Gamification Basics: What is Gamification and How Can It Help Your Business?

nike+ as an example of gamificationNike has changed the game by creating a game. Each pair of Nike running shoes has an accelerometer that wirelessly syncs with your online Nike+ account. It tracks things like how far and fast you ran, how that compares with other runners, and it awards you virtual trophies for meeting milestones.  Most runners who engage in the Nike+ game would never think of owning another brand of running shoe. Nike has created the ultimate brand loyalty with a little thing called “gamification”.

Learning The Basics of Gamification

I love to play video games. Ever since I picked up a pong paddle way back in 1982 I was hooked. When Professor Kevin Werbach of the Warton School at University of Pennsylvania offered an online course in Gamification on Coursera, I jumped on it.

This was the first week of class, and as we go through the course I hope to publish blog posts every Friday on the main subjects we covered, both to help me develop my knowledge and to share that with you. Ultimately, I hope that readers of this blog will find ways to use the information to inject some life and engagement to their own marketing and business efforts.

Gamification is a hot topic right now in business, but so many people have the wrong idea about it. They think if you add a point system, create a few badges and reward people publicly then an exciting game has been created.

Not so much.

As we’ll learn in the next section of this post, those are just game elements. Companies may try to add them to the marketing mix to create brand loyalty, but a truly gamified effort requires more than just points and rewards.

Think back a few years ago when every business began to buy into social media. They assumed if you “added a Twitter” and “posted some Facebooks” then your customers would just eat it up. Your marketing problems would be solved! History shows otherwise.

You can’t just take the elements of social media, toss them against the wall and expect results. You need strategy, a well executed approach and quality content.

Well gamification is no different. There is an art and a science to doing it well, and as gamification becomes more imbedded into the business landscape, I predict we are going to see a lot of lame efforts emerge from all kinds of companies.

But you’re company is different right?

After all, you are reading this post. Let’s talk about how smart companies like you are going to gamify.

How to Gamify Your Business: Apply The Elements of Gamification

There are three factors that need to be present whenever you gamify something:

  1. Game elements
  2. Game design
  3. Applied to a non-game context

As we mentioned before, the devil is in the details. Execution, how well you weave these three things together, matters more than just having them present.

Let’s look at each factor in a bit more depth.

What Are Game Elements?

We’ve all played games before and can easily recognize game elements.

Think about some of the games you have played from monopoly to Angry Birds or even Halo. They all have some common elements.

There are pieces that represent you in the game, goals leading up to victory in the game and competition with other players or the game itself. Applying these elements in a fun and engaging way to non-game contexts in a well thought out design creates what we call gamification.

Game elements tend to include:

  • Avatars – represent players in the game with a profile
  • Points – keep track of how you are doing in the game
  • Scoreboards – display and recognize winners
  • Challenges – present units of play that lead to the accomplishment of quest
  • Levels – indicate the challenges completed reflected in the players status
  • Quests – present a series challenges for players to beat and levels to achieve
  • Badges – distinguish players and can be used as mini rewards throughout the game
  • Rewards – incentivize players to keep playing
  • Social graph – encourages social competition

These elements all contribute to the feeling that players are in a game with a purpose. But presenting a bunch of game elements on your corporate website does not mean you have gamified. Without a good game design all you’ve really done is jumped on the bandwagon.

What is Game Design?

Game design refers to how the elements are woven together to present a game narrative to your customers (“players”). The game narrative does not need to be some fictional story about aliens invading earth or a plumber who collects stars and magic mushrooms. Rather, the game narrative refers to the story of play: how does the player understand the game and their role in it?

Professor Werbach cited a traditional example of game design involving USA networks’ television show Psyche. To promote the show they launched a game on their website with many of the game elements mentioned above (avatars, points, challenges, rewards and leader boards, and badges).

As a marketing tool, the results from the Psyche game are impressive. Professor Werbach cited the following in his presentation:

  • Traffic to the USA network site increased 30%
  • Online sales of merchandise increased 50%
  • Page views increased 130%
  • Psyche content shared 300,000 times on Facebook reached 40 million users (very impressive branding effort considering the audience for the show is only 4 million)

The network achieved some serious marketing goals by putting together a well designed game that made sense to their core audience. They succeeded by designing chalenges that made sense to their viewers (ex/ tying tasks to things that happened in an episode of the show).

The military provides one of the oldest examples of a game design and a game narrative that works. It uses the elements of badges, rank and rewards. Soldiers start at the bottom, going through basic training, learning skills and then accomplishing various missions. Then they rise in the ranks and have the option of becoming a “hardcore player” by enlisting as a career serviceman to achieve all the rewards, levels and challenges available.

Throughout history, armies have been able to motivate soldiers to do some of the hardest tasks, protecting and killing, by offering them a well thought out structure, with missions, goals and clear paths to promotion and recognition.

Military institutions have been on the forefront of gamification since soldiers started organizing around ranks to get stuff done. By considering the way they motivate, reward and present military challenges we can begin to understand how a game narrative can be designed to solve real world problems.

How to Apply Game Elements and Design to a Non-game Context

The true hallmark of gamification is the application of game elements and design to a non-game context. We’ve already talked about this a bit above: Nike+ made a game to motivate customers to run more and by extension buy more Nike shoes, USA Networks made a game to promote their show Psyche and the military motivates soldiers and provides a clear structure using badges, levels and missions.

When applying gamification to your business think about your target customers and what you do for them. Then ask yourself the following question:

  • What is the main problem (quest) we propose to solve for our customer?
  • What are the intermediate steps (levels) they need to take in order to solve their problem, and how does our product fit into that customers’ experience (game narrative)?
  • What activities (challenges) does the customer need to engage in to solve their main problem, and can we find incentives (points) that will motivate them to act?
  • What game structure would make sense to our customers, given the character, brand and nature of our products, and how can we make that fun?

After answering these considerations for your product you should be in a better position to design a gamified approach to your marketing.

Game On: Let’s Gamify Your Business

The emergence of gamification as a serious and widespread business tool has really only taken hold in the last couple of years. As the military example above proves, however, gamification has been around for a long time. I would even argue it has existed since Creation.

Adam and Eve in Garden, Michelangelo

The Original Gamification?

I had a conversation recently with an Executive Board member from one of my clients’ companies. After explaining the rationale behind gamifying a community we are working on he asked me whether tI thought this was just a fad.

“Isn’t this just the new, hot thing right now?” he asked.

“No,” I told him. “Gamification has been around since The Garden of Eden.”

This took him by surprise. I went on to explain that God told Adam and Eve, “don’t touch this one tree and I will reward you” (they didn’t win the game in the end).

Challenge, action and reward is in our DNA. Even if you are not religiously minded, you can understand that organisms are gamified. They are challenged, compete with one another and are rewarded with survival (the Game of Life is much older and more primal than Parker Brothers would have us believe).

In my own experience, I have been applying games to a business context for years. Like many people I didn’t call it “gamification” until recently (the term was actually coined in 1980). But I have used it as a tool when building and running business communities, managing publishing teams of employees, and in classes I teach.

If you want to gamify YOUR business then click here to get in touch with me.

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  1. Gamification Basics: What is Gamification and How Can It Help Your Business? http://t.co/h7rVbMqi vía @mymedialabs #marketing

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