Cracking the Code: QR Technology as an Element in the Gamification of Society

Written by Michael Whittington

I’d like to begin this week by sharing a funny little mobile media marketing comic strip I came across the other day. At its core it calls QR codes a waste of time and makes the mobile marketing software used to read them appear ridiculous. However in my reading I saw a deeper meaning. I find that it sheds light on who we are as a people and in fact justifies the existence and success of QR codes. Let me elaborate in a long-winded manner as I have the tendency to do.

I once met a man named Tony who believed strongly in a concept he called “the gamification of society.” He said that more and more people are including video games in their daily routines. Even the people who do not consider themselves “gamers” and perhaps don’t even own a home console are playing games either on social networks like Facebook or on their phones. Everyone has their own reason for playing games. They are used to relax, to pass time, and many even choose to compete. However, regardless of why one plays, there are certain aspects of how they play that are true across the general population. These habits are then taken from the games and reproduced with every day activities. The activities themselves become a game; hence, the term “gamification.”

Eric Krona shares some musings on the subject, using his e-mail as an example. Among the most boring and monotonous tasks is clearing out a cluttered inbox. With sometimes hundreds of messages, having to check each one to make sure there is no vital information that shouldn’t be erased creates the need for individuals to delete them one at a time. This task is time consuming. Krona suggests racing colleagues to see who can have a “higher score,” or number of e-mails in their junk folder, by a certain point in the day.

But what does this have to do with mobile media marketing, namely QR codes? Critics often cite the extra steps that need to be taken with QR codes as their primary argument. Who wants to reach into their pocket, produce their phone, boot up a mobile marketing software app, scan a code and wait a few seconds just to visit a website they’re not sure they want to be on in the first place? With this concept of gamification, I retort that it is not about the website. Of course the destination of the code can prove useful once a consumer is there and can be beneficial to companies looking to boost their conversions or connect with customers. However, I don’t believe the result is the reason most of us scan QR codes. I believe it is the slightly drawn-out process that is the draw.

“How can this be?” asks the critic. “Do you thrive off of wasting time?”

This question is posed to the generation responsible for gamification. You might as well ask what is so satisfying about completing a video game’s story, being the highest-ranking player in an online match, or building a successful and self-sufficient farm in FarmVille. No, perhaps they do not contribute to our growth as people. Aside from the dedication, saving the princess is most likely not going help develop the skills to land you your dream job, nor will it put dinner on the table. However, it does give us a sense of accomplishment. It is a challenge we chose to accept, and when we complete it, it’s like fitting that last jigsaw puzzle piece into place.

On a smaller scale, this is the feeling we’re chasing when we scan a QR code.

Quick response code; we focus on the quick response, rarely on the code – but that word carries with it a meaning. A code is cryptic. A code is something that can be cracked. A code is something that only the people with the right skills and resources can crack. QR codes are about getting that coupon or previewing that indie band, but they are just as much about the process; about cracking the code.

QR codes are right at home with the imminent change. I entertain debates of whether or not gamification is a positive or negative direction for society. However I grow frustrated when people doubt its existence at all. One of the first thoughts that people had was: how can we make a game of this further? Matthew A. Russell at suggests a mobile marketing strategy where an advertiser uses an online QR code generator to generate a QR code and chop it up into smaller squares. Then users must first complete a sliding puzzle before they can scan the QR code. How much extra time does that add to the process? And still the idea is appealing to many of us. Indeed the comic in the opening paragraph has a sort of satirical negativity, but for the man on the right it was never about Tic Tacs. It was about the challenge – it was about being “smart enough to figure it out.” That is where this mobile marketing solution, in as simple a form as it may be, gets its right-angled wings.

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