How To Gamify A Conference – part 1


We are very happy to welcome a guest writer on the Gamification+ blog, Fiona MacNeill


“It's teaching, with time-travelers, a tight schedule, collaboration and bags of social media” (MacNeill & Latif, 2016a, p. 6).

The quote above describes the conference game in one sentence. The sentence is written in a style akin to a movie pitch. It is also deceptively simple like a movie pitch and in fact it will take two blog posts for me to do justice to the ideas and logistics involved in running the actual conference game. Part 1 provides the background on the conference, the previous game in 2015 and what we changed in 2016; leaving you on a cliffhanger for the next installment. Part 2 will relieve your anguish by outlining the results of our endeavors and will also provide a list of 10 recommendations for building conference games. Make sure that you catch both parts at the Gamification+ blog, before anywhere else to get the full story!


In May of this year I co-designed a conference-wide game for UCISA Digital Capability Group’s, Spotlight on Digital Capabilities 2. The “2” is important here as I was given the rare opportunity to design a sequel to the first iteration of the game that had taken place in June 2015 (for details, see last year’s blog post: This post outlines some of the things that I learned about gamifying under conference conditions and also some of the key ideas that informed the game design process.

To give a bit of background, I am a Learning Technologist in Higher Education. I help staff and students utilise technology; assisting with the integration of technology into learning and teaching, and using it to augment current practices. So to an extent gamification, or as I prefer to think of it playful design, is an important part of my professional toolkit. I am also artistically trained and I worked in the arts for a number of years. So in short, creativity and imagination permeate everything that I do and that is borne out by the enthusiasm I apply to everything that I do. Playful design is a perfect fit for me.

During the first year of the conference, I was brought in to run the conference game according to a design devised by members of the planning committee. The game was based on the idea of providing scores on a leaderboard for taking Twitter selfie photos at Media City in Salford. This had a nice celebrity tie-in as attendees might try and take a snap with a passing BBC celebrity. The game worked, but was exceedingly hard to score due to the need to check the contents of individual media tweets.

The conference game in 2015

The 2015 game was enjoyed by some and the use of technology, such as Rise Leaderboard was praised. Indeed, the event even inspired Farzana Latif to use Rise Leaderboard as part of the University of Sheffield’s TELFest game in September 2015 (Latif’s blog post: This prompted she and I to be in contact and our shared interest helped to fuel future collaboration – more on that shortly. There were however some issues with the 2015 game, specifically drop-out rates were high and the overall engagement rate was 24% (24% of attendees played the game).

A subsequent analysis of the original game’s elements using Marczewski’s application analysis tool (2015a) found that the “player” and “socialiser” user types were more attracted to the game. This is not entirely surprising due to the use of Twitter activity as the singular scoring method. 41% of those who played were male and 56% of those who played were female although 60% of the final top 20 ranking game participants were men, which suggests that women were more likely to stop playing. The good news was that the top 20 also sported a large number of those in management (30%) and training roles (35%), this could aid dissemination of gamification as a strategy to support learning and teaching.

The conference organising committee felt that the gamification aspect of the 2015 conference had been valuable, and that they would like another conference-wide game in 2016. I was invited to work on this, and after the initial analyses outlined above, it was clear that we could improve on the 2015 game. Myself, and Farzana Latif, Technology Enhanced Learning Manager at the University of Sheffield, joined forces to design a new game. During the game, Latif and I were referred to as the gamemakers, so I will use this terminology henceforth to explain some of our joint decisions. The new game was closely tied to the aims of the conference and we initiated the design process with the following objectives.

Game objectives in 2016

#1. Increase audience engagement at the conference
Benefits: online profile, networking, counteract symposium format

A KPI metric for this goal was to trend on Twitter, more on that in part 2. As the conference focused on technology in education and digital capabilities, the use of technology to support the game was a solid requirement. The conference was also in a symposium format. Therefore, all of the presentations were in the same lecture-type room. We felt that the game would add an extra layer of interest to the event.

#2. Promote adoption through cost effective demonstration of best practice
Benefits: impact (KPI), value of event

We needed the game to be as inexpensive as possible in order to make it something that could be adopted broadly. So no bespoke conference gaming apps here, we used what we already had, and technologies that were already adopted by attendees or easy for them to adopt. What we had was Twitter, Ning (DIY social network) and freemium tools such as Padlet. The only specific expenses tied to the game were the Rise Leaderboard, print materials and activities for our Introspective Zone. Design time on the game was volunteered, although this would represent a very significant expense; around 200 hours between the gamemakers.

Screenshot from Ning social networking tool.

#3. Foster and encourage positive conference behaviours
Benefits: better networking and long-term relationships

As the Ning social media network is used by the group on the day-to-day, the thought was that by using it as part of the game we may boost awareness of the network in the longer term. Also, the twitter element would connect people via the conference conversations to augment in-person networking.

What did we change in 2016?

1. Team playing

We discovered that in order to attract a more varied group of game participants, we needed to get other user types to participate, namely users that Marczewski terms as the “Free Spirit”, the “Philanthropist” and the “Disruptor” or “Influencer” (Marczewski, 2015b, pp. 65-80). Our first decision to support this, was to make it a team-based game. All players were contributing scores and could see their own scores on our leaderboard. The main point was that these scores were aggregated towards the collective score of the team. This was made possible by Rise working with us to customise their leaderboard software for the event.

Team allocation: We used a survey question as part of a pre-conference game opt-in form, to query what people were most interested in. This allowed us to consider the best team allocations, for those who had opted in. Those who had opted-out were kept anonymous from the gamemakers, however, it was valuable to find out the reasons why attendees were not interested in the game. For example, there were concerns around privacy when using 3rd party services (as Twitter activity was being used as a key metric, although not the only metric, as in the first year of the game) if people were not Twitter users, they were less likely to participate.

2. Our game was a narrative with a beginning, middle and end

Our game was far more immersive than the first year, becoming a full-on “alternate reality game” (ARG); a blend of tasks completed in real-life and tasks completed using digital technologies (Olbrish, 2012, p. 259). We knew that a “rabbit hole” or “call to action” (Olbrish, 2012, p. 260) was needed in order to bring the game participants into our world. So we devised a story, and Latif created a video to present the preamble and a call to action for our story.

Our narrative is most succinctly outlined in the video

Here is an excerpt from the instruction sheet (MacNeill & Latif, 2016b):

“Your challenge is to create a digital story outlining the current need-to-knows of digital capabilities. This story should be customised according to your group’s assigned person: the IT Director, the Student, the Academic Staff person or the Admin Staff person.

You will collaborate in a group, tweeting your progress and gaining points, before finally demonstrating your digital expertise, by publishing your story online and sharing it with the conference. Don’t panic – a #udigcap* champion assigned to your group will assist.”

*”#udigcap” was the conference hashtag

[Link to full game instructions - play track instructions.ashx?la=en]

Throughout the game, the gamemakers presented updates, which also served as timed releases of the leaderboard as part of the conference programme. At the end of the game, a final video was produced on the fly to praise the teams who had won overall at the event.

3. We used avatars

We flipped the concept of avatars around. As most of those attending this conference are in support professions in Further and Higher Education, we felt that it might be more compelling for the teams to be assigned an avatar whom they would teach and support. Thus the “time-travel” trope outlined in the video/narrative above. It was a device which allowed game participants to consider what people from the year 2000 would need to know about modern technology. What types of challenges would people from the year 2000 face? How would those challenges differ between different work roles? We also sought to have an even gender distribution in the groups.

DigCap avatars in colour scheme for groups A-D (12 groups in total, A-L). Design by F. MacNeill.

4. The game started before the event

We initiated the game with a pre-conference webinar which was well attended. It took place a week prior to the conference. Due to the educational focus of the conference, we used the webinar to outline some of the theory behind the game (without giving too much away) and released the game instructions and the video. The webinar was also open to people who were not attending the conference, yet had an interest in gamification or game-based learning. This was helpful as we gained some outside perspectives and feedback which allowed us to refine aspects of the game prior to the in-person game launch. We also provided pre-conference points to participants for joining the Ning community and interacting with their team prior to the event.

5. Metrics were diversified

We measured activities on Twitter and in the real world as part of the game. In particular, we encouraged participants to explore the conference venue and locate an introspective zone. The introspective zone included game-related and new educational technologies and had an iBeacon installed. The iBeacon meant that for those who had the main conference app installed, and location services turned on, they would receive a notification and score points for entering the room. We also had points for innovation and creativity. This was particularly pertinent to the production of a collaborative digital story, or list of need-to-knows, for their avatar. All participants were given a scorecard to refer to during the event [link to score card:].

6. We encouraged collaboration and exploration

The production of the team’s digital story was the true deciding factor for the winning teams of the game. By its nature, it depended upon the input of more introspective, “Philanthropist” type players (Marczewski, 2015b, pp. 65-80). We also made team base areas available at the venue, for ad-hoc in-person meetings, this worked less well than the virtual options due to the coziness of our venue. Our carrot, for the more free spirited players, was locating and interacting with the technologies in the interactive zone.

7. We had learning outcomes

The game itself had learning outcomes for the participants. We made these available at the beginning, in the instructions (link to instructions play track instructions.ashx?la=en). We used the outcomes as an opportunity to highlight specific decisions in the mechanics of the game and why they were critical to what the participants were able to get out of the game. Really, this might also be termed as the aim of the game. There are two dimensions, the truth of the game, i.e. it’s internal aim (e.g. to teach/support the avatars), and the truth of what participants get out of it in the real world (e.g. to consider how gamification/playful learning might be useful).

8. Each day was a separate iteration of the game

In the first year, as both days of the conference were scored together, it was impossible for those who only attended on the second day to catch-up with those who attended on both days. Therefore, at the end of day one, the scores were zeroed (aside from those gained from interaction with the Ning social network). This worked well as it meant that two separate teams had the chance of winning either day.

9. Rewards

All participants who scored 10 points or more were awarded a participation open badge through Credly. There was a unique badge for all of the team members who won for the specific day of the conference.

10. Chocolate

There was a surprise “rewards ceremony” at the end of the second day, where all members of the winning teams were called on stage and awarded chocolate medals. This was quite fun, and enthusiastically received. During the first year, “Oscars-style” trophies were awarded. However, interestingly, the open badges and the “surprise chocolate” seemed to be more successful rewards. This was accompanied by use of Twitter by the gamemakers, to recommend particularly innovative approaches, insightful tweets, and illustrated creativity.

---------------------End of Part 1---------------------

Tune in again next week to find out whether our changes to the game design had the desired effect. Did we meet our goals? Did we learn anything? Did the participants play the game with gusto? Find out the answers to all these questions only at the Gamification+ blog.

Fiona MacNeill​

References for Part 1

MacNeill, F., & Latif, F. (2016a). Spotlight on digital capabilities (2). Pre-conference meet-up and game launch webinar [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from UCISA website:

MacNeill, F., & Latif, F. (2016b). DigCap play track: Groups for capabilities #udigcap – instructions. Retreived from

Marczewski, A. (2015a). Gamification user type analysis tool – reversed [Computer software]. Retrieved from

Marczewski, A. (2015b). Even ninja monkeys like to play (1st Ed.) [Kindle edition]. Retrieved from

Olbrish, K. (2012). Alternate reality games for corporate learning. In K. Kapp, The gamification of learning and Instruction: Game-based methods and strategies for training and education (pp. 257-264). San Francisco, CA: Wiley, John & Sons.

About the author 

Pete Baikins

Pete Baikins is an international authority on gamification, a lifelong gamer, successful entrepreneur and a lecturer. As CEO of Gamification+ Ltd he mentors and trains companies world-wide on the use of gamification to solve business challenges. Gamification+ won the Board of Trade Award from the UK's Department of International Trade in January 2019.

Pete is co-host of the health gamification podcast Health Points and is also Chair of Gamification Europe, the annual conference for Gamification practitioners.

Pete is an Honorary Ambassador for GamFed (International Gamification Confederation), having previously been the Chair from 2014 to February 2019, whose aim is to spread best practices within and support the gamification industry.

After 15 years as a Lecturer on gamification and entrepreneurship at the University of Brighton he now guest lectures on Gamification at King’s College London and at ESCP Europe at post-graduate and under-graduate levels.

Over the past 20 years Pete has built and sold two businesses. One was in security software and the more recent one was a telecoms and internet connectivity business. He is also an Ambassador for Brighton & Hove Chamber of Commerce in the UK.

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