One of the hottest buzzwords in social software, gamification simply means applying some of the same techniques that game designers use to engage and motivate users to other sorts of applications. For example, Spigit applies gamification principles to crowdsourcing business improvement ideas from employees. Other practical applications of gamification include solving scientific puzzles and generating product ideas.
"They all approach different problems, and they all approach them differently," observed "Gamification by Design" co-author Gabe Zichermann in an interview. That is his second book on the topic, following "Game-Based Marketing," and he is also the editor of the Gamification Blog, and organizer of the Gamification Summit held in New York in September.
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Zichermann is one of the people who has staked his career on the idea that gamification is real, and real important. He describes it as the culmination of a number of trends in gaming, the theory of "serious games," and social application design.
Most of all, gamificiation is about understanding that "if you can make something more fun, and include notions of play, you can get people to do things they otherwise might not want to do."
In other words, it's part of the science of how to manipulate people, something advertisers and politicians have been playing with for a long time--for good and for ill. In our conversation, Zichermann acknowledged the potential "dark side," but said there's no reason app developers cannot also use their powers for good.
Most Farmville players probably didn't think pretending to operate a farm would be fun until Zynga showed how to make it fun and social, he pointed out. Similarly, Foursquare was founded by some of the same people who created Dodgeball, an earlier attempt to build a business around location-based services that fizzled. One of the things Foursquare added that made it successful was a sort of game where people compete to check in more often and get recognition with badges such as mayor, Zichermann said.
Businesses have successfully applied gamification principles to achieving goals like reducing travel expenses (Google) and improving cashier checkout performance (Target). The Google example is interesting because it "actually got people talking about how to save money on travel," whereas the more traditional corporate water cooler conversation would be about how to cheat the system, Zimmerman said.
I suggested that perhaps gamification was really 90% psychology to 10% technology.
"I think it's probably more like 75% to 25%, psychology to technology," Zichermann said. Although the psychology is important to application design, applications are also becoming easier to deliver because of the availability of technologies like the Facebook social graph and enterprise social networks as the means of spreading recognition for online achievement, he said. Also, application designers can build on gamification platforms from startups like Badgeville, Big Door, and Bunchball.
"Gamification by Design" largely focuses on the psychology of engagement and ways it can be applied to business applications. The final chapter, a tutorial on using the Badgeville gamification platform was actually sponsored by Badgeville (publishers playing games with business models?), but it does have the virtue of showing how the design principles outlined in the rest of the book can be applied in practice. The book also includes a Ruby on Rails coding tutorial, using the example of how to retool an existing forums application to include gamified tracking and rewards for participation.
Gamifying an application doesn't necessarily mean adding fancy graphics and sound effects, but often it does mean keeping score and letting "players" see how they rank on a leader board--the equivalent of the high scores screen on a video game. In a business context, that might mean letting salespeople see how they rank and how close they are to achieving a goal or securing a bonus as a way of getting the competitive juices flowing.
Gamification also has its skeptics, who say it is just good application design under another name. Some of the techniques branded gamification today might have been called loyalty or stickiness in the 1990s, particularly with regard to Web retail and other consumer-facing applications.
On the other hand, in a traditional loyalty program you might award one point for every dollar a user spends. In a gamified system, you might want to instead provide variable, unpredictable reinforcement where participants can hit the jackpot. This is the design principle that keeps slot machine players glued to their chairs, even though they ought to know the house always wins.
Comparisons with classic user interface and user experience design also break down around the "core principle of simplification," which application experience designers have been preaching for years, Zichermann said. "With gamification, you're often introducing an unnecessary experience for users--just so they can challenge themselves and come out victorious."
One reason all this is important is that young people entering the workforce have been raised with computerized games as a primary form of entertainment. They expect fast-paced action and continuous incremental reinforcement, Zichermann said, "and how do you think they got that way?" If you want to capture their attention, either as consumers or employees, you must understand the way the game is played, he said.
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