Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Understanding QR Codes through Game Design

Wow, four new blog posts within the past week? That can only mean one thing: this post is for another homework assignment.

But don't let that turn you off, because I am very excited about this post. This will be my first entry into a series of posts called Understanding through Game Design, where I analyze non-game-related topics as if they were games (I also plan to analyze actual games eventually). The idea isn't all that crazy, because any game designer will likely tell you that it's quite a challenge to find any form of human activity that cannot be explained in terms of game design.

So today, I'll be talking about Quick Response codes, also known as QR codes. When I first heard about these a few years ago, someone had told me that they were supposed to be a replacement for bar codes that could store data in two dimensions rather than one.

I never imagined that they would become the widespread phenomenon that they are today. In this post, I'll be trying to figure out why exactly people are having so much fun with these things.

How to Play with QR Codes

First, you're going to need a smartphone or any similar device such as an iPod Touch, but it must have a camera. Next, you should install one of the many free apps that can scan and read QR codes. Now when you see a QR code in your everyday life, all you need to do is take a picture of it using your phone and the app will tell you what it means: 

If you don't have a smartphone and would like to scan the above image, you can use an online QR code reader, such as ZXing Decoder. Most QR codes hold URLs inside them, which will bring you to a webpage with more info on whatever you're scanning (assuming your phone has Internet access).

If you haven't noticed these before, you'll soon start seeing these codes all over the place. For instance, you might be passing by a poster on the street that catches your interest when you notice that it has a QR code on it. In just a few seconds, you can take a picture of it on your phone and instantly be brought to a relevant website with more info, which you may choose to bookmark for later.

Or perhaps you found a cool ad in today's paper and would like to learn more. Rather than switching to your laptop and doing a search, you just take out your phone:

Or maybe you see this landscaping business working on your neighbor's yard, and they do such a great job that you might want to do business with them. In just a few seconds, you're already looking at all of the services they offer:

You're wondering why this restaurant has a big QR code on its sign, so you scan it, only to find a free coupon hidden inside!

I have no idea if this is actually a restaurant.
This QR code is so subtle yet noticeable that you just have to scan it because you feel like it might be important:

Companies can even get take advantage of the auto-correction algorithm and insert images into the code without ruining the message:

Some have made decorating QR codes into an art form:

Some companies have tried turning television commercials into interactive experiences using QR codes:

I personally thought this was pretty dumb.

Companies are even using QR codes to go beyond marketing and towards integrating them with how users use their services:

What Makes This Fun?

So now that you have a better idea of everything that makes up the QR code experience, we can start analyzing this using the terms of game design.

Simple Mechanics

Look at how unbelievably easy it is to play this "game". All you have to do is take out your phone, fire up the app, and take a picture. Sure it takes a little bit of time, but what's important is that it can be easily and quickly comprehended.

Curiosity Invites Interaction

The best games are the ones that stimulate the player's curiosity. They put questions into the player's mind, which encourages them to explore the game further. Likewise, some of the best QR ads effectively get the user interested in answering a question, such as "What is this code hiding?" or "What is the answer to this riddle?"

The following QR ad campaign is a beautiful example of this concept of playing with the user's curiosity:

The ad plays with perspectives by hiding an image (both visually and digitally) within the QR code that is build out of Lego. And so the first question that the ad presents to the view is: what is the image, which can be built using these Lego bricks? After the user scans the image, the answer is yet another but more implicit question: how would you build such a thing using Lego? The human mind works very quickly, and by the time they land on the product page, the user has already thought up of a few ideas on how to go about building it. This is especially powerful if the user has played with Lego sometime in the past, thus triggering their nostalgia for the product and making it all the more likely that they will purchase it.

Surprises are Fun, and Innovation yields Surprises

As mentioned earlier, QR codes don't always have to lead to a product page. Remember that "restaurant" with the free coupon? If it weren't for those occasional surprises, QR codes would cease to be interesting and would simply be just another tool in our everyday lives.

Fortunately, companies are always looking for new ways to surprise their audience, because it provides a memorable experience that helps build brand recognition. Just watching the companies innovate can be entertaining on its own. This innovation not only includes how the QR codes look like, but also how the user interacts with them. This could be as simple an idea as creating a QR code scavenger hunt, or it could be as impressive as building a virtual grocery store in Korea.

Dubai is just plain crazy.
The Novelty of New Technology

One of the biggest reasons for why scanning QR codes is so appealing is because it is essentially a form of augmented reality (AR). It successfully connects the real world with the virtual world in meaningful ways. There are very few products or services that can deliver this kind of experience. Unlike many of the AR apps on smartphones these days, which feel more like an overlay across a video screen, the QR code system has a stronger dependency to the physical world.

Game designers know how big of an impact the novelty of new technology can have on defining a player's experience. One of the highest selling games of recent years was Wii Sports. The only innovation that Wii Sports had going for it was how it used new technology, but that's all it needed.


  1. Just so you know that I haven't forgotten, Interguild History Part 3 will come out sometime this weekend.

  2. Still working on it. Like I said on the Interguild's facebook page, this is a challenging post to write. I'm hoping to get it done by this weekend, but I have a lot of work to do.