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How Gamifying Blood Donations Can End the Shortage
by Ben Serviss on 01/03/13 10:17:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article originally appeared on

Blood donors in New Zealand
Blood donors pose at an event in Auckland, New Zealand (Source)

It’s a fact of the modern world that games are creeping into everyday life. Games and "gamified" applications (of varying levels of quality) follow us on phones, haunt our social networks and even sneak into public bathrooms, taunting would-be players with buttons and badges. Like any divisive cultural battleground, for every evangelist crying “Gamify all the things!” there’s a corresponding voice saying, in no uncertain terms, “Gamification is bullshit.

But what if there was a way for gamification elements, and all the contentious debate that comes with them, to be deployed in a way that’s 100%, without a doubt, beneficial to society?  Say, for example, by encouraging people to donate blood more often?Say, for example, by encouraging people to donate blood more often?

Why Do People Donate Blood?

According to the American Red Cross, the number one reason people donate blood is because they want to help others. Whether motivated by a friend or family member who might need a donation or just moved by a moral urging, these people don’t need an extrinsic reward to donate in the first place. However, their frequency of donations may be increased by effective gamification elements (in game terms, think casual users vs. hardcore community members).

For others who don’t share the same motivations, gamification’s tendency to leverage extrinsic rewards is a good fit. Most blood clinics already have rewards programs in place, offering everything from giftcards and videogames to car parts and cheesecake(!), and they’re a great place to start.

"I donated blood today! I deserve this 7-9 pound spiral sliced ham!" Wait... what?

But most of these programs are shunted to corners of clinics’ websites, and discoverability is limited. As a donor at the New York Blood Center, I wasn’t even aware points could be redeemed for rewards other than branded apparel until I stumbled onto the online store.

For people motivated by extrinsic rewards, a more visible solution is needed to remind them of these rewards to encourage initial and repeat donations. So what would all this look like in an app?

Schedule, Donate, Feel Good and Get Stuff

While it’s possible to drop by blood clinics to donate, it’s advisable to make appointments beforehand to guarantee a bed. Most clinics book appointments over the phone or by scheduling online, but there’s a missed opportunity here that’s the Trojan horse to this whole thing: a donation scheduling app for smartphones. Once donors are encouraged to download the app, it can act as a gateway to the gamification layer.

Here’s how the app would function. After logging in, you’d see four options on the main screen: Schedule a DonationSee Who I SavedVisit the Hospital and Path to My Stuff.

app breakdown

Could An App Really End the Shortage?

Say the idea is ludicrously effective – is it even possible for something like this to end the shortage? What kind of shortage are we talking about, anyway? According to non-profit organization America’s Blood Centers, shortages of all blood types happen during the summer and winter holidays, and especially during emergencies like Superstorm Sandy. Meanwhile, the American Red Cross states that less than 38 percent of the US population is eligible to donate blood, which comes out to roughly 119 million people given the current US population of 315 million. Of those eligible, only 9.5 million donate in a given year, which leaves us with about 109 million people who are eligible to donate, but don’t.

Switching gears for a minute, let’s look at the platform to deliver this gamification program. In July of 2012, Nielsen reported that the smartphone penetration rate in the US had exceeded 50%. Although we can’t know details of the overlap between the 50% of US citizens with smartphones and our 109 million eligible but abstaining donors, it’s reasonable to assume there’s a range that qualifies for both. For the sake of example, let’s conservatively say that anywhere from 2%-20% qualify for both, leaving us with 2-21 million people who have smartphones and are eligible to donate but abstain.

One last factoid from America’s Blood Centers: “If only one more percent of all Americans would give blood, blood shortages would disappear for the foreseeable future.” At a population of 315 million that’s just shy of 3 million additional donors, a not unreasonable goal given our assumed target audience of 2-21 million, which boils down to acquiring and retaining just 3% of our eligible donor pool as users of the app.

The Verdict

So could it work? There’s no way to know without trying. But if there’s merit to this idea, and it convinces more people to become donors, maybe more developers will shift gears to leverage the power of gamification for social good.

Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.

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Ian Richard
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To be honest, this would be a reason I WOULDN'T donate.

I fall into the category of "gamification is BS" because I don't like being manipulated. I won't watch movies that try to manipulate me, or watch television that does, or play games that do. If someone wants to influence my mind, give me a well crafted and intelligent argument.. because blantly manipulation attempts do nothing but **** me off.

I do charity because I choose to. I donate because I want to help. But the moment somebody else tries to make that decision for me with their blatant marketing ploy... I'll walk away and not look back.

This isn't to say that I think it's an "Awful Evil idea!!!!" or anything, but to point out that there are some people who don't agree. Manipulation is a bad thing... even if it's for a good cause.

Ben Serviss
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Fair enough Ian, I totally know what you mean. One of the reasons I wanted to write about this was because over the course of donating blood and accruing reward points, I didn't know you could redeem them for real-world goods until I found myself a few hundred away from getting Halo 4, which compelled me to make a few extra donations that I wouldn't have made otherwise.

While the rest of the time I would be just as annoyed at being gamed into doing something as you suggest, the fact that the extra donations would go directly to helping someone in need made me not mind being manipulated into doing them. In this respect, I think the benefit outweighs the overstepping of personal bounds in order to save someone's life.

It's definitely a slippery slope, and it boils down to the ends justifying the means. Heady stuff, but considering lives are literally on the line, I think it's justified.

Morgan Ramsay
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@Ian Richard: The Red Cross generated $3.4 billion dollars in revenue in 2011. Do you think they don't do any marketing? Nonprofits are corporations, too. What makes you think your "want to help" isn't an institutionalized consequence of more than 100 years of cause marketing? In addition, isn't a well-crafted and intelligent argument meant to persuade you to some decision also a *blatant* attempt at "manipulation"?

Carlo Delallana
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@Morgan - the difference being that your response to "manipulation" is either intrinsically or extrinsically driven. The science of motivation and the gamification movement can sometimes be at odds. Extrinsic reward structures are meant to be temporary, they are supposed to act as scaffolding so that you have time to internalize what makes the experience rewarding and the accompanying behavior more permanent. What you may find that long-term gamification blood donation could lead to less donors participating as the selfless act becomes reward-driven. The reward "dosage" would need to be increased to artificially boost engagement and if the behavior is not internalized the donor will find that the value of their time and resource (blood) isn't worth the upper reward tier.

Gamification need not be about extrinsic rewards only. What if you focused more on delivering data to the participant about their behavior. If gamification focused on informing us of the benefits of the behavior rather than rely solely on a tiered reward structure then maybe the behavior is internalized. The "See who I saved" delivered as a well designed interactive infographic might yield better results than a catalog of rewards.

Ian Richard
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Absolutely. Marketing and advertising are forms of manipulation and has even influenced my current opinion.

But everyone knows this. Advertisements are created TO sell things. Marketing is created to spread the word about a product. While the message "You can be a sports star" may be encoded in that Nike commercial... it's a still clearly a commercial.

'Gamification" sells itself by in an innocent light as simply being a reward for good behavior. While in reality... it's about changing your behavior to best reward the marketer.

What I find offensive is not that they are advertising.... but that they think I'd believe that it was an innocent reward that was for my own benefit.

I absolutely do see your point, but I'm simply of the mindset that slippery slopes are dangerous. It's far to easy to take "just one more step" for the "right" reasons and end up in a place none of us wanted it to go.

Just look at our scientific history and see what was done in the name of saving lives.