The Gamification of Everything?

These are some reflections on a recent keynote I delivered on the growing dialogue and evolving practices around gamification.

Last week, I had the honor of delivering a closing keynote during the nextMEdia Toronto 2010 conference. My talk was entitled “The Gamification of…Everything?” and I was entrusted to introduce, inform and maybe even inspire a diverse and incredibly talented audience of media, digital and tech executives.  The conference attendees were from a variety of industries and perspectives, most from a non-gaming background.

The often maligned topic of “gamification” is one which many of us in tech and media have increasingly become aware of over the past few years.  For better and for worse, expounding on and extolling the principles of gamification have been on many people’s lips these days. Start-ups, entrepreneurs, “old” media companies and many other kinds of businesses from just about every sector imaginable have jumped on the gamification bandwagon.

So what exactly do we mean by gamification? As with any new field, a multiplicity of definitions abound. One functional definition that I like to use is:
Gamification is the process of incorporating game play elements into non-gaming applications, products and related services.

Gamification provides a framework, an overall method for revealing a deeper understanding of how we as human beings tend to respond to and interact with our world.

As someone who has been in gaming, media and tech for longer than I care to mention, I’m truly excited about the potential around the principles and practices of gamification. I’m excited to hear more and more people talk about gaming and to see how this industry spreads throughout the marketplace. Increasingly, gamification is applied to a variety of sectors, whether we’re talking about:

•    Media
•    Health Care
•    Education
•    Shopping
•    Creation
•    Collaboration

The investor community is also generally upbeat when it comes to gamification. In part, this is because products that have been “gamified” often see an uptick in terms of user engagement and monetization, such as the success DevHub has experienced incorporating these new features into their service.

One investor I recently spoke with quipped he wouldn’t even look at a consumer-facing start-up unless it had some gamification elements baked into the plan. Tim Chang of Norwest Venture partners has done a lot to advance the discussion around this growing trend. He has said in a recent interview that gamification is “one of the key layers of functionality that will start to weave into everything. Just like social is a function that goes into everything, game mechanics are a tool kit that will start to go everywhere.”


A Much Debated Topic

At its best and most grand, gamification provides one frame of reference, a new-ish paradigm, to better comprehend how design, particularly design elements used in gaming, impacts the very nature of human experience. After all, isn’t all human culture a product of design at some level? As applied in industry, gamification may be seen as approach for engaging with the emotions, motivations and behaviors of consumers in a proactive way to (hopefully) positively impact their relationship to a product, technology or service.

On the other side of the spectrum, critics decry some unfortunate recent trends around gamification as some kind of intellectual flimflam based on a happenstance assembly of cosmetic fixes, overt manipulation and simplistic assumptions around what drives engagement. Some critics say that gamification is merely the repackaging the already well-trodden territory of direct marketing. As with any emerging field that deals with complex issues, there is probably some truth to these critiques.

One critique I have around aspects of this movement is when everything gets boiled down to making things more fun – it just seems so one-dimensional. Since when is “fun” the only motivating factor when it comes to gaming? As designer Nicholas Fortugno has stated over and over to me, “I don’t want doing my taxes to be fun.”  His point is clear: not every compelling interaction in a gaming context is “fun” or playful. (That would be painful.) Engagement revolves around a number of intrinsic emotions, triggers and motivations. Boiling gamification all down to whether something is fun or not misses the point completely and lends credence to all the criticisms around this emerging field.

If it’s not obvious at this point, I do have a confession to make: I am a reformed semiotician. I don’t talk about it much.

In graduate school, I took all the practical and research skills I had gathered up until that point in communications, media, anthropology and went down the path of immersing  myself even further in the world of cultural and media studies.  So, if you’ll allow me to geek out a bit to explain why I believe gamification (or the science of engagement) is worthy of our attention: Fundamentally, whether we are talking about traditions around pageantry in the United States in the early 20th century, the impact of new technology on global communications or how persuasion is used to peddle products, people an propaganda, one thing is certain: we humans, across all time and natural boundaries, are symbolic creatures. Everything we do and see is heavily reliant on our use, familiarity and competence around interpreting and utilizing symbols. We surround ourselves with symbols. They possess certain transcendent and often real-world value: paper money symbolizes worth and value, maps help us imagine national boundaries and nationhood, virtual goods (whether you’re talking about a digital “flower” on your online profile page or a mega-farm in “Farmville”) can stand for anything from social status to success to maybe even love.

Games have been successful for thousands of years because they tap into a symbolic tapestry governed by a context of rules, actions and feedback. Like other cultural forms such as music or dancing, they resonate with people of all ages and backgrounds. Do I love the term “gamification”? No. Like any catch-phrase, it falls short of really capturing the phenomenon and all the possibilities. However, why wouldn’t we take what we’ve learned from games and gaming and apply it to other areas of life?


Trends in Gamification

What does it truly mean to “gamify” a product or service? Well, that really all depends on the offering at hand. However, there are certain prevailing trends in gamification I am seeing these days:

#1 – A Renewed Focus On the Social

social wallace articleFor thousands of years, gaming was a social event. Now, with all aspects of social networking taking over our lives, there is a renewed emphasis on how gaming facilitates sociability.
One obvious area in which we see this unfolding in the marketplace is in the so-called “social shopping” phenomenon, a term used to describe how e-commerce sites work to increasingly mimic the real-world sociability inherent in shopping by involving people’s friends in the experience. Who needs malls anymore (I say only somewhat facetiously) when you have companies such as Groupon or Living Social mimicking those real-world interactions for you?


#2 – “Gamifying” Real-Life Experiences

foursquare wallace articleGoing to school today? How about to the dentist for a check-up? Did you and your friends meet for coffee at your favorite cafe?

Well, I sure hope you didn’t forget to check-in and tell the world about it. Who knows, perhaps you’ll one day become “mayor” of that favorite café of yours. “Checking-in” with apps such as Foursquare, Facebook Places, SCVNGR or Gowalla is the new black. It’s one prevalent way in which consumer-facing products have attempted to classify, dissect, commoditize and, thus, “gamify” our lives.

The intrinsic motivators behind these apps rely on status (“See, I checked into this cool place.”), the need for achievement and to be “someone” in this world.


#3 – Milestones & Markers: Using Game Techniques to Show Progression

new city gazette wallace articleThe best games never leave their players in a lurch. There is a constant feedback loop that is based on the very building blocks of communication, namely the old stimulus “response” feedback  model of exchanging thoughts, ideas and emotions.

The first wave of social gaming companies such as Zynga and Playdom have mastered how to leverage this feedback loop – both within their games and also as part of wider initiatives to move players along a continuum of fortifying a deeper relationship with their products and brands. Often this boils down to finding ways to encourage users to initiate a variety of proactive actions (such as “Liking” a product page, giving up one’s email address, etc.) all for the greater good of boosting numbers of a given application and giving a company greater access to you and your personal data.

For instance, most social games have a “status” bar at the top, which shows users how they can become “qualified” or “expert” users. Usually, a user must complete four or five steps in order to gain this “special” status and, often, acquire some kind of reward at the end. A touch manipulative? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.


#4 – Appealing to People’s Need to Achieve Status & Success

twitter wallce articleBeing a classic “achiever” in terms of my own gaming habits, I have already touched on this throughout this essay. Increasingly, we see techniques applied to a variety of industry sectors to foster a user’s sense of status or achievement.

For example, LinkedIn gives users a percentage complete rating to encourage them to fill out their user profiles. This taps into some people’s underlying need for completion, perfection, achievement. After all, who wants to be stuck with an online profile that is only 40% complete? That won’t do at all! Badges and trophies, when implemented properly, are another way to invoke these aspirational elements to encourage a user’s participation or behavior.


#5 – Points, Virtual Currency and Rewards

jetblue wallace articleThese days it seems that everything we do in the online world has some kind of points or virtual currency structure attached to it. Booking a reservation on OpenTable? Get 100 points towards a dining certificate. Signing up for a JetBlue Awards Card? Get 5,000 points towards your next flight.

These kinds of incentives, based on time or money invested or some other kind of desired consumer actions, are sprouting up everywhere these days. Just because United Airlines grants a customer frequent flyer points does not mean that this program is a game. However, the use of points in this way does tap into how virtual economies are leveraged in gaming.


#6 – Using Scarcity to Force Choices and Create Demand

gilt wallace articleIn their seminal work, “Rules of Play”, Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen define games as a “system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” One way in which this “artificial

conflict” is relevant in terms of common practices around gamification is in the creation of scarcity.

For example, the luxury brand online retailer Gilt Group has mastered using scarcity to attract and monetize their community. By announcing sales at scheduled times throughout the day for a very limited number of items, thousands of shoppers every day are forced to make instant choices about whether to purchase an item now before it inevitably sells out. I’ve had countless friends who use Gilt Group tell me that they often purchase things they never would in stores were it not for this added pressure that the item will be gone, often in minutes, once a sale opens up on the site. Is it “fun” being faced with this scarcity and dealing with the conflict of beating others to the checkout page on Gilt? No, but it is darn compelling and effective at driving sales and engagement. Now that’s gamification.


#7 – Visual Design: Using Game-Like Iconography in Non-Gaming Products

ups wallace articleJust as films have often adapted visual styles that are often reminiscent of traditional console games, I’m increasingly seeing more “gamified” visual designs for products, websites and services – even when there is no inherent game-like functionality integrated beyond look-and-feel.

For example, the new homepage for the UPS “Logistics” campaign uses a very game-like iconography to communicate the various aspects of this program. Each person pictured on the homepage is “holding” what looks like traditional game badges, used here to symbolize different parts of the marketing campaign. Perhaps this stylized iconography is the first step for UPS to add more game-like elements to its services. Regardless, the visual design is definitely influenced by what we see in gaming all the time.
#8 – Merging of Traditional Media with Gaming Elements

gowalla wallace articleTraditional media have been among the first to really get how gamification applies to their brands and properties. For years, we’ve seen how films have adopted many game-like elements in terms of pacing, context and storytelling. Film has been “gamified” years ago, whether you’re talking about The Matrix or Spider-Man film series. One only needs to have played World of Warcraft for ten minutes to note how much of a direct inspiration that game serves for a film like “Avatar”.

The merging of “old media” with these new forms is stronger than ever and shows no signs of stopping. For instance, consider the recent partnership between Disney Theme Parks and Gowalla. Visitors to the Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort can collect badges as they check in at various locations around these themes parks.  Visitors who use this Disney Passport on Gowalla will be hooked into a stream that updates visitors on what’s happening around the park and also give them the opportunity to experience the various attractions the resorts have to offer.


What’s it All About?

Surely, these examples are just the beginning of where we’re heading with gamification. I will leave it to the critics (and I’ll be among them at various times) to keep exposing how these techniques can be misused and misappropriated. What gamification really provides us with is a filter – one more way to help humans render the intangible more tangible. In the end, that’s not such a bad thing. To view Margaret’s full presentation please go to The Gamification of Everything?


Margaret Wallace has been a leader in the field of casual and social games markets. She is currently CEO of Playmatics building highly engaging games and applications on the Internet, in social media networks, and on a variety of connected gaming platforms.Prior that Playmatics she was CEO of Rebel Monkey. Over the course of her career she has worked at Shockwave, P.F Magic, and Mindscape to name a few. She is a frequent speaker on emerging trends in social gaming, virtual goods, and game mechanics.

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