2 - Give Meaning To Players

Burke suggests that firms that have operated reward and incentive programs may feel they are already doing gamification - but they are not. While they pay offer "points" and allow shoppers to matriculate through a hierarchy of "levels" (bronze/silver/gold/platinum) they are not engaging customers in the same way. He considers frequent-flyer programs as a form of rewards program: you build up "miles" to earn free flights, and those who earn miles at a faster rate get some qualitative rewards such as priority check-in and boarding.

A rewards or incentive program is a rational method of rewarding behavior - much like the "save 25% when you buy two or more" or "get your fifth haircut for free" promotional offer that some retailers use to drive purchase volume and frequency. The customer who might have bought one item buys a second to get the bonus that is being offered, or who might have spread his business around concentrates it with one merchant.

A bulk discount for volume or frequency is not a game. It is increasing value-for-price (by adding volume or lowering price) but does not engage people or make them feel involved in a game-like activity.

What Is Different About Gamification?

The primary distinction between a game and any other mundane activity is that a engages people in and of itself - it is not merely a means to an end. People play a game because they enjoy the play experience - it is entertaining and passes the time.

Games are also criticized for precisely this reason: a teenager who spends his afternoon playing video games is merely amusing himself and passing time. He earns no practical reward for the time he spends playing games, but merely enjoys the activity. In many instances, people will pay

Work, for most people, is not a game. They do not perceive work as a fun activity, but something done for a financial reward. Neither is a routine purchase a game: going to the store on a given Saturday to save 15% on an item is not a game. Neither is choosing a specific airline in order to earn a discounted or free flight. Each of these behaviors is routine, doing something that is not particularly interesting to achieve an outcome that is not particularly exciting.

Gamification is a blend of the two: it takes some of the elements of game play and applies them to a practical activity. As such, the boundaries between the two are rather hazy.

(EN: In attempting to weigh in on where the line is drawn, the author only seems to muddle things worse - his take is that the difference between a rewards program and a gamified experience is emotional engagement, but I don't think that's quite right. The rewards program uses game-like elements such as scoring and levels to entice a person to do something, which is by definition gamification - even though the game is not very much fun. Which transitions neatly to the next section.)

Gamification Is Not a Panacea

The author dismisses as misperception that gamification can be leveraged to make any boring and mundane task appealing. Candy-colored buttons and sound effects do not change the nature of the task. And if you attempt to do this to serious matters, such as managing an investment portfolio or buying life insurance, the childish and goofy interface suggests to users that you're not taking their needs very seriously.

He mentions Jesse Schell, rather a bigwig in the game design industry, who insists that it's not always appropriate to add game mechanics to things that aren't really games. His comparison is to "chocofication" - adding a chocolate coating to foods (or even other objects) on the principle that chocolate will make everything better. It simply isn't a panacea for "boring" experiences.

(EN: This isn't the first time this has happened. Branding a product for women is often attempted by making it pink. Making a web site kid-friendly is attempted by using Comic Sans and colorful pictures. It's just another instance of attempting to avoid doing the hard work of understanding the audience's needs and interests and redesigning to suit them - and looking for a quick fix instead.)

Gamification Is Not a Payback

The author disputes that "loyalty" programs qualify as gamification. These program offer discounts or gifts for repeat business. People who use these programs do not feel engaged in a game, as the value is too direct and explicit. They understand that they must buy four sandwiches to get the fifth for free, and the benefit is that it decreases the amount they spend on a purchase.

He does make brief mention of the questionable ethics of frequent flyer programs, as the intent and practice was to influence people who travel on corporate expense accounts to choose an airline to "earn" a personal benefit (the "free" flight is often used for personal rather than business travel). This gets into the realm of bribes and kickbacks and should be considered with caution.

The same is true of workplace competitions: if the salesman who hits a certain goal or performs better than his peers "wins" a prize from the company, he doesn't have the sense of playing a game, but doing his regular job - putting in a little extra effort to earn a little extra reward.

Is Gamification New?

Whether gamification is "new" depends on how you define it.

If you consider "badges" to be gamification, then the Scouting movement has been doing it for over a century - offering badges and patches and ranks as incentives for boys to learn certain skills and exhibit certain behaviors. Centuries before, universities caught onto the idea of granting a certificate or diploma to students who completed pre-defined courses of study.

However, technology has made it a lot easier than it used to be. Databases, computers, networks, mobile devices, and the like bring a number of advantages - such as being able to record information instantly, communicate over a global network, process information on millions of customers, and the like.

Attempting to run a rewards program prior to computer technology would have been possible, but very laborious. To reward customers for purchasing gasoline at a given brand of stations would require collecting the information whenever they purchased, at any location, mailing that data back to a central office, which would update the ledgers for every participant and mail them an update on their "point" status, requiring the participants to mail in requests to redeem points, and so on. It would likely not have been worth the effort (and cost) to use such a labor-intensive process to reward consumers.

But with computers, all of this is easy and instantaneous, and practically effortless. This is why reward programs and gamification efforts have only been feasible for a decade or so.

Enabling Trends

Burke mentions a few other trends that are currently driving the adoption of gamification:

That is to say that the digital channels have given people and brands the ability to communicate - but what is missing is the motivation. He sees gamification as the solution, enabling brands and customers to have ongoing connections that are meaningful, even outside of a selling or purchasing context.

He gives the example of Weight Watchers, which was originally a dietary program sold through branch offices to customers. Since the advent of digital technology, Weight Watchers is regarded by its customers as more in the nature of a social club in which they interact with other dieters in a mutually supportive manner. This has been wildly successful for the company.

Leveraging Gamification to Engage the Crowd

Gamification can be successful in smaller groups, though the ROI is limited and the groups tend to drift apart as members leave. The use of the digital channels have enabled companies to reach very large audiences, creating programs that have the potential for massive return on investment (it costs little more to provide a service to a million than it does to provide it for ten), and ensures that the service has a critical mass - enough people to be attractive to new members, and enough to support one another. (EN: The major problem for building communities has long been getting to that point, and I expect gamification faces the same issue.) It's also mentioned that when the crowd is large, it is a richer and more diverse source of ideas for innovation.

Burke suggests three basic audiences for gamified solutions:

He also suggests that gamification has three primary functions, which are largely self-explanatory: it can change behaviors, develop skills, and drive innovation.