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Summary:

Gamification has been a buzzword for 2010, but there are many underlying issues plaguing the trend. The use of game mechanics can still have a bright future, but it needs to take the next step up. Here’s a look at what needs to happen.

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Gamification has been a buzzword for 2010, and now we’re seeing the inevitable backlash. For every company trying to add points, badges, challenges and leaderboards to their apps, websites and products, there’s a critic complaining about the trend. It’s not just haters looking to squash the next big thing; there are many underlying issues plaguing gamification, also known as funware. I still think game mechanics can be a force for good and positive outcomes for things like aiding people’s health or improving the environment, but for that to happen, gamification needs to take the next step.

Let’s first look at some of the problems facing gamification:

  • Game mechanics are being tacked on without regard to their relevance or appropriateness. The trend has spawned copycats who haven’t really thought out how they want to use gamification features. It’s like a box that’s being checked off. Just because I wrote a review on Yelp, why does that get me a badge? What’s the connection? Yes, it denotes repeated visits but the link to a badge seems tenuous.
  • Gamification proponents are assuming that points and badges are fun. Just because you apply points to an act doesn’t make it interesting or engaging. It’s what game designer Margaret Robertson called “pointsification.” She said points can denote progress, but they can often be the least interesting thing about a game.
  • Gamification is too focused on changing behaviors. Often, game mechanics are applied to get people to do something. That’s fine, and obviously the point for many companies. But many are just obvious attempts at getting users to do an act that helps a company and are not deeply engaging for users. Deals are helping soften the blow, but even those, if they’re irrelevant, just underscore that you’re not a player; you’re a pawn.
  • Gamification is seldom well-implemented overall. Some gamification attempts are aimed at attracting new users, but don’t offer engagement for experienced players or opportunities to level up. Others over-emphasize achievements or dangle singular honors like a mayorship for one act, which can turn off or intimidate less competitive users. Many attempts haven’t undergone through the serious testing that a traditional video game undergoes.

But all is not lost. Gamification can work, but it needs to do more than dole out points. It needs to get to the heart of what games are and tap into their power. Here’s what companies employing game mechanics should remember:

  • Funware needs to be fun. It’s pretty obvious, but games have to be intrinsically fun. There’s a big difference between getting points and doing something interesting. Points are the outcome, but good games focus on what you put into it and how you play. A good gamification implementation taps interesting inputs and makes that part of the fun.
  • Gamification should tap emotions and deeper motivations. Tim Chang, a partner at Norwest Venture Partners and a proponent of gamification, says game mechanics need to leverage more emotions. He said the seven deadly sins are great motivators but game mechanics only rely on a couple of them like greed or pride. Robertson says good games are also about being “interestingly hard” with the fear of failure a real motivator.
  • Game mechanics need to work with your product. A gaming mechanic needs to be in sync with a product to be powerful. A decent example is Foursquare’s partnership with Pepsi. Now, earning a “Gym Rat” badge can get you an offer for SoBe Lifewater.
  • Games need to offer choices, strategy, mastery. Right now, game mechanics are often about just collecting points or achievements with the only variable being how often you do something. But real games offer choices that produce different rewards. You can play riskier but get more rewards. That kind of strategy can also help deepen the experience. Also great games are easy to learn, difficult to master. Good uses of gamification must not only bring in new users but give more committed customers a way to grind it out and gain a sense of accomplishment. For many gamers, it’s that quest for mastery that motivates them, not their gamer score.
  • Spend time working out your gamification strategy. Companies need to spend a lot of time thinking about how they want to deploy funware. A strategy needs to make sense and identify what the company is trying to accomplish and how game mechanics done well can accomplish that. Then they need to test it out with users to make sure it resonates.

Gamification is bound to hit a wall as detractors declare it a fading trend. But there’s still a future in leveraging game mechanics. It just needs its practitioners to step up their game.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user methyl_lives.

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  1. Nice article, I completely agree with all its points. You win! Here’s your Like badge. Just one question: When is social media NOT gaming its audience?

  2. Gamification is still in it’s relative early stages. It will only take a few strong examples to show the rest of us the way.

    The movement of games out of teenagers’ bedrooms and into the lives of adults validates the promise of Gamification, even if the execution isn’t yet where it will be.

  3. Great article, it is still extremely early. We agree with a lot of things you said about it still needing to be fun and most current incarnations of gamification being too shallow. We’ve created http://gamification.org for people to discuss this and hope to help Gamification Level Up through open discussion and collaboration. :)

  4. Badgeville Adena Sunday, November 28, 2010

    Great post Ryan! I work with many of Badgeville’s clients on strategically implementing our Social Rewards & Analytics Platform, and the points raised in this article are definitely ones that we address with each of our clients.

    The truth is that in some cases, rewarding behaviors with points, badges, and reputation works. For instance, one of our early customers, The Next Web, just wrote a post on their blog about how Badgeville has helped increase registrations, time on site, and the other behaviors they wanted to encourage — (see: http://thenextweb.com/socialmedia/2010/11/23/badgeville-and-the-next-web-does-it-work/) we didn’t ask them to write this post, but it just goes to show that for some companies, these game mechanics, albeit limited game mechanics vs. what you’d find in a full-fledged game, work.

    That said, Badgeville has always considered itself a modern loyalty and rewards SaaS toolkit which includes techniques from game mechanics, social media, and community analytics. There are many other techniques we employ for user engagement, not just “gamification.” We are the first to admit there are a lot more layers to peel here and we’re still learning alongside our clients and helping them create the best loyalty program for their specific audiences.

    We are working with our early customers in publishing, retail/ecommerce, education, entertainment and other industries to continue defining how to make these techniques from game mechanics make sense and work for each specific industry and audience. Our customers so far (some are still in private beta testing) include Comcast Sports Group, Philly.com, TechCrunch, Beat the GMAT, Moxsie, SlideShare, Buzz Media, and more. We realize that each company is going to have different needs regarding how to engage their audiences, especially since we work with such diverse verticals.

    The core SaaS offering at Badgeville allows the customization and flexibility required to meet the needs of our clients — some want a full virtual gamification strategy and others want to be able to reward behaviors with tangible prizes like coupons, gifts, or discounts. The technology is here on the backend, and we work with each client to help define their customized strategy to increase user engagement. Many, if not all, of the points brought up in this article are addressed on a daily basis on our end.

    One thing that we know for certain is that without strong analytics measuring the ROI of these programs, you will struggle to build them out to their greatest potential. A key piece of Badgeville is having the analytics available to measure your community health based on the behaviors that matter to you — whether that’s reading more content, returning to the site frequently, uploading UGC, posting comments, browsing or purchasing specific items, completing tests, etc. With that data you can create the best Gamification strategy for your company as you continue to learn more about your audience. We’re here to help our companies define what that strategy would be, and are partners with them in the long run to build a unique engagement strategy for their communities. If you have any questions about Badgeville’s take on gamification and loyalty, please feel free to email me at adena@badgeville.com

  5. Gamification is as fun as managing your air miles. Hint: it’s not fun. At all.

    There are more blog posts about gamification than actual posts about companies that have game-like mechanics in their products. If you take 4sq away, who else there is? Gowalla? Aren’t they dead already? And for how long do you think 4sq will keep the “badges” thing and switch to a coupon thing in exchange of selling your personal information to retailers and then sell out to Facebook?

    Gamification was the non-story of 2010. Since it’s going to be December soon let’s kill it now please.

  6. I quite agree with all of the points – cf my recent video for TeachMeet Sunderland in the UK:

    http://www.l4l.co.uk/?p=1130

  7. The Year Even Politics Became Cursed by Gamification and Foul Play « The Bygone Bureau Tuesday, November 30, 2010

    [...] say that the worst slave masters were those who were nice to their slaves? Same with Farmville. One tech writer explains that “Gamification should tap emotions and deeper motivations.” But if the original [...]

  8. I think the issue with gamification is the word game. This creates confusion that it means you have to turn a marketing program into a game. Gamification instead is the use of gaming mechanics, essentially the psychological reward and recognition levers, to get people involved. For example we’ve been ranking performance on employee programmes for decades – creating a leader board – to ensure we create a desire to win and to outperform others, but this isn’t a game in the sense of compelling game play, but it does work to change behaviour.

  9. Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges | ZDNet Monday, December 6, 2010

    [...] lists numerous examples of sites with badges, including some of the examples listed above. A recent GigaOm post talks about how game mechanics just being tacked on to consumer experiences, with little [...]

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