Why gamification is more than just a bit of fun

Gabe Zichermann, author of Game-Based Marketing, predicted that “2011 very much will be the year of gamification”. Half way through the year, it’s fair to say that, having taken over the living room with devices such as Xbox Kinect, games themselves have never been more in the public consciousness.

The success of San Francisco’s Zynga, whose CityVille game on Facebook has more than 100 million active users, has demonstrated the addictive power of game elements. As ever, marketers have begun to seize on the concept of gameplay as a way of driving engagement and building lasting relationships with customers.

Hence you see creative gameplay mechanics being layered on top of traditional marketing and PR efforts. The Yahoo! Bus Stop Derby in San Francisco saw 20 Muni bus stop shelters fitted with giant, 72 inch touch-screens where travellers-in-waiting could play one of four games.

All the games were less than 60 seconds so no one would risk missing the bus when it did arrive. Players vied for the top score in order to bring an awesome block party to the neighbourhood they represented, with a performance from the band OK Go!

The official site BusStopDerby.com kept the excitement going with a leaderboard, Twitter feed and Flickr stream right on the front page. The contest got a huge response from the players in San Francisco and press all around the country. In the two month run of the campaign, over 100,000 games were played and over 2,500,000 points scored.

This is demonstrably an effective marketing stunt – but I think one-off creatives like this will become simultaneously more commonplace and thus more difficult to differentiate as gamification stretches further into consumers’ everyday lives.

There are already a bucket load of real world examples of how businesses have used game mechanics to attract and retain customers. Some of them have been used for years – think of the concept of ‘Happy Hour’ in your local bar. This is essentially an appointment game dynamic — if you arrive at a certain location at a certain time then you will get cheap drink.

Nowadays, you could offer a customer an additional incentive (free peanuts?!) by checking in on Foursquare while they’re there. Or consider loyalty cards such as Nectar or Advantage – these are simple point-collecting mechanisms.

Jesse Schell, author of the excellent Art of Game Design, reckons the next five to 10 years will see us increasingly live this kind of points-based existence. Brush your teeth in the morning, you get points. Brush them for more than three minutes and you get more points.

Take the bus to work and get points for using public transport which are then redeemed against your tax bill. In Northern Ireland think about being able to redeem bus points against the road tax you aren’t using. Drink your favourite soft drink, that’s more points.

This might be over the top. But I do believe that game mechanics will increasingly be used more ‘serious’ behaviour change campaigns, as opposed to just shifting a music album. The winning entry in Volkswagon’s Fun Theory project was a speed camera that entered you into a lottery if you successfully passed it at the correct speed, for example.

And consider the new Nissan Leaf car, which has a tree that grows if you drive more efficiently. Or the Honda Insight, which awards points for driving more efficiently. Or Ford, which found drivers interested in fuel efficiency were effectively playing a game, so they built a prototype dashboard where a vine withers if you drive with welly.

You get the picture. Brands are getting game-savvy. It can set your product or service apart. It can engage consumers like nothing else. But there are risks. To finish with Zichermann again, “One of the greatest risks is being unoriginal.”

It’s worth remembering that, as with any new marketing or communication strategy, the audience comes first. Don’t ‘gamify’ because it’s new and cool. Do it because your customers will care. Don’t add a game layer to your creative because you think it will automatically gain you something. Do it because it will give them something.

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Stuart Lambert is head of consumer technology at the UK office of global PR consultancy, Weber Shandwick.