Gamification, Uncategorized

Learning to love gamification

July 2011

After nearly 3 years working on a large scale gamification project, Rick Gibson shares his thoughts on this widespread trend.

To find an example of how deeply games are influencing our culture, look no further than gamification, which is rapidly spreading into multiple, highly disparate industries. Gamification is being used to persuade us to watch more television, drink more coffee, brush our teeth more frequently, join the army, even educate our kids more effectively. Is there a real market there or is it just hype?


Surely the clumsiest and least appropriate of recently minted industry words is gamification, which doesn’t describe the actual practice. Gamification is patently not about turning something non-games related into an entire game – that’s the domain of Serious Games (and, as I’ll argue, its fatal flaw). Gamification cherry-picks discrete elements of games – gameplay mechanisms, community-building principles, marketing methods, analytics – and applies them outside of games.


This vibrant new sub-sector of games would not exist without the disciplined genius of designers, who have defined the market to date and loudly debate extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, the evils and impending doom of pointsification (snap), and the proper / improper use of games design. This noisy debate sometimes looks equally about ownership as design principles, perhaps the consequence of gamification slipping from the control of designers (who are essential for gamification to be compelling) and into the hands of the marketers (who are arguably essential for gamification to spread far and wide). The marketers are best characterised by gamification companies like Bunchball and Bigdoor, around a score of whom have sold white label gamification layers to blue chip giants like FMCG and food manufacturers, TV and mobile networks.


While the marketers can be accused of short-termism, rinsing and repeating off-the-shelf systems based on points, rewards and leaderboards, they have introduced disciplines essential for the growth and commercial success of gamification. They’ve taken tips from casual games communities, which have evolved highly sophisticated marketing methodology and incubated huge games communities targeting specific demographics. They have learned from social network gaming, utilising social graphs, iterative development and virtual goods. The best embed the analytics that underpin many online games to ensure they deliver stuff audiences actually use.


This magpie-like approach is one reason why gamification is not simply the latest incarnation of the serious games industry, which typically builds whole games (engines, art, physics, the whole shooting match) for non-entertainment purposes. Serious games have failed when bolted onto completely inappropriate subject matter. No worse example is the UK Department of Transport’s ill-judged $4m bet on a fully-loaded fantasy MMORPG designed to encourage – pause for comic effect – crossing the road safely. That car crash was predictable.


The other crucial difference is that gamification can scale when, arguably, most Serious Games cannot. Serious Games have been about to boom for decades but, excluding brain training, fitness games and some military applications, most have not progressed from academic case studies with a few thousand users to large scale usage. The ‘whole game’ approach with its roots in boxed product development may be to blame. When pitching entire, substantial games on single subjects to non-games clients like governments, serious games companies are effectively asking deeply risk-averse organisations to bet on potentially short-term hits as if they were risk-aware games publishers. With apparently few willing to repeatedly fund such punts, this has resulted in a consistently low-value market. Gamification has reached much larger numbers of players and companies faster and with more tangible results. Tell broadcasters that gamification has increased viewing figures by 40%, e-commerce websites that it has reduced friction in the acquisition funnel by 90% or driven up user registrations on community sites by millions for fairly modest expenditure, and clients have proven more likely to pay up.


But beware analysts telling you that gamification is worth $XXXm. These are simply guesses based not on hard data but instead on hyped-up sales projections of the aforementioned marketers. See our recent tweets on the subject but no-one will ever scale this market accurately because it is impossible to track so many different industries trying gamification.


Nevertheless, gamification has demonstrated that it can scale, and generate substantial value. As gamification appears on every device (i.e. FourSquare on mobile), the mother load of all gamification projects could finally arrive – education. To date governments have failed to use children’s favourite entertainment mechanism for teaching, but the gamification of an entire school’s syllabus has taken place in New York, funded by the state, with fascinating results. Games designers, who are fundamentally tutors as well as entertainers, could yet play an even more central role in our culture.


[Rick Gibson is a director at Games Investor Consulting, which provides strategy and research consulting services for games, media and finance companies, plus commercial check-ups and online game optimisation for studios.]


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