Gamification and Engagement – Thoughts on a Notable Expert’s Presentation

November 17, 2011

Last week, my colleague Jordan Drake and I attended a panel on “Gamification and Engagement” presented by Gabe Zichermann and hosted by the Webgrrls. If you know me, I’m a sucker for gamification, so I jumped on the chance to see this one.

If you’re not familiar with the term, Zichermann describes it as “is the process of using game concepts and mechanics to engage users.” Foursquare, for instance, utilizes gamification by awarding badges and points to users for going places and seeing the world — and, of course, for checking in while doing so.

Gamification has existed for a long time — we just might not have realized it. Take doing your chores. If you try to finish them under a certain time limit, and reward yourself, that’s a game. It’s now, according to Zichermann, that we actually have a methodology for understanding how it works and how to use it to our advantage.

At the beginning of his presentation, Zichermann started very much in the clouds. He talked extensively about the notion of change and how it affects us personally, and how it’s achieved by humanity, and the idea of how we as humans love the notion of mastering a system or a task or a game. Duh, it releases dopamine.

In fact, Zichermann said, the act of playing a game, no matter how good you are at it, impacts how much smarter you can become. The act of learning how to master the game is where you learn.

Zichermann then went through some incredible case studies, first by reminding us that, according to the Gartner Group, 70% of the Forbes Global 2000 companies will use some form of gamification by 2015.

For instance, a well-known national retailer has a checkout speed game. Every time a cashier rings up a product, they see the amount of time it should take to scan that product. Why does this work? It gives the cashiers a feeling like they have some sense of control. (They also noticed that employees were happier and turnover went down.

Another case study Zichermann cited was the speed-camera lottery system in Sweden. It works like almost every other speed-camera system, except there’s a reward. Every so often, the camera will take a picture and send a reward to anyone who goes at or below the average. The key point and how it applies to gamification: positive reinforcement is better than negative.

You might be skeptical about gamification and how it can be applied for brands or internally at companies. You might even throw Second Life at me. Well, according to Zichermann, virtual worlds failed because they’re too open, whereas gamification consists of actual game play that drives people’s behavior.

At the end of the day, successful gamification campaigns are not about rational design, they’re about emotions — How did I feel while playing this game? And more importantly, How did I feel when I mastered it?

Alan has been with Ketchum for more than five years. Follow him on Twitter at @adanzis if you want rare insights about PR and social media, and tons of stuff about video games, technology and other sci-fi and nerdy things.