamification and Citizen Science

What is Gamification?

The concept of gamification has been around for a while. It is in essence making something enjoyable and 'game-like'. The reason for gamifying an activity could be to increase uptake or extend the use of a service or product by increasing interest, loyalty, enjoyment or otherwise affecting the behaviour or a user (Deterding et al., 2011).

With such a great potential for influencing the behaviour of people and their responses it is perhaps little wonder that gamification has been widely used, though often un-noticed, throughout our society. Gamification will generally include the implementation of a simplegame mechanics such as a straight forward reward based system using simple rules. Such tools have been shown to be a powerful tool in everything from child learning and education to consumer data collection and e-commerce (Deterding, 2012; Deterding et al., 2011).

Gamification at the fore

More recently the power of gamification has been extended through new and developing technology (Ašeriškis and Damaševičius, 2014) including using web platforms such as Facebook with games contributing directly to research (e.g. Fraxinus (Cooper, 2013)) or more general web-sites such as Phylo (Kawrykow et al., 2012; Kwak et al., 2013), FoldIt and EteRNA (Curtis, 2014).

Figure 1. Use of search terms on Google shown as percentage of maximum. (09/08/2016).Figure 1. Use of search terms on Google shown as percentage of maximum. (09/08/2016).

This type of science and research based gamification has met with successes but their applications are limited by what can be achieved via individuals through a webpage (Hamari et al., 2014). Developments in modern technology are already changing the application of gamification by allowing games to become more immersive. Such as through use of augmented reality.

Google builds its commercial services and products on first hand data increasingly collected by 'gamers' via these 'free' games and other 'free' services. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Google (and later via Niantic Labs) has been a strong forerunner in the development of games which merge what is in essence the gamified collection of location information. First with its FieldTrip (Google, 2012) mobile application, followed closely by Ingress (Niantic, 2013) and most recently by Pokémon Go (Niantic, 2016). Figure 1 shows the impact on interest in Augmented Reality through terms used in Google searches.

How does this relate to biodiversity information?

I look at the global uptake and interest in Pokémon GO and the millions playing Ingress (over 10 Million Google Play downloads. 09/08/2016) and I can't help but wonder what we could achieve if all of those people were to direct their effort and their attention to research and conservation through wildlife recording

I'm under no illusion that we could make 'biological recorders' of them all but data collected through recording based citizen science projects can make significant contributions (Devictor et al., 2010; Ellis and Waterton, 2004) and the gamification of wildlife recording based citizen science is already being recognised as an area full of opportunity (Bowser et al., 2013).

Also, we should not forget that this isn't just about data collection but about enthusing and re-connecting a generation that appears to be diverging from the natural environment (Hunt et al., 2016). The study demonstrated that, when they did, children were going or being taken outside for two main reasons, to play or to play with friends. This was most apparent when there were no adults present with "to play with other children" being the clear driver.

Connecting with the next generation

Figure 2. split view showing the 'real' aerial image and Pokemon GO avatar in a virtual overlayFigure 2. split view showing the 'real' aerial image and Pokemon GO avatar in a virtual overlay

Our society is changing, mobile technology is part of our everyday lives and importantly it is a major part of our children's lives. To help them re-connect with nature we must first find a way to connect with them.

In the past natural history has been behind the times when it comes to technological developments. It is possible, perhaps probable, that this has cost sustained interest of society in subjects like natural history at places like Museums (vom Lehn, 2005, 2010). 

This disconnect with a tech savvy society is being repaired. Indeed many museums have paved the way  for new technology in particular around interactivity and virtual reality. 

Meanwhile, Frameworks such as Indicia are beginning to link together the proliferation of web based recording systems and even starting to extend into the mobile domain through mobile applications (BRC, 2015).

Biological Records or Biological Data?

If we are to truly engage on the level currently being enjoyed by the big data companies like Google then perhaps we need to embrace gamification in a way in which as a community have not done before. 

Gamification works because there is a detachment from the real world. There are instant rewards and simple systems of progression but this superficial world can yield enormous quantities of information, which with the proper process, can be of good quality.

It may not biological recording but data collection is changing rapidly and our society is evolving into one where technology permeates every aspect of our lives. There will always be those with genuine interest in natural history and it is vital that career routes for progression in natural history are kept open, without expertise the data will become meaningless. However, there should also be room for this cult of technology and the contribution it can make to research and conservation.


Ašeriškis, D., and Damaševičius, R. (2014). 'Gamification Patterns for Gamification Applications'. Procedia Computer Science, 39, pp. 83–90.

Bowser, A., Preece, J., and Hansen, D. (2013). 'Gamifying Citizen Science: Lessons and Future Directions'. CHI 2013 Workshop on Gamification - Designing Gamification: Creating Gameful and Playful Experiences, pp. 1–4.

BRC (2015). 'iRecord App'.

Cooper, T. (2013). 'Fraxinus - Ash Dieback'.

Curtis, V. (2014). 'Online citizen science games: Opportunities for the biological sciences'. Applied and Translational Genomics, 3, pp. 90–94.

Deterding, S. (2012). 'Gamification: Designing for Motivation'. Interactions, 19, pp. 14.

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., and Nacke, L. (2011). 'From game design elements to gamefulness'. Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference on Envisioning Future Media Environments - MindTrek ’11, pp. 9–11.

Devictor, V., Whittaker, R.J., and Beltrame, C. (2010). 'Beyond scarcity: Citizen science programmes as useful tools for conservation biogeography'. Diversity and Distributions, 16, pp. 354–362.

Ellis, R., and Waterton, C. (2004). 'Environmental citizenship in the making: the participation of volunteer naturalists in UK biological recording and biodiversity policy'. Science and Public Policy, 31, pp. 95–105.

Google (2012). 'Field Trip'.

Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., and Sarsa, H. (2014). 'Does gamification work?--a literature review of empirical studies on gamification'. System Sciences (HICSS), 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on, pp. 3025–3034.

Hunt, A., Stewart, D., Burt, J., and Dillon, J. (2016). Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment: a pilot to develop an indicator of visits to the natural environment by children - Results from years 1 and 2 (March 2013 to February 2015).

Kawrykow, A., Roumanis, G., Kam, A., Kwak, D., Leung, C., Wu, C., Zarour, E., Sarmenta, L., Blanchette, M., and Waldispühl, J. (2012). 'Phylo: A citizen science approach for improving multiple sequence alignment'. PLoS ONE, 7.

Kwak, D., Kam, A., Becerra, D., Zhou, Q., Hops, A., Zarour, E., Kam, A., Sarmenta, L., Blanchette, M., and Waldispühl, J. (2013). 'Open-Phylo: a customizable crowd-computing platform for multiple sequence alignment.'. Genome Biology, 14, pp. R116.

vom Lehn, D. (2005). 'Accounting for New Technology in Museum Exhibitions'. International Journal of Arts Management, pp. 1–19.

vom Lehn, D. (2010). 'Generating experience from ordinary activity: new technology and the museum experience'. Marketing the Arts A Fresh Approach, pp. 104–120.

Niantic (2013). 'Ingress'.

Niantic (2016). 'Pokemon Go'.