The Gamification Hype Cycle

In my last column, we looked at the burgeoning gamification trend by examining its characteristics, glancing back at some history, and checking out some examples. Hopefully you’ve had a chance to play around with some of them. If you haven’t (or you skipped last week’s column), I’d suggest going back and reading it before moving forward.

Like so many new technology trends, “gamification” is now headed towards the peak of what Gartner calls “The Hype Cycle.” This model posits that new “hot” technology often rises from the initial breakthrough that kicks things off (the “trigger”) up to the “peak of inflated expectations” (identified blog posts including phrases like “game changer,” “paradigm shift,” and “changes everything”) to a precipitous fall to the “trough of disillusionment” (usually accompanied by articles describing it as “dead” or “so last year” or embarrassing comments from friends such as “you’re still using that?”), and the eventual (if it’s actually a good technology) “plateau of productivity” once all the bugs are smoothed out and it becomes yet another thing we use without too much thought. It’s a good model because if you apply it to common technologies in use today – the Internet, cellphones, Wi-Fi, social media to some extent – it fits very well with the rise, ebb, and eventual integration of these technologies into our lives.

If we look back at the technologies that have ridden the “hype cycle,” we can learn a lot of lessons that can be applied to the new wave of gamification:

  1. No matter how cool it might be, it’s not for everyone or every application.
  2. Technology changes quickly, people change slowly. Just because the pundits are in a froth about something doesn’t mean that regular folks who aren’t in the industry are going to change how they do things overnight. Adoption takes time.
  3. It’s not going to replace anything (at least not for a while…see point no. 2) but it’s going to carve a new space for itself. People still buy vinyl LPs, people still watch broadcast TV, and Blockbuster hasn’t disappeared from the face of the Earth yet.
  4. Eventually we’ll figure out that the “killer apps” are those which leverage the unique features of the media they were created for. If you look at the most successful online businesses – take Amazon, eBay, Facebook, and Google for some examples – the one thing they have in common is that they cannot exist without the Internet. Likewise, the most popular smartphone apps – Facebook, Google Maps, The Weather Channel, and Pandora – are popular because they solve problems that people have when they’re mobile and leverage the capabilities unique to the smartphone.

When considering whether or not to “gamify” your brand, it’s important to apply the lessons learned from previous hype cycles and previously successful technology trends in order to not create yet another bandwagon rider that’s going to eat resources, divert attention from efforts that are actually working, and, frankly, is probably going to suck.

While it’s hard to see the Plateau of Productivity while we’re still riding the hype swell up to the Peak of Inflated Expectations, I think that we can identify a few characteristics of gamification that work:

  1. First and foremost (and most freakin’ obviously!) it has to be fun! How many games do you play that aren’t? If it doesn’t entertain and doesn’t provide a sense of fun that draws people back in, it’s not a “game.” Simply awarding “points” does not a game make.
  2. It has to take advantage of the unique aspects of the technology you’re going to use in a way that encourages the behavior you want to encourage. If it’s entirely web-based, it should be socially-connected, interactive, persistent, and take advantage of the comparatively larger screens (and often higher-powered graphics) offered by desktops, laptops, and tablet computers. If it’s going to be mobile, it should take advantage or address what’s different about the mobile experience. Location-based services are pretty obvious “must-haves,” but also consider the video and audio recording capabilities of smartphones, the ability to send messages to people no matter where they are, the ability to integrate the telephone, and maybe even how the accelerometer can be used to measure behavior or integrate with the gameplay.
  3. It has to provide relevant rewards in a graduated manner that encourages continued use, provides excitement and suspense, and recognizes players who put in the most (and most skilled) effort. Once people are past the “everybody wins” t-ball stage, generally it’s motivating to offer differential rewards based on effort and skill…but not too much (or too little) reward. If everyone gets 1,000,000 points just for showing up, you might as well not give any.
  4. Don’t forget that it’s a game. Successful games involve elements such as narrative (even if it’s a thin one), context, setting, drama, surprise, and an “arc” that allows people to feel that they’re accomplishing something. Simply adding badges, awarding points, or keeping a leaderboard doesn’t work if there aren’t elements that allow people to feel invested. Sites such as this one (which ironically contained a popular article on gamification!) that “reward” readers whether they want to play or not (and bombard them with non-stop pleas to join without giving a reason) show just what happens when “gamification” is just an add-on.
  5. Tailor your efforts to the various styles of play. Many people thrive on competition but others would rather not have to put themselves out there competing against strangers. Others like to cooperate while some just want to show off. The Bartle Test is a great way to classify your customers.
  6. Design matters. Aesthetics matter. How many successful games out there can you name that are hard on the eyes? Of course, aesthetic tastes vary – many are still devotees of the “8-bit” aesthetic exemplified by old video games – but good design and great aesthetics are pretty obvious no matter what the fashion of the time.
  7. Make it fun! Did I mention that before? It bears repeating: make it fun! If it isn’t fun, it isn’t a game.

The one lesson that we’ll all probably learn as we inevitably climb out of the Trough of Disillusionment to revisit gamification sometime in the future is this: making a good game is hard. Really hard. If you don’t believe me just spend a little time downloading many of the free games available on the App Store or Android Market. For every “Angry Birds” there are countless awful clunkers that get deleted within seconds of being downloaded.

And once you get deleted, it’s game over.

Related reading

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