The Gamification Evolution

Fire up the hype machine! “Gamification” is here!

“Gamification” is the latest buzzword being bandied about in the world of online marketing, seemingly appearing out of nowhere in 2010, then quickly attaining Next Big Thing status by the beginning of April 2011 (defying Fast Company’s declaration that it was “played out” back in November). If you haven’t heard about it, you definitely will. Whether you should believe the hype or not is a different (and somewhat complicated) story.

While there are more than a few definitions of “gamification” out there, for the most part it’s the idea of using the mechanics of gaming for non-game applications. While Foursquare has become the archetype of “gamified” services, the idea of grafting “game-like” mechanics has taken hold in everything from social shopping (such as HomeRun) to fitness (Nike+) to blogging platforms that turn commenting into a “game” by rewarding visits, comments, and other activities. Events such as the quickly-sold-out Gamification Summit 2011 and several TED Talks have served to hype the idea to pandemic proportions, so much so that Ford is building the idea into its new Fusion hybrid, which rewards hypermiling drivers by displaying a cute plant gaining or losing leaves based on the efficiency of your driving. Subsequent models are rumored to allow you to compete with your neighbors by sharing your fuel efficiency scores online.

Anyone who’s played a video game will probably recognize the features of most “gamified” applications or services. The awarding of “badges” for achievements, players ranked by “level,” public “leaderboards” showing who’s scoring the most points, feedback (progress bars, points toward next level, etc.) that lets players know how they’re doing, a point system or other virtual currency for purchasing upgrades or prizes, and the ability to challenge or talk trash with other users. The gamification movement seeks to take these kinds of common video game elements and apply them to the “real world” in an effort to incentivize customers, build loyalty, and introduce some fun into what might otherwise be mundane, everyday actions such as getting coffee, shopping, parking, and exercising).

Other fields (such as education) are experiencing a resurgence in using games (and game-like elements) to get kids excited about learning, and even seemingly non-fun industries (at least for many of us!) such as human resources and financial services are getting gamified. Surely gamification must be a “game changer,” right?

Well…it depends. Let’s take a step back from the hype first and take a closer look at where gamification came from.

If the whole idea sounds like another version of the customer loyalty programs many marketers have been using for years, you’re right: they are. If a “game” can be defined as an activity utilizing rules, challenges, interaction, and rewards, then loyalty programs such as frequent flyer clubs fit the bill perfectly. They’ve got rules (oh, have they got rules!), they’ve got challenges (“fly 1,000 miles in the next month and receive double points!”), they’ve got interaction (that’s the flying part, the collecting of miles, and the managing of your points), and they reward frequent “players” with a variety of incentives from free flights to special in-airport lounges (hidden away from the lower-level rabble) to in-flight perks like upgrades and free drinks. Frequent flyer clubs even have their own virtual currency – miles – which often can be converted into real cash or given to other “players.”

And if you think frequent flyer programs are old hat (and you’re on the gray side of 40), you may even remember one of the biggest mashups of commerce and game-like elements ever: S&H Green Stamps. Started in 1896 by Thomas Sperry and Shelly Hutchinson, this program rewarded consumers with green paper “stamps” for purchases (or other activities) at participating merchants. Consumers would collect stamps in special books and could redeem them for merchandise via S&H’s mail order catalog or even at physical S&H “stores.” The program became so popular that during the 1960s, S&H’s catalog was the largest publication in the U.S. driven by a blizzard of Green Stamps cranked out by S&H (three times as many as the U.S. Postal Service). Unfortunately for S&H, the ’70s weren’t a happening decade for stamp lickers, and by 1981 the program had shrunken to the point where there were only 100 stores nationwide rewarding shopping behavior with the once-ubiquitous green squares of sticky paper. Today they survive online as the little known “Greenpoints” rewards program (though if you have inherited your grandmother’s Green Stamp hoard, you can still redeem them, according to their site).

So is “gamification” just a new buzzword for the same old customer loyalty programs that have been kicking around since literally the 19th century? Is a Foursquare badge the S&H Green Stamp of the 21st century?

I’d argue that if done correctly, yes: gamification is different. If done wrong, it’s boring at best and brand-damaging at worst. If done right, it can be a great way to build customer loyalty, deepen brand involvement, and create buzz.

How? Tune in to my next column on April 25 where we’ll look into the future of gamification by examining lessons learned from past technology booms (and busts). Until then, go visit the Gamification Blog or browse the Gamification Encyclopedia. Try out some gamified stuff on your own to get the idea. Scvngr is a fun social/location app that begins where Foursquare ends. EpicWin is a wonderful example of how game mechanics can be used to motivate you to organize your life. If you’re looking to better your life, Mindbloom presents an interesting “gamified” take on self improvement.

Go play!

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