The Gamification Bubble

People are talking a lot about using games to drive business. Do people really feel overwhelmingly attracted to badges and leaderboards?

Well, no. We want many things, and little digital badges perhaps least.  We want the things the badges represent, if we want the badges at all.  Business-people that don’t understand the difference will put badges and leaderboards on their websites, call it gamification, get capital to grow (from internal or external investors) and then lose it all.  Because yet again, people will have mistaken badges (derivatives, dot.com stocks, tulips) for value.  Want to skip the bubble? Read on.

Businesses around the world have begun to pay attention to innovators like FourSquare (and the Girl Scouts!) who offer tokens that have previously motivated players of numerous games from Galaga to World of Warcraft — badges of achievement and a place on a highly-visible ranked list.  But even those games that rely heavily on these devices are not only about badges and leaderboards.  FourSquare is fun because you are having a conversation with your friends and a competition with all comers.  The badges and leaderboards are just a mechanism of interaction, a medium — like currency.

The key to brilliant game design is to make every element of the game align.  Player motivation, the game space and rewarding experiences, player actions and real world outcomes — when these line up, and anything that can interfere with this core reinforcing spiral of positive value is trimmed away, you have a brilliant game.  If that game happens to be a business? Now you’re making money. (Not that money is necessarily the reason you play the game of business, of course — check out Your Money or Your Life or anything by Tim Ferriss for support in looking at that).

Let’s talk about player motivation.  My definition of “a game” is: “a structured space for the pleasurable exploration of a theme.”  One core piece of a player’s motivation is: what themes do they want to explore?  If they find status and competition interesting, then a leaderboard might be just the thing.  Or maybe they want to explore collaboration? In that case they might prefer to see a gallery of creative work they have created with people, ranked by recency or by how much others appreciate them (but not necessarily ranked against other people).  The number of themes you can focus on is limited only by your imagination.  Think about the music you like to listen to, the movies you like to watch, the books you like to read.  All of these stories are ways of playing with themes.

Chances are, people come to your business to explore themes, too.  Marketing folks know this well (although the sex-and-anxiety-themed froth that pervades so many media shows a certain lack of daring).  Great brands and great businesses already offer customers meaningful games built around archetypal themes.  (Check out The Hero and The Outlaw for more on archetypal themes in business).

To deal with questions of motivation, you must be clear about what themes you want to offer your players for exploration.  The people who come to your game will be people who want to explore those themes.  If you are building a game around your motorcycle sales network, you may find that the themes of risk, adventure, and tribe are more attractive than themes of order or simplicity (both of which might be better for a bank or home decor business).  When you have your themes down, try to think of a few sample cues, or ways that people might experience your themes in the context of your business-game.  How does someone experience tribe?  Do they see people’s faces?  Do they know where they are?  Do they share something important?  The cues will be important later in our game creation process.

After you have recorded Themes and Cues, give your attention to what you actually want to happen as a result of people playing the game.  This is your business, remember?  Do you want people to give you money?  Write that down.  Perhaps you want people to take pictures or write articles that feature your motorcycles, and post them online.  Perhaps you want them to get stories into newspapers or onto major blogs.  Maybe you want them to bring their friends into your showrooms.  Think about the specific real-world actions you want them to take, and the specific outcomes (in your business, or in the rest of the world) that you want to see as a result.  Another example might be that you want to get resources for a charity you care about.  Great!  Hopefully, you can begin to see some connection between the themes you have identified and the actions and outcomes you have now listed — and can see how the actions might lead to the outcomes.

Next, you need to consider experience.  The core experience, of course, will be “exploration of your theme”.  But what does that actually feel like?  Think about some rewarding experiences you have had exploring that theme — or experiences you wish you could have had.  You have already begun this process by writing down cues that relate to your theme.  Now go a bit further.  Create a bigger list of experiences you value around the theme, and if any jump out at you (“YES! THIS!”) then put a star on them or something.

Last in our brainstorming process comes imagining the gamespace.  The game space can be anything or anywhere.  For the game of Monopoly, the gamespace is the board, the pieces, the cards and dice — but it also includes the room where the players play the game (living room? kitchen table? cafe?).  And does the game include negotiating when to play?  Talking about the games you’ve played before?  Because now the gamespace includes all the real and virtual places those negotiations and conversations take place.  Consider the gamespaces where your players might be arranging and conducting the games by which they explore your themes.  Don’t get too stuck on figuring it out though — for now, you might want to write down something like “our motorcycle club website” or “our showroom” or “the cell phone they use when they are on their bike, halfway to the Grand Canyon”.

Now you are ready to put it all together.  This is a bit of a game in itself, and you can play it however you like.  One way I find useful is to physically write all of the things I’ve brainstormed onto cards, or cut up the papers where I’ve written them down, and try mixing and matching them in different configurations.  What kind of game would include the themes of Tribe and Adventure, the action of “telling a story online”, the outcome of “making the news”, and the game space of “cell phone” and “our showroom”?  Perhaps they can take cell phone pictures of their motorcycle journey, and they get posted on the wall of the motorcycle showroom as well as shared with all the people in their usergroup (which we will call a Club or maybe even a Tribe).  Now we can think about an app to automate the process, maybe some kind of ranking or tagging filter that would make sure obscene pictures don’t go up on the showroom wall… maybe they get attached to a map, and a viewer alternates top-down views of a dotted red line proceeding across the landscape with a view of the pictures they took.  Maybe everyone else in their Club could have their pictures attached to the same slideshow — but wait, it’s not a slideshow, it’s a Ride.  You share the Ride in the real world, then you share it with the rest of the Club online, then with anyone who comes into the showroom.  Hmm. This might not get a lot of news stories, but I bet it keeps people riding your motorcycles!  And we have only invented our first game; there are probably many more we can create with the elements we have before us.

Once you have invented a set of games, then you can tweak them for increasing business value.  I suggest you use an Agile or Lean approach and start with a very lightweight prototype — even just a story like I just told you — to find out whether people get excited.  For a good process, check out the work of Steve Blank and the other Lean Startup folks.  Unless you have tremendously compelling reasons, do one at a time, starting with the one that can produce significant business value soonest.

If you try out what I suggest here, I recommend you also read my earlier post on designing a business as a game, and read some of the resources I link to there — especially Jesse Schell’s Art of Game Design.  In my twenty-five years of interest in designing great games, it is the best book I have found on the subject.

Of course, I cannot guarantee that your games will help your business.  Perhaps this process will not work for you.  I can guarantee, however, that posting achievement badges on your website without finding a connection to the underlying themes, motivations, experiences, and real world actions and outcomes you seek will be a waste of your time.  It will be a waste of money.  And a lot of people will get excited about how amazing this all is before they give it up in disgust, while the people who have been designing real games, business games that genuinely serve people’s deep needs, will be making plenty of money and doing what they really care about — exploring the themes that matter most to them.

Posted: May 25th, 2011 | Author: nate | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off

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