Interview: Rob “Professor Game” Alvarez

Rob Alvarez is a teacher at IE Business School in Madrid, B2B product expert, and the host of the “Professor Game” podcast about gamification (for which he also interviewed our own Dan Salmanovich). He recently visited Amsterdam and stayed at our hotel. We met him at the Arcade Hotel’s lobby and had a chat with him on gamification and its application to our lives. Don’t know what gamification is? Well, keep reading!

Arcade Hotel: What is it exactly that you do?
Rob: It all started with a podcast called “Professor Game,” where every week I have a guest who talks about how to do things with games that are not just entertainment. Based on that, I have done talks, workshops, and teaching all over the world about gamification and its use various frameworks.

A: How would you define gamification?
R: There is no formally defined gamification term. I like to say that it is the use of game design, strategy, and play for purposes that go beyond entertainment. For example, it could be getting people to learn something or change certain behaviours. Look at something like Duolingo: you want to spend time everyday on it by learning new things.

A: What is it that we can learn by applying gamification to our lives?
R: I think there is so much that could be done. Today’s world has what we call a “crisis of engagement.” People are disengaged so easily: you might be watching TV and playing a game at the same time. There is a competition between activities, productive or “non-productive.” So, it is natural that you want people to “be there” when they do something, like when they play.

A: How has the pandemic affected the field of gamification?
R: When you think of gamification, you tend to think it is an online, superficial thing, because everything moved online during the pandemic. There is a huge area, though, of people doing an amazing job in physical gamification: escape rooms, boardgames, sports, and more. Now, hopefully, the pandemic is getting somehow to the backseat, hopefully the physical aspects of gamification will come back stronger.

A: You might be a teacher, but what has been the biggest lesson that you have learnt instead through your work on gamification?
R: I think that much like game design, gamification needs to look towards itself. We are a design discipline. When you are designing for anyone and everyone, you are basically designing for no one. There are different games for different people (not everyone likes fighting games or single player games, for example), and the same should be thought of gamification. There are different audiences with different motivations.

A: Are there any aspects of daily life that cannot be gamified?
R: I always like to make that question to myself to see what cannot be touched. There are some aspects that you could gamify but would not want to, such as a funeral. It’s more about what your objective is. Andrzej Marczewski, a fellow gamification expert, once talked about someone who wanted to gamify the hiring application of their company. Andrzej noticed that this company, through their ads, was not targeting to the right people. Likewise, gamification is about sending the right message to the right people.


Picture taken from Rob’s Twitter account: @RobAlvarezB

A: What made you interested in gamification in the first place?
R: When I was 6 or 7 years old, I got my first console, an NES. Then there those magazines about games, which made me wonder how the life of those people writing for them was. Playing games for a living seemed like a dream job for me. Later, I took a different career path: I graduated as an engineer and got a job in Madrid at the IE Business School. But I realised that by creating digital learning materials for the university, I was doing something very close to gamification.  That kid looking at the magazines many years ago realised that he was doing what he wanted to do back then. So, I started researching and talking about it in conferences, and a few years later, I also started my podcast.

A: How can someone learn more about gamification?
R: Well, the first way would be to go to the podcast (laughs). What I would suggest is picking up a few people you like, follow them, and try to make use of the framework they have created. There are blogs, courses, books, all sorts of things. I am not super convinced it is something you can just learn at university. Yes, I teach a course and have also taught seminars, but I also had to research a lot of things myself.

A: How would you rate the Arcade Hotel’s gamified elements?
R: There is some stuff on the website that, I would say, pushes you to a certain behaviour, which are very good. If you want to stay at the Arcade Hotel, you can use their website and get a much better deal. It might also not be gamification, but I love that each room has a console. I also like how there are comics and a lot of retro stuff available.

A: Amsterdam has been a city that had people try to convert into a “smart city” and digitalise many of its elements. How can gamification be applied to a European capital, like Amsterdam?
R: I think there is plenty that can be done, but it should be done carefully. In China they have a system that rates citizens, which can become dangerous. How do you define a good citizen? It can be risky.  So, a better alternative would be giving awards to those who behave properly instead of fining them. Someone once thought using a traffic camera to photograph drivers that were driving safely and entering them in some lottery to win prizes. In Taiwan, they had an issue with people not paying tax. Therefore, they came up with the idea that if you pay tax and receive an invoice, you can use your invoice number to participate in a lottery and win a lot of money back.

A: How do you see the future of humanity in relation to play?
R: The gamification market is always growing. Many things are now being interpreted as gamified. We have started understanding that making things interesting for people is a good strategy. We should also think about what part of it can be done ethically (I have many episodes on that topic). The good side is that you can get people do good things, such as going to the gym or learning a language. The bad side is that you can also have them do something without realising it. But I think there are so many nice things to do in the world by applying gamification to it.


Find Rob on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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