Marketers Should Know the Rules Before They Get in the Game

'Gamification' Is a Great Fit for Some Brands, but It's not the Answer for Everything

By Published on .

Steve Curran
Steve Curran
One of my favorite Woody Allen's quotes comes to mind when I think about what's missing in a lot of discussions about "gamification": "Is sex dirty? Only when it's done right."

One of the hottest areas of marketing these days is "gamification." Marketers, inspired by the rise of social-gaming and reward-base applications, see in games the potential for the holy grail of customer engagement and loyalty.

Gamification is a process by which the ordinary is made extraordinary, more enjoyable and engaging, positively reinforcing desired behavior through the addition of game mechanics. And in spite of the somewhat cringe-worthy neologism, the concept behind it has captured the imagination of marketers.

Recently, I was reading Jane McGonigal's excellent book "Reality Is Broken," an overview on the value of games and how game dynamics can be applied to everyday life. It got me thinking of where else I have encountered game mechanics in the past.

When I was growing up, my family and I participated in a popular massively multiplayer experience that, judging by what is being described as the litmus tests for gamification, was a very successful game. It had appointment dynamics (once a week), and a clear set of rules and goals. It encouraged social interaction and the recruitment of new players. It had a very compelling back-story. If you broke any of the rules, you would meet with a player of a higher status, and he would give you tasks to perform that would repair your standing. If you failed, the consequences were very bad, you would not want to go there, which in game theory is known as "loss aversion." Of course, there was an ultimate end goal, and in this case the payoff was awesome. If and when you finally succeeded you would earn the ultimate reward, the opportunity to meet personally with the game creator and hang out! Forever!

The experience was called "Being Catholic" and let's just say I never made it to the leader board.

My point is not confession, but rather to illustrate how slippery it can be to point to where game dynamics exist and call it a game. Or fun. Calling something with game mechanics a game does not mean it will be fun; good design is what makes a game fun.

As a founder of an interactive design firm that has been working at the intersection of games and marketing for many years, it's a welcome development to a see a sudden and hyperbolic excitement surrounding the value and effectiveness of games. Games are increasingly being embraced as tools for communication, education and marketing.

The generation that is coming of age and shaping the world of commerce, communications, and innovation is the first to have grown up with games as an important part of their everyday lives. Social platforms, mobile technology and motion-control game consoles have made gamers out of everyone. They are now part of our life, from nursery school to nursing home.

It's not surprising that marketers have caught on to the power of games. Compare the experience of games to the passive act of watching TV -- or viewing most websites for that matter. Games are active, they are social, they challenge your brain and reward your ego. This is ideal engagement for brands. But before diving in, know what they do well and what they don't.

Games are not the solution to every problem as some promise, and I am not convinced we want or need a "game layer on the world." But the potential for the application of games and game mechanics is undeniable. Games have successfully been used help people lead healthier lives, learn more effectively, participate more frequently, engage in activities for a longer period of time, and yes, even shop more loyally.

Take some recent examples:

  • The Ford Fusion has a graphical plant that "grows" as you conserve fuel, changing the way people drive.

  • MeYou Health's Daily Challenge helps thousands of players lead healthier, happier lives, one goal at a time.

  • DevHub, a site that lets users create their own blogs and web sites, adopted game techniques with impressive results. Before gamification, about 10% of users finished building their sites. Now, almost 80% of them do.

  • Since It's launch in 2007, turned educating people about poverty into a game, donating grains of rice for each right answer. To date, they have donated over 85 billion grains of rice.
All of that said, I would not want to find out my dentist is rewarded with bonus experience points in some gamification of dentistry for pulling more molars (sometimes, the status that games reward is more powerful than money). And if somebody suggests we should gamify outdoor play so kids will go outside and be active, remind them we already have: It's called sports.

Maybe some of the concerns that I have may simply come down to the name itself. The term "gamification" sounds as if you can wave a wand and badges, points and mayorships magically appear, instantly transforming your site or application into something more engaging and successful. Games are lot more complex than that. There is no generic solution. Designing them well is a custom challenge, for every audience and context.

Right now, games are hot, and most marketers want in on the action. That won't stop them from moving on to the next trend the second there are some sensational failures, and there will be. Smart companies will recognize and accept Gamification as an integral part of our culture. It's real and not going away.

People like fun, and games are fun, but only if you are doing it right.

Steve Curran is the founder and creative director of Pod Digital Design, a digital content agency located in Lexington, Mass., specializing in the development of games, branded entertainment and marketing for Facebook, web and mobile.
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