Gamification Overview: In On The Game
Gamification is everywhere these days, the energy source lurking at the core of many a marketing campaign.
I’ve got more Badgeville Badges than a Girl Guide, uploaded my daily 26-mile run onto Nike+, and I’m Four Square mayor of YOUR FACE. Ahem. Sorry. Gamification is everywhere these days and it really brings out my competitive side. Everyone – from global brands and environmental campaign groups to employers and research scientists – has been borrowing tricks from game developers in order to hook consumers and increase engagement and, by Jove, it seems to be working.
At first glance, the term gamification (first coined in the mid-noughties) is pretty straightforward. It’s the act of turning an activity into a game. It can apply to employers raising productivity by making mundane work tasks fun, marketers trying to encourage brand interaction, aspiring fitness fanatics looking for motivation and more. But the precise definition of gamification is the subject of some debate, with purists arguing that a project must fulfil certain criteria (such as the possibility of failure) before it can truly be considered gamification. However, some of the most commonly cited examples, like Four Square, don’t really fit the most stringent definition.
Jani Cortesini, senior strategist at creative agency Inferno, can see merits in both sides of the argument and feels that the key to a good gamification project is that it focuses on providing an engaging experience.
“There’s the game designer camp versus marketing or motivational psychology. Game designers would argue that points and leader boards don’t necessarily make something a game. It’s just motivational psychology, and a good user-designer will be aware of that. If you look at the classic example of having a points system in a school room, you could say that my teacher was a genius of gamification. But on the other hand, game designers are moving beyond points and leader boards by adding meaning and creating an immersive, emotional experience.”
According to Cortesini, this experience depends on three key ingredients – progressively difficult goals, clear feedback and a layer of meaning or story. “It doesn’t have to be War and Peace. Angry Birds is not terribly complex but it has got a nice little narrative.”
However Ben Jones, European head of technology at AKQA, is less convinced that gamification is any more than a new word for a phenomenon that’s existed for quite some time already. “I don’t think the concept has evolved as much as the fact that its awareness and use has simply expanded,” he argues. “Did Sainsbury’s know that they were using ‘gamification’ to drive the adoption of Nectar into the consumers’ shopping behaviour? Probably not. However, loyalty systems are based upon a key element of gamification: points. Gamification has always been here; we are just finding more uses for the key pillars.”
Engaging to increase engagement
Like so many elements of the digital toolkit, from ye olde viral (how quaint) to interactive, real-time stunts, gamification is about giving the consumer something they will value, creating an experience in order to increase engagement. However gamification can, in the right context, go beyond the simple goal of entertaining consumers and pushing a brand on a digital platform. Creative agency pd3 used the principles of gamification to improve the recruitment of retail staff for mobile phone outlet Phones 4u. It found that the online application system had a poor completion rate and failed to filter out low-quality candidates. To shake things up, pd3 decided to ditch the traditional experience-based questions and instead built an elaborate game about plane-crash survivors on a desert island. The game presented players with a series of tricky decision-making tasks – and allowed recruiters to identify quick thinkers with good problem-solving skills more effectively.
Beyond the realms of advertising, gamification is even contributing to the fight against diseases like Alzheimer’s and HIV. Foldit is a gamification project that invites players with no scientific background to design protein molecule shapes. The hope is that by crowd-sourcing human problem-solving abilities and flexible thinking instead of using time-consuming, inflexible computerised methods, scientists should be able to identify potential new cures.
Though the term gamification has been around since the mid-2000s, the concept seems to be enjoying a moment in the sun. Part of its success is due to evolving attitudes towards gaming – thanks to Nintendo’s pioneering work with the Wii and DS Lite as well as the growing penetration of smartphones and apps, gaming is no longer seen as a niche inhabited by socially awkward male teenagers.
Andy Cook is an analyst at Collective London and he reckons that geek culture has gone mainstream, broadening the demographics available to advertisers hoping to increase online engagement. “It’s partly to do with the onset of technology. Until recently not many people had smartphones and now they occupy more than 50 per cent of the market for new phones. Everyone’s always connected now. If you go on a bus or train anywhere in the world, from India to South America, you will see people gaming on their phones. It’s not that gaming has lost that geeky element, it’s that people are more accepting of geekiness.”
Ben Jones at AKQA agrees that while gamification may hold more obvious appeal to younger consumers, carefully developed projects can also be an effective means of engaging older users. “Take the Department of Work and Pensions’ recent example of the Idea Street, where they implemented a social platform with points and leader boards. This generated innovative ideas from the local community, rather than the ideas being defined by the government or at best the local government. Within 18 months, it had generated 1,500 ideas, of which 60 had gone on to be implemented.”
That’s not to say that gamification is a one-size-fits-all approach. Different audiences may play in different ways, and while some sectors, such as teenage males, may enjoy boasting about achievements and may relish aggressive competition, older users may respond more positively to competition which is framed in more supportive terms. A case in point – FarmVille. Who would have predicted that the most enthusiastic adopters of social gaming would have been middle-aged females?
What’s more, not only has gamification proven itself to be a flexible tool capable of reaching a surprisingly broad range of people, it’s also been an enduring concept that shows no signs of fading away. So why has it ignited our interest where other innovations have simply fizzled out? Alice Driscoll of pd3 reckons that, unlike other developments in recent years, the fact that the mechanics of gamification are underpinned by psychological principles makes it easy and intuitive to engage with. “What I love about gamification is that it’s simple to understand. With something like augmented reality you thought: ‘it’s cool – but what do you do with it?’ There was a plethora of awful campaigns using AR just for the sake of it. Everyone wanted to love it but no one really knew how to make the most of it.”
The evolution of play
In contrast, gamification is effortlessly engaging, tapping into innate human behaviours. For one thing, it seems that we have evolved to play. In his ground-breaking book, The Naked Ape, zoologist Desmond Morris noted that adult human beings are unique in the animal kingdom for their playfulness. “The naked ape, even as an adult, is a playful ape,” writes Morris. “It is all part of his exploratory nature. He is constantly pushing things to their limit, trying to startle himself, to shock himself without getting hurt, and then signalling his relief with peals of infectious laughter.” Is it any wonder then, that gamification has proven so effective? We just can’t help having a go.
Our intrinsic curiosity explains why people are quite happy to play about with a gamification app once or twice, but it is striking that the most successful platforms can foster sustained engagement that lasts years. They owe their longevity to primal behavioural mechanisms, evolved over millennia. Back in the 1960s, renowned American psychologist B.F. Skinner showed that behaviours could be conditioned using carefully planned reward schedules. And, though we might like to think of ourselves as free-willed sophisticates, these principles hold as true for humans as they do for the rats and pigeons that Skinner worked with. With applications such as Four Square and Badgeville, the possible achievements are constantly updated – it’s the novelty and surprise that renders attainment pleasurable – and the game is structured in such a way that these rewards are doled out frequently. In other words, the more we’re rewarded for playing, the more we play to be rewarded.
These fairly hefty academic theories have yielded some simple tricks that can turn a temporarily diverting game into an enduring experience that players keep returning to. For example, rewards should be frequently updated and generally shouldn’t be kept secret. The temptation might be to surprise players but people prefer to know what they’re playing for. When it comes to leaderboards, displaying the scores of the top five players in the world is only going to serve as a disincentive. What’s the point in continuing to play when presented with an unsurmountable gap between you and the prodigies? Instead, make sure the leaderboard is always centred around the player, showing their score and the scores of players immediately above and below them. You might never be the best in the world, but hey, a few more points and you might beat the guy next to you…
Of course, while there are certain universal laws that can be applied to gamification, we’re (hopefully) more than identikit game-o-bots. A well-designed project can make use of these general rules while still accounting for individual differences. This is particularly the case when it comes to sustaining attention. Badgeville’s senior game designer, Tony Ventrice, says that asking how long it takes interest to wane “is like asking how long it takes someone to get bored with a new car”. All users play at different rates, so some users reach the end of content much quicker than others, he explains. “Attention is modelled exponentially, so effort-to-content scales up over time. We typically review customer programs monthly and quarterly to discuss when additional missions, rewards and game mechanics should be added to increase engagement.”
Playing the player
Despite being underpinned by these universal principles, gamification is not necessarily universally appropriate for all brands. Driscoll proffers the example of Air Miles – a longstanding scheme that involves some gamification elements without being true gamification. “As a brand it would be wrong to try and turn the reward scheme into a full-on game with characters and emotions. It has got levels and rewards, and people do keep an eye on their progress, but that audience wouldn’t expect a game. Air Miles doesn’t have a problem getting people to engage, so there would be no point in forcing it.”
Unsurprisingly, gamification has attracted a fair few bandwagon-jumpers. Adena DeMonte, marketing director at Badgeville, warns against inappropriate or poorly thought-out projects. “Gamification, in its worst form, takes a few game mechanics, such as a leaderboard and points for basic behaviour, and plops them on a site. It’s easy to do this, but it’s not a quality example of gamification. You can easily upset your audience and create a more negative experience than the one you started out with.”
For now gamification has proven itself to be an approach which, when used appropriately, can really increase engagement. What’s more, having been in vogue for a couple of years, it’s an approach that has proved its staying power. There may be some conceptual debates to be resolved but, ultimately, does it really matter if something as useful and usable as Nike+ is ‘true’ gamification or simply an app that borrows a few tools from gamification? The point is that its an approach that seems to be working.
Play is a serious business
As gamification enters this period of consolidation and maturity, there is a range of ideas about how the approach will develop. Adena DeMonte at Badgeville predicts that it will continue to grow as businesses discover new uses for this playful technology, not only in terms of marketing but also productivity and education. “Today, we’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the opportunities that are available to gamification in order to revolutionise business. Game mechanics, reputation mechanics and social mechanics will become ubiquitous with our digital experiences in our personal and professional lives. Few ‘users’ of gamification will stop and think: ‘I’m participating in a gamified experience,’ but they will engage more and as businesses see positive results, they will invest in adding these techniques to other areas of their business, specifically focusing on tying these programs together across all of their digital touchpoints.”
Others are less convinced that gamification as a concept has much longevity. Rather, the various tools and tricks that fall under the gamification banner have proven themselves to be effective and are likely to remain handy components in the strategic utility belt, but as these principles are applied more flexibly and creatively, the word ‘gamification’ may fall out of use.
“Gamification is nothing new,” says AKQA’s Jones. “In fact, it has become a cliché term. It’s like how ‘web services’ became the new thing back in the noughties, as Microsoft invested a tonne of marketing spend on driving the term into the industry. Yet, again, that wasn’t a new phenomenon. Gamification is an approach that anyone and everyone should consider when offering a service, or utility to the consumer if high levels of engagement and long-term users are desired. It’s about driving addiction to what the consumer is engaging with. It’s about awareness and broadcasting status and achievements. It’s about dangling carrots in front of the consumer and engaging with human instincts, to compete. It’s about intrigue and what is next.”
But for now the challenge for creatives and strategists is to play around with these principles, refine their understanding and find increasingly inventive means of using these clever tricks – or as Cortesini puts it: “Gamifying has become a game itself. Once you’ve figured out one mechanic, you move on to the next.”