Gamification for Sustainable Engagement

We’re halfway through 2011 and the buzzword ‘gamification’ hasn’t gone away within the marketing world. In fact, it’s only building more interest and curiosity around the world. Angry Birds now boasts over 200 million downloads, not including real-life reenactments sponsored by T-Mobile .

Marketers want to know how to get a share of that precious consumer time that gets buried away in gaming. So let’s take a moment to scratch beneath the surface to see what’s really driving this movement of gamification.

While it probably only takes you five minutes to read this column, I highly encourage you to take 25 minutes to watch this video called “Why the Future of Work is Play”. Aaron Dignan, the author of Game Frame, elaborates with colour and clarity on the power of games and how to harness it for a much wider scope than just video games and loyalty schemes. In just 30 minutes, you can accelerate your gamification knowledge from novice to semi-expert. I’ll highlight some key points to get you started.

PSFK CONFERENCE NYC 2011: Aaron Dignan from Piers Fawkes on Vimeo.

Understanding the drivers behind why we play games and why we give sustained engagement to games can lead us to wider implications for marketing. Let’s examine two key points that will help us place gamification in a more useful context in our work:

1. Games aren’t just about fun. Simply put, games are a clear set of challenges and rewards that keep you motivated. But games are not always fun.

One of the great points that Aaron Dignan mentions is that people crave structured experiences and games perfectly fulfill that need. In life, most situations are very unstructured, which leads to a lack of motivation. If there is no clear and immediate feedback on performance or reward, we don’t know why we’re doing it.

For example, let’s see if my own column stacks up to the test:

  • Why are you reading this column?
  • Will you learn something from it?
  • Will you know if you successfully learned it?
  • What will you do next to improve upon what you learned?

(If you’re uncertain about any one of these questions, you’re likely in an unstructured experience, and you’re one step closer to boredom. Don’t worry, I’m not offended. It proves the point.)

Games are built on a tightly structured cyclical framework of challenge, feedback, improvement, and reward. Engaging in this cycle is a constant loop tapping your desire for instant satisfaction. As the challenge increases, your motivation to improve grows with your desire for more reward. You clearly know when you fail and when you succeed.

In a marketing context, the age-old example is the airline mileage scheme. Flying gets you points and more points gets you gold class privileges, and eventually you get some free flights. The process isn’t necessarily fun, but the motivations and rewards are aligned and measured to keep people playing.

2. Finding a sustainable flow. Finding the right balance between challenge and skill is what gamification experts call The State of Flow and it’s the essential element to keeping people engaged and interested in your game mechanism.

For example, if you’ve never played basketball and you play in a game against NBA players, you’re going to feel discouraged. Likewise, if you’re quite good at basketball and you play against beginners, you’ll feel unmotivated.

However, if you play against equal competition that keeps you motivated to practice and satisfied if you win, then you’re likely going to continue to play.

Marketers trying to use gamification to their advantage must understand that the right balance for flow is dependent upon maintaining the motivations to improve their skills. The game mechanism doesn’t last long without this incentive for the player to improve himself.

The Current State of Gamification Marketing

Not having the right motivations for skill building is where most gamification marketing attempts go wrong.

Lucky draw prize mechanisms (based purely on luck) completely forego the element of skill to determine the player’s success. It’s no surprise that these don’t draw much engagement from users.

Location-based games like Foursquare or Jiepang have an element of skill but insufficient rewards to motivate the improvement of those skills. Over time, the fun in collecting badges wears off if there is no escalation of reward and challenge.

We’re still in the early stages of gamification marketing and it won’t always be reliant on points and badges to do the heavy lifting for engagement. Brands will use gamification to align their brand or product benefit with the customer skill they wish to develop. Social media integration will add in an element of peer competition as motivation. We’ve seen this work once already with Nike+ to create better runners.

Aaron Dignan says, “Play is nature’s learning engine. When you break it down, it’s the act of deploying scientific method on the world around you, innately. It’s part of your basic instinct.”

When marketers shift from using games to sell more products to using games to help people learn new skills, we’ll start to see the real power of gamification marketing shine through. And hopefully we’ll have some fun along the way.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.