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Micro Mart ‘Gamification & the Web’


How Gamification is Changing the Web

by Louisa Mellor

Life would be a lot easier for web and software designers if human beings weren’t so complex. Getting people to keep returning to your website or use your application would be child’s play if there was only a switch you could flip in people’s heads to make them do just that.

Just imagine it – a switch that, when activated, turns potential customers from cynical tightwads into happy, receptive consumers of stuff. Visitors would be drawn to your site time and again. The switch would make them want to tell their friends about it, which in turn would activate their switches. Page views rocket, web traffic gushes by, advertisers see pound signs and you’re well on the way to becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg.

The thing is, us humans? Not so complex after all. We may not have a switch exactly, but we do have psychological buttons, and now there’s supposedly a hot new way to push them: gamification.

As technology’s extroverts, websites and applications need attention to survive. If nobody looks at them, web pages may as well not exist, which is why designers are always on the look-out for new ways of getting your eyeballs on their work. Only now, eyeballs aren’t quite enough. Developers and advertisers don’t just want page views, they want user engagement, and gamification is promising them a way to get it.

Something of a buzz word in web design over the last year, gamification means layering game mechanics over non-game products to encourage desired behaviours, or as Zynga chief games designer Brian Reynolds put it at the February 2011 DICE summit, “using game elements to get people to do stuff they don’t want to do.”

The Concept

It’s a simple idea that runs like this:

1) People enjoy playing games.

2) Popular games inspire extreme loyalty.

3) People are motivated by gaming reward and achievement systems.

4) Therefore, if non-games are made more game-like, we’ll be more likely to ‘play’ them.

Gamifiers aren’t talking about a return to the days of flash banner ads asking us to punch monkeys, and it’s not just a question of adding-on mini games to your site. It’s about getting the user experience of the whole site as close to a game as possible. This means setting challenges, measuring performance and providing feedback.

A website which relies on user-generated content could encourage visitors to upload material by tracking them on leaderboards, awarding trophies and letting ‘players’ unlock new levels as they progress through the site. Retail sites can motivate customers to write reviews, rate products and take part in polls by setting them goals and rewarding them with points, abilities and online ranking.

I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m being gamified even as I write this. A week or so ago I downloaded Office Labs’ Ribbon Hero, a free add-on that turns Microsoft Office into a game – of sorts. The Word version sets you challenges based on features of the application, then awards points depending on your performance, filling up progress bars entitled ‘Getting Artistic’ or ‘Page Design and Layout’ as you go. Competitive office workers can display their overall points in the ‘Home’ toolbar as well as sharing scores with friends via Facebook. Designed to encourage people to expand their knowledge of Office features, Ribbon Hero uses a game layer to motivate users to think of a task that would usually be considered a chore, as fun, and though it does me no favours to admit it, it sort of works.

The challenges are basic to begin with – insert a graph here, change this font appearance – but every time you complete one, an animated balloon flies up the screen by way of congratulation. Sad though it is, the approval of that little pixelated balloon pushed me to do another challenge, and another. I managed to stop after four – it’s not exactly Call of Duty - but even that level of engagement surprised me. What seems like such facile, transparent manipulation had worked on me. It struck me that I wasn’t immune to gamification and you probably aren’t either.

Does it work?

Described as “a loyalty programme on steroids” by Amy Jo Kim, CEO of social game development company Shufflebrain, brands are being told that gamification will not only ensure visitors return to their sites, but will also make them evangelists for their product or service thanks to the magic of game mechanics. But does it actually work?

Unsurprisingly, gamification companies say yes. Seattle-based BigDoor gamified the Cheezburger network, providers of cat-based lolz, and report a 200% increase in registration after launching trophies as well as a sharp jump in user engagement (uploading, voting etc.). Website building company DevHub saw a 30% hike in engagement in 3 months, while others boast about going ‘viral’ and game layers enticing their users to unprecedented repeat visits.

Television is getting in on the trend too. Since adding online games to its website’s character arcade, the NBC-owned USA Network has reported similar spurts in engagement levels as well as an increase in the average length of logged-in sessions. Using Bunchball’s Nitro system of achievements and rewards, USA Network’s registered users were said to have grown from 400,000 to 1 million, with a reported 3 million monthly unique visitors to their site. Using a combination of games and trivia questions, Club Psych – linked to the television programme Psych – awards users points for sharing content, taking polls and more. These points can be redeemed on merchandise, virtual and real, for the show.

With spikes in web traffic caused by users volunteering to spend large chunks of time playing branded games and competing to earn points to convert into branded goods, it’s no wonder advertisers are talking about gamification as if it were the second coming.

It’s not only advertisers. Educators and employers too are keeping a keen eye on the trend’s development. They’d be stupid not to, seeing as their classrooms and workplaces are filled with young people who’ve grown up with console gaming. Comparing trophies and clocking up XP points is already part of everyday life for many, so why not extend those systems into other areas? Gamification promises to motivate people to be more productive, which is why forward thinking teachers and bosses want in on the action.

To give you a completely unscientific and anecdotal example of gamification in practice, a teacher I know tacked a simple widget on to a departmental web page which awarded his group of 16-18 year old students points every time they clicked on a resource. Points would be tallied up in a leaderboard and, well, that was pretty much it. Students would earn nothing in real terms from their leaderboard position or totals. The points were not redeemable in any way and had no relation to grades or marks. What do you think happened?

You guessed it, a click-fest. One kid must have spent literally hours amassing points to reach an untouchable place at the top of the leaderboard. The students’ competitive drive and instinctual understanding of games systems made the process like catnip to them. The web page stats were incredible, in just one afternoon, more pages had been viewed on the teaching website than collectively in the entire last term.

You’re probably already thinking it. Viewed yes, but read? Unlikely. Were students learning more because of gamification in this instance? Clearly not. For a short time, they were engaged in a game-like activity with a non-game product until the novelty wore off and page stats returned to normal.

The reason the activity didn’t endure is obvious. These students weren’t playing a game. This is precisely what a growing number of game designers see as fundamentally missing from so-called gamified products: gameplay.

Where’s the fun?

Imagine the scenario, you pay your council tax online then receive a ‘Congratulations, you’ve reached Dutiful Citizen status’ update. Set up a direct debit to pay it next month? Move three places up the leaderboard, you’re now a ‘Civic Warrior’ with +5 Future Planning. Feel like you’re playing a game yet? I’m guessing not.

That’s the problem. Reducing gaming to its reward systems is like missing out the actual race and skipping to the medal ceremony. Trophies and points are game adjuncts but they are not games in and of themselves. With an estimated 3 billion hours worldwide per week spent on it, it’s no exaggeration to say that gaming is a massively popular pastime. You only need look at the communities and wikis that have sprung up around games such as Halo or World of Warcraftto realise what kind of loyalty they inspire. But what inspires such devotion is not the tokens you earn as you play, it’s the play itself and the intrinsic rewards it contains.

While we often assume that extrinsic rewards motivate behaviour – would you go to your job every day if you weren’t paid to? – research suggests that when we’re paid to do something we usually consider play, we soon start seeing that thing as work.

Sebastian Deterding, game designer and researcher, and one of the most vocal opponents to gamification, described gamified applications at a 2010 Playful talk as “glorified report cards that turn games into work rather than life into play”. It’s a perspective that strongly echoes the sentiments of Alfie Kohn’s 1993 bookPunished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, which argues that “rewards turn play into work, and work into drudgery.”

Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World and director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, shares Deterding’s views on much of the current state of gamification. At the 2011 Game Developer Conference, McGonigal told her audience that making the world more like a game through extrinsic rewards “is really missing the point”. People play games voluntarily because they have intrinsic rewards: challenge, progress, a sense of purpose. We play games for fun, and there’s very little fun in harvesting points out of context. Bang! I just awarded you 10,000 Micro Mart points. Fun? Hardly.

Brands have long tried to attract attention and foster customer loyalty with special offers, free gifts and competition give-aways, all of which have been short-term stunts. To be truly effective, gamification needs to borrow good quality gameplay rather than just trophies and badges. No amount of levelling up or extrinsic reward can replace the engagement created by an actual game.

The message is clear: if web designers rely solely upon extrinsic motivators such as redeemable points to gamify their sites, the novelty will soon wear off. Showering web users with achievement trophies and ranking them on leader boards isn’t enough. To harness the power of gamification, your website is going to have to do a lot more than hand out a few badges, especially if you’re after the somewhat unethical holy grail of web design: making your site addictive.

Advergaming and the Gamepocalypse

Lack of gameplay and over-reliance on trophies aren’t the only criticisms levelled against the trend. Many object to gamification on ethical grounds. A growing number of designers view it as a cynical attempt to wrest cash and time from an unsuspecting public. Critics see gamification as ‘advergaming’, a crude facsimile of games design that further harms the reputation of their much maligned industry.

Speaking at the 2011 Game Developers Conference, Jane McGonigal urged designers not to exploit gamers through gamification. “Designers should be making games that help people flourish,” she told her audience, “our organisational goals need to be achieved by empowering the players to get more of what they really want from life.” Instead, we can suppose, of gamifiers manipulating gamers into giving advertisers more of what they really want – our cash.

The  voice that has probably been shouting loudest about the potential of gamification belongs to game designer Jesse Schell. In a now infamous TED talk called ‘When games invade real life’ at the 2010 DICE Convention, Schell painted a vivid picture of a not-so-distant future where not just websites but every aspect of our lives is gamified. Schell coins it the ‘gamepocalypse’, a vision of the future in which every element of our lives is controlled by a constant search for points, level-ups and trophies. For Schell, the inevitable next step from social networking is the rise of ‘advergaming’ and integration of sensors and systems which track and reward our every living moment. Eating cereal, cleaning your teeth, going to work, watching TV or raising your kids will all be gamified experiences.

Why does he think this? Firstly because advertisers are making less money due to the decline in print media and rise of gadgets like Sky Plus which allow us to edit out TV ads. Secondly, because the technology for it to happen is rapidly becoming more possible. A sensor in your toothbrush which measures how long you’ve cleaned your teeth for? It’s already here. Sensors in your trainers to track how far you’ve run? It’s here. Integrated dashboard apps which measure your carbon footprint as you drive? Here.

Real world game platform GreenGoose (whose slogan “Play real life” neatly sums up Schell’s vision), sell sensor kits and tracking systems to help you measure just about any part of your life which can be measured. Their sensors can track, for instance, the amount of water you drink in a day, then notify you when you’ve reached your goal. As technology gets cheaper and more disposable, Schell sees these sensors pre-embedded in all kinds of packaging. One day soon, everything you slurp down or munch on could be awarding you loyalty points for doing so. Your nectar card was only the beginning…

Will it stick?

While gamification might be seen as the hot young trend, borrowing game elements to manipulate behaviour is nothing new. Mums and dads will be familiar with the ‘Who can put on their shoes the fastest?’ ploy, as well as the motivating role gold stars can play in getting children to behave. Those same parents will tell you, however, that this kind of thing has a shelf-life. Eventually, kids wise up to the fact they’re being tricked into seeing chores as games, and refuse to play. How long will web users sit clicking away and clocking up trophies before the shine begins to wear off?

Jesse Schell warns designers that assuming the addition of a game layer – because people love games – will improve non-game products, is as short-sighted as assuming that the addition of chocolate – because people love chocolate – will improve any foodstuff. The message is clear: get it right and you could tap a rich seam of online custom, get it wrong and you could end up with the web equivalent of chocolate-covered cottage cheese.

No doubt gamified sites and applications will be all popping up all over the web in the next year. Whether or not they have sticking power will rest upon how well gamifiers listen to what games designers are telling them.

This article originally appeared in issue 1140 of Micro Mart on 24th March 2011.


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