Gamification in Adventure and Wilderness Sports: A literature review of game-based mechanic’s ability to increase attraction, engagement, and retention in outdoor sports

Authors: Christopher P. Johnson*

Christopher P. Johnson is an educator and co-founder/ head strength and conditioning coach at Boston Strength and Conditioning, llc in Newton, Ma. He received his Masters of Management degree as well as his Bachelors of Science Degree in Sports Science from Lasell College, and is currently pursuing a terminal degree through the Academy.

*Corresponding Author:
Christopher P. Johnson, MS
73 Elm Rd. Apt. 2
Newtonville, Ma 02460

This article is intended to provide adventure and wilderness sport coaches with a comprehensive overview of existing research introducing gamification techniques also known as game theory or game-based mechanics that are gaining popularity in fields such as business, marketing, education, and the military for use in employee, customer, and student attraction, engagement, and retention to the world of adventure and wilderness sports coaching. A broad range of existing literature related to gamification was compiled, examined, analyzed, and disseminated. The examined research findings suggest that gamification methods are effective for acquiring, engaging, and retaining individuals towards improved athletic performance. Furthermore, existing research clearly supports a strong positive correlation between gamification and effective motivational strategies for athletes. Specifically attraction, engagement, and retention as athlete’s progress through their athletic careers and the demands and traditional structure of their sport lose their interest. As well as benefits of adventure and wilderness sports to children that other sports may not provide. Game-based mechanics serves as an excellent tool to further engage athletes towards their goals in adventure and wilderness sports. Fitness and sport coaches desiring to increase athlete participation, engagement, and performance must examine and implement sound research-supported strategies associated with motivating athletes. By developing an understanding of the concepts identified and incorporating the practices prescribed within this essay, fitness and sport coaches may establish coaching strategies that effectively engage their athletes in sport and fitness activities that are traditionally less game-based than their ball- and team-based counterparts.

KEYWORDS: Sports Coaching, Fitness Coach, Sports Education, Gamification, Game-based Mechanics, Game Theory, Adventure Sports, Wilderness Sports, Outdoor Sports

The topic of gamification as a tool outside of its traditional sense (board-, card-, video-games, etc.) is a relatively new field that is gaining popularity due to its effectiveness in engaging individuals. Gamification is based on underlying paradigms that captivate individuals deeply into the task at hand. Although there are some varying beliefs on the elements that compose a game. Bedwell, Pavlas, Heyne, and Lazzara (2012) have developed a taxonomy of video game attributes that is widely accepted. Upon the completion of their study, Bedwell and colleagues concluded there are 19 original attributes of a game in nine categories. The more captivating the game mechanics make the task, the deeper the individual is brought into the game. This engagement in the game is the focus of the current article. Deep engagement in a game produces a state of flow that if tapped into effectively can produce flow in other areas outside of entertainment/video games (2,9,27,32). Flow is the key to gamification for the reason that it allows individuals to perform at an aroused state where engagement is improved and performance is enhanced (10,11,12,24). According to Steven Kotler the author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance on increasing performance in athletes by enhancing their flow state, there are 17 flow triggers. Furthermore, the objective of gamification is to unlock those same flow triggers through game-based mechanics and enhance flow and thus performance. With that said, adventure and wilderness sports lack a strong natural game-based mechanics system such as traditional ball- and team-sports. This natural attribute of adventure and wilderness sports puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to increasing participation and retention rates amongst youth. This is of significance because adventure and wilderness sports have shown to be highly beneficial for youth (31,34). This article is founded in the belief that gamification can enhance athlete participation and performance in adventure and wilderness sport programs by increasing the occurrence and quality of flow through the implementation of game-based mechanics.

Research findings have often cited a number of instances where game-based mechanics or elements of a game that make it engaging and motivating have shown to be effective positive influencers in business, marketing, education, and the military (7,30). As technology is advancing and games are becoming an ever-integrated part of life, business consultants and educators have realized the grasping and empowering effect games have on inspiring their customer, employees, and students (8,5,15,19,21,23,25,28,30,33,35).

While much of the noted research findings related to game-based mechanics as a motivator in industries outside of traditional games played for entertainment have been in business, marketing, and education; adventure and wilderness sports are an additional discipline where game-based mechanics can inspire an increase in participation, engagement, and retention of athletes.

Research has indicated that well-planned motivational strategies are a leading factor in inspiring individuals towards success (13,14,26,29,36). As such, interventions aimed at improving performance in sport should take into account a motivational theory such as game theory with research backed findings across an array of disciplines published in reputable professional journals as acceptable methods of coaching athletes.

Existing research related to game theory’s use in areas outside of sport as well as factors influencing motivation in sports over an assortment of disciplines was extensively examined. Research findings published in reputable professional journals served as the primary sources for gathering information. Research findings were then analyzed, conclusions were formulated, and suggestions for the application of methods associated with implementing game-based mechanics in adventure and wilderness sport were spread.

Established Theories of Game-based Mechanics in Areas Outside of Sport
Several articles on the concept of gamifying education have shown gamified teaching methods as more effective and motivating than traditional teaching methods (5,8,20,33,35). The difference appears to be due to an increase in student motivation (5,13), as well as attributes such as friendly competition (8), challenge to skill ratio, clear goals, and unambiguous feedback (23).

Business & Marketing
Businesses and marketing departments have been implementing gamification into their organizational structures more frequently and prominently over the past years as a result of gamification’s increase in employee training, satisfaction, and retention as well as customer product knowledge, purchasing, and retention (18,21,38).

The use of gamification in the military has gone back centuries, dating back to as early as ancient Greece. Between the use of rank structure, ribbons, badges, intra-military challenges, and leaderboards the military has been gamifying the way its members “level-up” before role playing games existed (3,4,16).

Factors Specifically Influencing Motivation in Sport
Flow & Creativity
Motivating individuals towards a desired outcome is a complex process. Countless motivation theories exist, however this article will be focusing on creativity’s ability to elicit flow as a motivator towards adventure and wilderness sports. More specifically, how gamification can promote creativity and as a consequence flow. The highest level of creativity occurs when an individual is engaged in an activity and engagement fully compromises flow (12). Unlike ball-based and other traditional team-based sports, adventure and wilderness sports are generally performed by autonomous athletes and/ or in small groups with significantly less organic game-based mechanics than ball sports (e.g., score keeping, leaderboards, strict rules and outcome goals, etc.). For this reason, sparking creativity is a justified alternative to increasing the occurrence, duration, and quality of flow. Knowing this, flow as a cultivator of creativity acts as a beneficial technique for raising motivation in adventure and wilderness sports. With that said, creativity is a highly sought after benefit of most endeavors. Adventure and wilderness sports’ natural ability to nurture creativity by altering the duration, frequency, and intensity of flow is a powerful and useful catalyst of motivation in adventure and wilderness sports (12).

Established Theories of Game-based Mechanics in Areas Outside of Sport
Game-based mechanics have justified their use in education, business, and the military. First examining education, one of the biggest dilemmas facing school committees is how to get more children to excel in their studies. Stepping back and asking, what actions lead to success in education? What motivates children? How can we as educators increase student engagement and desire in learning? When educators stepped back and asked these questions they learned numerous activities used in games effectively increase the participation and engagement of students.

Knowing this, a school in New York city called Quest to Learn has adopted a gameified curriculum where the students’ school year is a voluntary journey through learning. Students do not need to take traditional test and quizzes to earn grades but rather go on “quest” to the library in search of a specific item. With this said, this item the students are searching for is generally a passage in a book related to a topic in class. They progress on a level grading system and higher levels are associated with greater challenges. Nonetheless, the presentation is more engaging to the students and student engagement and success has shown to be greater than in traditional educational settings (1).

Some charter schools are using different approaches towards increasing student engagement in the classroom. These classrooms are using merits to increase student participation with the award of an extracurricular activity of their choice on Friday afternoon (6). The key element to this approach is the students are volunteering to participate. They are not being punished for not attempting to earn merits, but rather rewarded for volunteering to earn merits. A key factor of game theory. If they choose to earn merits, then they have the choice of fun social-skill building activity with their peers at the end of the week.

Similar to schools, businesses are using more game-based mechanics than ever when training new employees or teaching existing employees new techniques. By investing in their employees, companies are investing in their human capital and thus their future. As a result, traditional continuing education classes that are seen as boring and tedious to employees are being replaced with interactive learning software employees can use to learn at their convenience. By providing employees with a convenient option they can use at their convenience, employers are providing employees with a more engaging means of educating staff will raise employee continuing education engagment. This combination is increasing participation in employee continuing education and leading to higher employee retention rates (37).

Adjusting focus to the most overlooked yet greatest influence for gamification in an area outside of sports is the military. Although not a game, the military has perhaps the greatest influence on role playing games (RPG’s). Role playing games utilize a leveling up technique in which characters gain experience points and move up in power. This is a mirror image of soldiers in the Army moving up in rank as they accumulate experience. Ribbons, badges, and medals can also be seen in both role playing games and the military. These comparisons make it clear that the military has influenced games dramatically. Furthermore, when seeking motivated individuals, the military is an excellent place to look. Knowing this, a great deal can be learned from the military regarding motivating athletes and gamification.

Factors Specifically Influencing Motivation in Sport
Athletes will only excel if they have the motivation and drive to push themselves daily towards their goals. Motivating athletes has been one of the greatest challenges in increasing athlete performance. For this reason coaches have read countless books on motivating the masses throughout the years. When really the question that needs to be asked is not, how do you motivate athletes? Rather, who are my athletes? By understanding who their athletes are, coaches can get a better understanding of why the athletes are there. Coaches can then use that knowledge to motivate their athlete towards their goals. Again, this looks similar to a commonly used character selection process in role playing games in which the game player is asked to choose the Warrior, Wizard, Witch, or Archer before playing.

By knowing your character’s strengths and weaknesses in a role playing game it allows the player to better utilize that character and perform better in the game. Similar to how a coach knowing and understanding their athlete’s personality allows them to better understand how they can motivate their athletes and better their odds of success down the road.

Throughout my coaching career I have encountered athletes from almost every sport imaginable. As a track and field as well as strength and conditioning coach, I have worked closely with athletes from across the globe with infinite backgrounds participating in countless sports for endless reasons. With that said, I have noticed four types of athletes. Achievers, adventurers, socialites, and competitors (22).

Achievers are people who participate in sports strictly for the trophy. They are the ones who spend endless hours mastering their craft so they can be number one on the podium or earn their medal at awards night. Achievers are not focused on beating their opponent, rather on improving themselves.

Adventurers are manly found in sports such as cross-country, long-distance running in track, cycling, mountaineering, hiking, and any other sport that has a secondary component of covering great area. Adventurers seek the unknown. They wish to discover new things, both in themselves and their sport. They have a desire to learn and grow as individuals.

Socialites are there for the group environment. They do not necessary care who wins or loses, but rather what is happening among their peers and sports are a way for them to participate in their social circle. Socialites are drawn to high-cohesion sports where team bonding is foremost.

Finally, competitors are just how they sound. They participate in sports to beat their opponent. Winning is what drives competitors. Although competitors can be confused with achievers, competitors think trophies are nice, but not as nice as knowing they beat their rival. These individuals are motivated by scoreboards and leaderboards.

By taking the time to learn what type of athlete they are coaching, coaches can fine-tune their coaching style to match the needs of every athlete. It is not enough for coaches to only have mastery in the knowledge and skills of their sport, but in social development and relationship building with their athletes as well.

Creating an Environment for Creativity and Flow in Sport Through Gamification
An effective method for increasing participation in adventure and wilderness sports is sparking creativity through game-based mechanics. To do so, coaches and other leaders on the team must take into account the various dynamics of their sport, individual characteristics their athletes possess, and the situation as a whole to determine the best method of providing the appropriate amount of challenge to talent ratio to enhance flow states during sporting events. Flow arises when the challenge at hand is appropriate for the athletes level of talent. Too easy and the athlete gets bored, too difficult and the athlete becomes overwhelmed (10).

How this increase in creativity is performed is at the discretion of the coach, but special attention should be placed on nurturing an environment in the team that encourages creativity through the proper blend of challenge and skill. By creating challenges that are appropriate for their athletes and seamlessly flow from one challenge to the next, coaches can cultivate an environment in adventure and wilderness sports where athletes must use their talent, knowledge, and skills to creatively over come the challenges and progress up the leaderboard.

Leaderboards can be internal to the team, league wide, posted on-line, or posted in an office. As long as athletes can access the leaderboard and understand the rules they need to follow to move up the ranks, motivation towards adventure and wilderness sports will increase.

The final concept behind gamifying adventure and wilderness sports is voluntary participation. Generally people do not appreciate work because it is mandatory, but when the individual is given the choice to leave or stop participating at any time, their desire to participate in the given activity will increase. People prefer to have control over their lives, let the athletes know they have control over their participation in the sport and they will be more willing to participate.

Success is founded in effort. With that said, effort is a product of frequently focused engagements in the discipline at hand. Knowing this, cultivating a gamified culture around sport creates an environment where athletes can reach and sustain a level of focus in their discipline that allows them to train intensely over a sustained period of time and reach levels of athletic success that otherwise would be challenging due to lack of motivation and desire.

By gamifying adventure and wilderness sports, it gives athletes the focus in their discipline they need to achieve excellence in their sport. This is especially true for children and young adults. Children and young adults have so much to learn from nature and the outdoors about healthy living, sustaining a healthy planet, camaraderie and collaboration with their peers, as well as who they are and who they want to be as adults. At an age where young adults are searching for knowledge from the world to aid them in their path to becoming the leaders of tomorrow, adventure and wilderness sports provide a great opportunity for youth to grow into determined, focused, and motivated individuals in a stress reducing and creativity cultivating environment.


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