If you ever need an example of how deeply games are influencing our culture, look no further than gamification, which has rapidly spread into multiple, highly disparate industries. Each week new counter-intuitive examples of game elements crop up. 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.
Of all the new words coined by our industry, surely the clumsiest and least appropriate 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 genius, method and discipline of games designers, who have defined the market to date and dominated the industry’s airwaves with debates about extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, the evils and impending doom of pointsification (snap), and the proper / improper use of games design. This noisy debate could be as much about ownership as it is solid game design principles, the natural 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 gamification based on points, rewards and leaderboards, they have introduced other disciplines essential for the growth and commercial success of gamification. They have taken tips from casual games communities, which have evolved highly sophisticated marketing methodology and incubated huge games communities targeting specific demographics. They have lifted pages from the social network games handbook, utilising social graph marketing, iterative development and virtual goods exploitation. The best embed in their systems 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. Apart from risking extracting all the fun, serious games can fail when whole games are built from completely inappropriate subject matter. No worse example is the UK Department of Transport’s ill-judged £2.7m bet on a fully-loaded fantasy MMORPG designed to encourage – pause for comic effect – crossing the road safely. You can guess the car crash that happened.
The other crucial difference is that gamification can scale when, arguably, Serious Games cannot. Serious Games have been about to boom for decades but, excluding some military applications, have mostly not progressed from academic case studies with thousands of users to large scale projects. The ‘whole game’ approach with roots in boxed product development may be to blame. When pitching whole, substantial games on single subjects to non-games finance sources 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 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 open their wallets.
But beware analysts telling you that gamification is worth $XXXm because they are simply guesses based on little actual data but rather the 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 it rolls onto every device, perhaps the mother load of all gamification projects is just around the corner – education. To date government has failed to take advantage of our 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 really take gaming to the heart of our culture.