The Digital Gamification of Youth Sport EngagementJuly 13, 2020
Gamification is the use of game techniques, such as the allocation of points and rewards, to provide incentive and fuel the competitive spirit in aspects of life outside of sport (Bunchball, 2020). Examples are abundant, and include Points Days at Shoppers Drug Mart, using an Aeroplan credit card to earn travel miles, or opening a SCENE debit account to earn free movies. Fundamentally, gamification is about stimulating engagement and offering incentive for decisions. This can be used to drive areas of existing interest, as with the everyday runner or walker starting to use a FitBit and then going that extra kilometre to earn their Kilimanjaro badge; or the mix of product, service and technology can also add a little more fun and excitement to behaviours that are often ignored or not given much thought, such as completion of program evaluation surveys among children and youth participating in Sport For Development programs.
Challenges in a youth Sport for Development setting
In 2017, MLSE LaunchPad set out to gamify how youth engage in a community sport setting. This was not about the actual sports being coached at the facility – it was about how youth interact with and experience a community-based sport organization. Our approach to gamification considered registration, relationships, attendance, program evaluation and whether incentives earned through a gamified experience could influence motivation – one key component that contributes to physical literacy and other outcomes of interest to sport programmers (Chen, 2015).
In applying this approach in practice, MLSE LaunchPad initially piloted a values-based currency of points and digital rewards to intentionally stimulate engagement related to priority challenges at the facility. Implementation of two tactical approaches formed the foundation of an early strategy:
- Providing youth with the ability to earn points for attendance, with bonus rewards for attendance streaks or perfect attendance, as a means to increase consistency in attendance and reduce ghosting (youth not showing up to a program for which they had registered).
- Providing youth with the ability to earn points and bonus rewards for the completion of a program evaluation activity before or after their program, to address challenges with low survey completion rates.
An innovative platform for youth engagement
Recognizing the potential of an effective gamification strategy to drive essential youth behaviours, MLSE Scoreboard™ was born – a digital platform for youth engagement, program evaluation, and program and facility management. Part digital infrastructure, part loyalty rewards, and all engaging – anytime, from any device.
The system has two core components, which have advanced the implementation of the tactics described above:
- All youth who register for programs receive access to a secure personal dashboard where they can see their schedule of programs, a real-time points display, alerts and messages, and an interactive leaderboard.
- Program staff set up customized challenges, surveys and rewards, and assign relative point values for each activity. Staff may also award bonus points relating to values, skills, attitudes and behaviours they are coaching or promoting.
Points as a key to success
During three years of testing, implementation and refinement with hundreds of programs and thousands of youth, one of the most critical insights has been that from the participant perspective, points are a currency. One key to success has been the intentional alignment of how points are earned with our values. For example, MLSE LaunchPad values the development of prosocial life skills and promotes the benefits of showing up, trying new things, and engaging positively with peers and staff. Consistent with these values, the life cycle of a typical program gives participants opportunities to earn points for living these values, including points for consistent attendance, multi-sport engagement, participating in evaluation activities, and engaging positively in program activities. Points are not earned for talent or sport performance. Youth reach the top of the leaderboard by actively embracing the diversity of sport programs on offer, showing up consistently, pushing themselves, and listening to their coaches and mentors. In essence, the points system is a currency of engagement. Over time, with the point system integrated into the fabric of the organization and its programs, the system can be adapted and refined by staff to address other priorities.
Refining the process
With the launch of MLSE Scoreboard and its points-based currency, youth response rates to program evaluation surveys jumped to 85%. However, some process issues persisted. Early in the MLSE Scoreboard journey, an evaluation station or “rotation” was integrated into a program’s first and last day where youth would go to a classroom or tablet station to complete the program evaluation survey. With MLSE Scoreboard available as a digital, mobile-friendly platform, evaluation staff began releasing pre-program surveys a full week in advance, with bonus points available for early completion. The results were swift – approximately two thirds of youth logged in from home to complete their baseline survey before the start of the program. This increased efficiencies in data collection, but perhaps more importantly, provided two sources of time savings for staff. First, fewer participants leaving program activities to complete a survey helps optimize the time they have for coaching and sport program experience. Second, 2/3 of youth completing surveys from home helps reduce demands on staff time, enabling them to focus on youth who need extra support to complete their survey onsite. For all the prospective benefits of a gamification strategy, none of it is useful if busy staff do not see value in terms of their most prized commodity: time (Ontario Nonprofit Network, 2018).
Tips for applying these concepts in your setting
1. Know your values
There is no homogenous population and different groups behave differently. Being aware of the challenges your participants may be experiencing and the values your organization wants to promote will inform smart and practical goals in building your own points currency. MLSE LaunchPad developed our points system around accountability for showing up, trying new things, and the development of prosocial life skills. What behaviours does your organization value?
2. Start small
We recommend focusing on a small number of concrete objectives while your staff and participants get comfortable with the system. At MLSE LaunchPad, early iterations awarded points to build engagement around attendance and evaluation. While fun custom challenges and other nuances have been added, starting with a simple focus helped staff develop comfort with the points system while generating excitement among youth around clear, achievable goals.
3. Have fun with your challenges
Whatever your engagement goals, encourage staff creativity and learn from participants to build gamified challenges that are fun and fresh while also reinforcing program content and behavioural goals. Physical literacy and the development of functional movement skills have been an intentional programming focus for younger youth at MLSE LaunchPad. As youth advance in age, the development of life skills such as social competence becomes the programmatic focus. Staff are empowered to award points or create challenges for observed examples of youth demonstrating growth in these life skill areas. For example, an MLSE Scoreboard challenge was established where youth earned points for introducing themselves to new mental health counsellors and getting to know them as people, helping to facilitate a warm introduction and reducing barriers to accessing this new service for youth and families.
4. Incentives need not be costly
Yes, MLSE LaunchPad has access to team-branded merchandise for youth to redeem. However, in our journey we have learned that the points themselves provide more drive for engagement than any item or prize on offer. Most participants choose not to redeem in favour of building up their point totals to achieve goals or compete with their peers. Access to a leaderboard with peers is an essential enabler of the healthy competition that an engaging and values-driven points system can facilitate. Online rewards such as digital “badges” can be earned and accumulated, for example, related to a specific life skill, an act of positivity, or leveling up their sport participation. This type of reward is similar to the way points are used in favourite video games – except in this case, winning the game involves demonstrating the characteristics and attributes we work to promote through long-term quality sport engagement.
For those more extrinsically motivated, points redemption can take on many forms. We find smaller accessories such as wristbands and bracelets popular among 6-10 year-olds, and sport accessories such as water bottles and t-shirts popular among 11-14-year-olds. Experiential rewards are popular among older youth, such as a movie night donated by a sponsor, admission to a special event, or an earned privilege like choosing what the team eats at an end-of-season dinner.
5. Learn and adapt
This article provides a framework for how the gamification of youth sport engagement has worked in a youth Sport For Development setting. Every program, culture and population are different, and what works in one environment may not be perfectly adaptable to another. Conceptually, it is helpful to think about a system of gamification through points as a choose-your-own-adventure platform, where organizations have the flexibility to tailor and evolve their system over time against the most pressing engagement goals or challenges as defined by them. People are not static, and as they grow and what motivates them evolves, those of us working with them must keep our approaches fresh, relevant and engaging.
If you need a sounding board or would like to ideate about what a values-based points currency could look like for your organization, don’t hesitate to reach out to the MLSE LaunchPad Research and Evaluation team.
Warner, M & Heal, B. (2020). Engaging youth in evaluation processes. SIRCuit Article.
Warner, M & Heal, B. (2020). The gamification of evaluation for non profits and charities. Imagine Canada 360 Blog.
About the Author(s)
Marika Warner is the Director of Research and Evaluation and Bryan Heal is the Manager of Research and Evaluation at MLSE LaunchPad, a 42,000 square foot Sport For Development facility in downtown Toronto built and supported by the MLSE Foundation to advance positive developmental outcomes for youth facing barriers aged 6-29.
Bunchball. (2020). Gamification 101: An Introduction to the Use of Game Dynamics to Influence Behaviour. Retrieved from: https://www.bunchball.com/gamification101
Chen, A. (2015). Operationalizing physical literacy for learners: Embodying the motivation to move. Journal of Sport and Health Science. 4(1), 125-131. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095254615000320
Ontario Nonprofit Network. (2018). The State of Evaluation: Measurement and Evaluation Practices in Ontario’s Nonprofit Sector. Retrieved from: https://theonn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/State-of-Evauation-October-2018.pdf