Work or Play? How Gamification Strategy Is Changing Business
Creativity Marketing Transformation

Work or Play? How Gamification Strategy Is Changing Business

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Here is a choice:

A. Read a long scientific paper on intracellular toxins and antibiotic tolerance.

B. Read the following: “Some bacteria arrest their own growth to persist thru antibiotic attack.”

The first is featured in the print edition of Science Magazine, with 129K subscribers; the second is from the magazine’s Twitter feed, with 388K followers.

It’s no wonder that attention spans are shrinking. The National Center for Biotechnology Information has shown a decrease of one third (from 12 seconds to 8 seconds) between 2000 and 2013—a statistic that runs parallel with the widespread adoption of digital networked technologies. Every hour, the average person switches between digital devices anywhere from 3 to 21 times and checks their email inbox 30 times.

Businesses, particularly in the publishing, news, and information domains, are fighting this trend with strategies ranging anywhere from eye-catching graphics, to integrated multimedia, to new content delivery platforms. But when it comes down to Forbes versus Facebook or Candy Crush versus CNN, it seems to be a losing battle.

Understanding Gamification

Here is another choice:

a. Clean up after a hurricane.

b. Play Minecraft.

Again, an obvious decision—one that an app called Repair the Rockaways took full advantage of. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a monetized game similar to Minecraft brought thousands of users together in the reconstruction effort. Players could buy bricks to build houses in a virtual environment modeled after a seaside neighborhood in Queens, with 100 percent of the money raised going to real-life communities in need.

This is an example of a trend called “gamification,” a general term that refers to the use of game strategy, incentives, and mechanics to engage users, solve problems, and create value. Interestingly, this methodology can be applied to a host of problems. “It is the mechanics of a game—not the theme—that make it fun,” says Gabe Zichermann, a leader in developing gamification theory. The implication is that games can be hiding in unlikely places, even those that may seem impossibly tedious or boring. Zichermann points out that some of the top games in recent years have asked users to manage a farm, coordinate air traffic control, change diapers, and even maintain leaky sewers. In other words, the topic doesn’t really matter. If the game mechanics are compelling, people will play—and even get hooked.

Making Work More Like Play

As digital systems enter almost every daily activity via smartphones, tablets, vehicles, and businesses, things that are ordinarily thought of as “work” may become fun. More specifically, a broad spectrum of user activity can be gamified to show valuable results in the real world, effectively tapping into a vast body of human time, effort, and thinking.

The human psyche seems hardwired with a competitive drive for gaming. Furthermore, in a gaming context, people act predictably and productively—behavior that lends itself to business. Successful examples have emerged recently in start-ups (a language pronunciation coach), big corporations (Coca-Cola’s gamified vending machines and Shake It Up! app), and the military (which uses a recruitment tool called Virtual Army Experience).

The concept of gamification has experienced explosive popularity since the term began making headlines in 2011, and businesses have been eager to jump on the trend. The production of gamified tools, services, and applications has become an industry in its own right, with an overall market projected at $5.5 billion by 2018.

Badges, points, logos, tokens – today

The Importance of Strategy in Gamification

Gamification strategy is not, however, a cure-all. As games are developed and tested across a wide breadth of applications, their effectiveness is far from assured. There is extraordinary potential, but many examples fall flat for a variety of reasons—such as the target audience simply not caring—and the status quo persists unchanged. Technology research firm Gartner conducted a comprehensive study of gamification across sectors. “Eighty percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business requirements,” projected chief analyst Brian Burke, “primarily due to poor design.”

That final clause is the crux: game design is important. This is something that Zynga’s engineers understand better than anyone (remember, this is the team that got 80 million users eagerly paying to manage a farm). With the gamification hype, too many businesses expected miracles to happen after they introduced simple points and badges. “Your problems of customer engagement will not be magically fixed just by throwing a game on top of what you’ve got,” writes Zichermann. “It’s important the organization develops expertise in engagement science.” The game construction and mechanics are crucially important; they have to be well suited to the audience, the goal, and community dynamics, plus promote collaboration within a balanced game economy. People have to get hooked.

How to Achieve Your Marketing Goals Through Gamification

Perhaps the most crucial element is sociability. More than material or monetary rewards, people are motivated by connection and status in a network. And when it comes to business applications, that may mean that the brand is invisible.

The most vibrant and engaged communities coalesce on platforms that are comfortable and stimulating, not ones that are plugging products at every turn. Gamification strategy only works if people are having fun or if they are challenged, not if they feel like they are trapped in front of an advertisement. In today’s media-saturated world, we are building an immunity to overt advertising, and we are seeking meaningful engagement with friends and communities. What that means for gamification is that any agenda must fade into the background.

It’s the difference between Delta Airlines’ CloudGazer, a Web app where users literally compete for the title of “most bored person in the world” by clicking on passing clouds in hopes of winning a ticket, and Nike+, one of the most successful gamification campaigns to date. With Nike’s platform, users can record, track, and share their fitness goals and activity with friends and social networks. “One of the things that Nike+ does right is to focus on enabling the users to achieve their fitness goals, rather than Nike’s goals, which is a key characteristic of gamification done right,” Burke writes. A convenient byproduct is that 28 million users are exposed to Nike’s brand.

Gamification can be a potent business strategy, particularly in an era when attention spans are shrinking and traditional branding has reached a saturation point. Games can unlock the potential of human competitiveness, ingenuity, and vibrant participation—possibilities that are deeply embedded in networked digital platforms. However, only the best of game architecture can ignite a spark of sociability. Smart design, applied to the right problems, can bring out the power of play and introduce new ways of engaging with users—and most importantly, letting users engage with each other.

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