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Premio Lezioni di Design: Fabio Viola

The 2017 Lezioni di Design award was given to Fabio Viola: among the world’s TOP 10 gamification designers, he coordinates the advanced training course Gamification ed Engagement Design for IED Milano. He is author of the book Gamification – Videogames in everyday life and of Engage me, to be released by Hoepli. He worked for videogames multinational groups such as Electronic Arts Mobile and Vivendi Games contributing to launching great successes such as Crash Bandicoot, The Sims e Fifa. Over the last few years he has been exploring the connections between game and everyday life supporting public bodies, cultural institutions and big companies in their “engagement” processes towards the public.

We asked Fabio to tell us about his work and his view of contemporary design.

Gaming is your passion, before being your job. When did you understand that this would become your profession?

As long as I can remember, there are two big passions in my life: history and videogames. Still in the late 1990s these latter were not based on any academic studies, so I opted for archaeology at university. After 5 years working my way up on the first websites that talked about videogames, as imprudent as only a 22 year old guy can be, I founded my first “start up". Despite closing it up after a few months, that was the very failure that convinced me that this would be my way in the years to come. Quite fast, while my friends were still studying, I found myself immersed in a dream as I ended up working with many of those companies that had taken my time and money during my adolescence. I have been country manager for Vivendi Games Mobile, communication manager for Electronic Arts Mobile, I have produced and developed several “indie” games and designed some of the Lottomatica social games. My life has always been made of cycles; the last one coincided with the publication of "Gamification – Videogames in everyday life" in 2011. Since then my personal and professional interest has been increasingly focusing on gaming experience design and gamification in everyday life contexts.

What kind of relationship do you think exists between playing and designing?

For long time we have designed highly standardised experiences in continuity with the ideas and practices of the first two industrial revolutions. The result is a too rigid, inhibited and pyramid-shaped world that is creating a short circuit between the needs and expectations of the new generations and the world they live in.
Playing means placing the individual and his emotions back in the centre, moving the axis from the vertical to the horizontal level where the main trigger for every project is engagement. I think the time is ripe for going beyond stereotyped phrases like “stop playing” or “this is not a game”, that seem to relegate to specific moments a learning and discovery method that is in fact essential in the early years of our life to learn 90% of the concepts that will guide us throughout the whole life.

The videogame industry is currently one of the most booming ones and its turnover is growing exponentially every year. What is the reason for that and what do we learn from this model?

It is an industry that was able to intercept – and very often anticipate – social, economical and technological changes occurring over the last 30 years. Let’s think of the functioning of videogames, which necessarily requires the engagement and interaction of the players. They offer freedom of action and, even more, decision-making power. They are structured by objectives of growing difficulty, they stimulate competition but even more often they push cooperation between the players, they allow self-expression through the personalisation of houses, vehicles and avatars. These features, that I roughly summarised, perfectly correspond to the differences that the new Y and Z generations bring with them, if compared to their parents and grandparents. At economical level, videogames have shown us how it is possible to generate billions of dollars worldwide through the free distribution of the product – the so-called “free to play” model. And last but not least, at technological level they have often been ahead of time introducing 3D, augmented and virtual reality, peripheral devices with sensors. Personally I am sure that this is an extraordinary lens through which to look at the world some years ahead!

The MoMA included in its permanent collection 14 videogames, defining them as a “form of art”. How would you define a videogame?

Only forty years after their birth, videogames have become not only the main world’s creative industry in terms of time spent on them and turnover, but also one of the most complex – and least understood at institutional level – cultural expressions of our time. Creators express ideas, develop creative and language models, tell stories and give different views of the world on a new, fully digital type of canvas. And they do it allowing the user to act and react, making authorial production somehow liquid and for this totally different from all the other artistic expressions in which meta-reflection stays on an inner level, without reaching the aesthetical one.

Many companies are slowly approaching the concept of gamification. Could you explain it in a few words to those who are not familiar with it?

Gamification is a practical methodology to design products, relations and processes. The idea is to create a super user experience borrowing many of the basic principles of videogames and mixing them with elements of psychology and behavioural science. To give an idea of the phenomenon, the gamification market was born in 2010 and last year it earned producers about 2 billion dollars, with a forecast of reaching up to 11 dollars in 2020. Despite this dramatic growth though, many problems have not been tackled yet: first of all the training of expert gamification designers.

In what way will companies benefit from adopting gamification dynamics and concepts?

I was lucky enough to work at dozens of gamification projects in the most varied fields: loyalty programs, marketing campaigns, sales force motivation, physical retail spaces, e-learning, public bodies and cultural institutions. The first big benefit is a systemic change in dealing with problems; design follows a process of analysis of the public, their needs and motivations to identify the best possible solutions. An environment where the protagonist is engaged or highly engaged makes it easier to obtain cascade-like positive metrics: retention, the average time spent in a physical or virtual place, the viral coefficient, the average growing receipt and so on. To mention a real case, in the 2015 edition of the initiative #IoLeggoPerché promoted by the Italian Publishers Association they decided to introduce gamification for the first time as a means to stimulate a series of virtuous behaviours in reading. In less than 3 months users uploaded over 50,000 contents, overcome more than 100,000 missions and 25,000 messengers, i.e. people who had to unlock several missions and get points to achieve that title, were certified. In this way gamification becomes an “engagement by design” tool that drastically reduces marketing and communication costs in favour of organic ambassadors and the word of mouth linked to the internal gameplay.

Could you now tell us something about your next life cycle?

I would like to try and bring my two main passions back together. I founded the association TuoMuseo, winner of Fondazione Cariplo Innovazione Culturale call for proposal in 2016, to experiment new methods for using our cultural heritage. Among the main projects in progress I am particularly proud of Father and Son, a real videogame whose publisher – the only case in the world – is a museum. The game, promoted by the Naples National Archaeological Museum, aims at reaching new global audiences and raise awareness on the importance of our past combining new languages, technological innovation and culture.

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