The days of Atari and Pac-Man are long gone. Modern day video games use sophisticated psychology and neurochemistry to determine what motivates players and keep them coming back for more. Now other businesses are borrowing a page from the video gaming playbook and engineering gaming methods and design concepts into everything from consumer apps to employee programs.
“Gamification is hot right now,” says Thomas Hsu, social collaboration and gamification expert at Accenture. “We’re in the golden age of scientific and neurological research. We understand the psychology, self-determination theory and intrinsic motivators that drive behavior change.”
While games have been around for thousands of years, gamification is still in its infancy. The term gained traction in the mainstream vernacular around 2011. Ubiquitous mobile devices, wireless technology, wearables, sensors, big data and cloud computing have made gamification affordable and scalable in recent years.
Games v gamification
Like any new trend, there is some dispute over what it all means. Many people conflate games and gamification, but they are two very different things, said Brian Burke, research vice president at Gartner and author of Gamify. The primary model of games is to entertain. Gamification seeks to motivate people to change behaviors, develop new skills or engage in innovation, he says.
“Gamification is not a magic elixir,” says Burke. “It can only be successful in helping people to achieve their own goals, and when individual goals are aligned with organizational goals, everyone wins.”
Multiple examples of gamified applications exist in enterprises, including simulations for training purposes and scenario planning. Companies such as Nike use data and gamification to help employees run through possible scenarios for future casting. Compared with traditional methods, games can be a great way to model the future by showing relationships and interdependency between variables, says Gabe Zichermann, author of The Gamification Revolution and chair of GSummit, a popular gamification conference being held this week in San Francisco. He also gives the example of an internal gamified program at Google that helps employees lower travel costs.
External examples include the Recyclebank app, which gives points for recycling and EVOKE, an award-winning game that gives players missions to help solve problems related to human rights and climate change. The game was commissioned by the World Bank Institute and created by Jane McGonigal, director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future and author of Reality Is Broken.
On the consumer side, hybrid and electrified vehicles like those of Toyota and Ford use car dashboards to gamify driving, showing drivers when they’re using gasoline or charging the battery. Ford connects cars to its MyFord Mobile app that lets drivers search for charging stations, compete with other drivers for badges like top Braking Expert or Gas Sipper, and manage what time of day the plug-in charges on the grid.
To be effective, gamification must put players’ interests first, says Kevin Werbach, associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who teaches gamification courses and co-authored For the Win. Elements such as reward points, achievements and badges don’t automatically mean sustained engagement, he adds. It comes down to motivation. “Gamification can activate a variety of psychological triggers that motivate employees, including the desire for mastery, autonomy, meaning, social comparison, and completion,” Werbach explains.
Players want immediate real-time feedback and businesses must learn how to create this, says Erik Johnston associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Public Affairs. He points out that negative feedback is better than no feedback because people want to know that someone is paying attention to them.
Besides competition and co-operation, another important gaming mechanic is leveling up. To level up is to increasingly advance the participation required by adding bigger challenges. If a level is too easy or too difficult, people will stop playing, Johnston explains.
Zichermann says that it’s vital to allow players to make mistakes because mistakes help people learn what not to do and show them other possible outcomes. “It’s important to let people break things and put them back together again,” he says. “Imagine never being able to take apart your Lego models as a kid.”
Previously, Burke predicted that this year some 80% of current gamified applications would fail to meet business objectives, mainly due to poor design. While he believes his prediction is on track, he also says organizations are “clearly turning a corner” and he expects “more consistent successes in the future.”
But Werbach says, “I have no doubt we’ll continue to see shallow and misguided attempts at gamification by those who underestimate the effort and time involved in getting it right.”
Some games may have limited lifetimes, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Burke explains. He gives the example of BBVA, the Spanish bank that integrated an online game into its online banking services. Customers got points for using the bank website to check balances and make transfers. The game’s goal was to motivate customers to use online banking more and branch services less. Whether or not customers continue to play doesn’t matter to the bank; the goal has been achieved.
All games all the time
Gamification is not without controversy. Some worry it may be used to manipulate or exploit people. Organizations that try to make menial tasks fun “will ultimately fail to engage their target audience,” says Burke.
Limited studies exist on its effectiveness on women and older people. “We’re still fairly early in developing an understanding of best practices for gamification based on actual data and empirical research,” says Werbach.
Some are concerned that the lines between real life and gaming may go too far. Johnston warns his students about a world saturated by gamification as shown in this video.
Zichermann believes it’s time to lighten up. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near peak fun yet – maximum fun,” he says. “There’s a lot of potential and opportunity to make the world more fun.”