Using Gamification to Increase Visitors and Outdoor Engagement

April 25, 2024, Department, by Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter and Wendy Kummerer

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For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine

Last summer, McHenry County (Illinois) Conservation District launched a digital scavenger hunt using the Goosechase application to introduce visitors to new places, reach and engage new audiences, and encourage outdoor recreation for all ages and abilities. The response was overwhelming and far exceeded expectations. The three-month campaign amassed more than 1,100 participants who checked in at the district’s conservation areas more than 5,400 times and submitted more than 5,200 photos while participating in various activities.

There is often a perception that the digital and natural worlds are in opposition. While we embrace technology in many areas of our work, there is still frequent messaging encouraging the public to put down their screens and enjoy the outdoors. Rather than fight the stronghold of technology, McHenry County Conservation District embraced it head on to encourage residents to explore local open space.

Employing gamification strategies, the conservation district created the “Find Your Wild” game, where participants earned points by checking in at conservation areas using GPS, photographing themselves engaging in outdoor activities, and answering trivia questions about the district’s history. In return, as they reached different milestones, they were rewarded with specially designed stickers that represented the different conservation areas. Active participants also were placed in biweekly drawings for outdoor recreation-themed gift baskets featuring items donated from local businesses. The campaign also educated visitors about the district, grew online followers and e-newsletter subscribers, increased visitors to lesser-frequented sites, and created user-generated content and the procurement of thousands of photos of real site users enjoying what the conservation district has to offer.

Using a comprehensive approach, the district reached prospective participants in both new and traditional ways, including press releases, e-newsletters and information in the district’s quarterly print publication. Additionally, yard signs with QR codes were placed near trailheads at each conservation area, staff were given cards to refer participants by word of mouth, and a video commercial was produced for social media. Local neighborhood Facebook groups were notified, as well as local bloggers and influencers. Participants also received points if they successfully referred a friend.

While the stickers and gift baskets helped encourage residents to participate, the real prizes were the positive memories participants made with family and friends as they explored new places and experienced new activities. The positive feedback received was tremendous, and the program won the Illinois Park and Recreation Association’s Outstanding Program Award in January 2024. McHenry County Conservation District plans to run a similar program this summer to continue to expose residents to the natural areas it stewards as well as further embrace technology to enhance these experiences.

Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter, Marketing Manager, and Wendy Kummerer, Director of Marketing and Education, McHenry County (Illinois) Conservation District