I've spent good part of the last couple of days watching videos from the GDC vault, especially this year's serious games track. Especially two sessions, We don't Need no Stinkin' Badges: How to Re-Invent Reality without Gamification (Jane McGonigal) and The Great Gamification Debate! (many many people), sparked my interest. Incidentally, I ordered McGonigal's book just a day before watching these sessions and now I'm really looking forward to reading it. To recollect for a bit, (at least some) people involved in gamification are not very happy with the term. The term has an ugly ring to it as it makes game mechanics sound like something you just slap on a product to magically make it better. McGonigal promoted the term gameful design instead, and in her lecture explained rather thoroughly what she meant by that.
To summarize very briefly, the goal should not be simple gamification but to really make games of activities. We should really consider what is it about gaming that makes people do it, and then set out to truly transform the world. Curiously, I arrived mostly at the same conclusions in my recently submitted doctoral colloquium article (not accepted yet, so fingers crossed!). I wrote "Instead of considering how to improve applications or systems by likening them to games, it is the activity that should be the target of design" and "I propose to reach these design goals by treating applications like tools inside a game or as an additional layer of mechanics built on top of ones existing inherently in the activity itself." (pardon me my science). Basically what I mean is, the word processor should be considered like the hero's weapon in a game. Hopefully you can follow the logic of that.
One really good observation McGonigal pointed out in her speech was this: games empower us. This is an angle I have not considered so directly but it's definitely worth a thought. Games are not isolated from our lives, they transform us. Scientifically I would need proof of this, but since we are in a cozy blogging environment, just take my word for it (or McGonigal's or someone else's, and I'm pretty sure I can dig up an article to refer). Like my two hobbies, swordsmanship and Tekken, they exist in symbiosis: I can reflect between them to understand my weaknesses better. Hell, most of my friends are from my various gaming-related hobbies! All in all, empowerment is a really important thing to consider.
But let's get back to the topic for a bit. Gamification or whatever we will call it in the future is not new per se, but its hype cycle has started just a year ago. I did a quick a Google Scholar search for the word and did not turn up that many results. However most definitely the number is bound to rise, quickly. Industry is taking up the challenge. The growing community at Gameful.org (my new home) is yet another sign. The HCI community has been discussing similar stuff for a while now, but they use different names (ambiguity, aesthetics etc). Overall it's a good time to be writing a thesis on the subject, as the possibility to make a strong contribution is definitely there. What's left to be seen is can I rise to the occasion...