Friday, June 27, 2014

Gamification and Gimmicks

I approached Brian Burke's book on gamification with great trepidation: it's a very trendy topic, and there are a lot of fanboys who are wildly enthusiastic about the topic, and who promote the wrong approach.   Fortunately, Burke is not among them.  He recognizes that gamification is "on a collision course with reality" and that it will not fare well - but hopes that something can be salvaged from the wreckage.

The introduction to the book is titled "Beyond the Hype," and Burke acknowledges that there's just too much enthusiasm right now, particularly among those who don't understand what it really means, and that this is likely going to poison the well.  The gamification fad is already nearing the peak of enthusiasm, and will soon plunge into the valley of disillusionment because many firms will invest millions in a poorly considered approach that will provide them little return.   As such, gamification is going to get a bad name, and it will have to be reintroduced under a different one in order to escape the bad reputation that current enthusiasts will earn for it.

The core problem is that the common definition of the term is very poorly defined: gamification is "adding game-like elements to a non-game experience."  As such, it is being used as an additive to sweeten sour experiences - like a coat of candy-colored paint on a broken machine, it won't fix anything.

But there's more to it than that: used correctly, gamification contributes to the understanding and enthusiasm of an otherwise dreary task.  It helps the participant to envision a goal, plan a course of action to achieve it, and receive feedback about their progress.   This is necessary for tasks that take a lot of time, especially those that cannot be completed in a single sitting, and is particularly suited to maintaining a relationship between a brand and a customer through multiple interactions over a long period of time.

The long-term perspective alone should help sort out some of the trash from the treasure: if a "gamification" idea does not do those things, it is merely a gimmick that will perhaps be amusing, though more often annoying, and will not help either the customer or the business accomplish anything meaningful.

And so, a suggestion might be gamification if ...

  • It enables the player to envision a goal that is meaningful, to engage in behavior that has a benefit to him outside of the game
  • It provides the player with a clear path to achieve that goal with feedback along the way
  • It involves game mechanics (an objective, rules, tactics, and strategy) that drives decisions about the game elements (badges, points, avatars, etc.) are to be included
  • It has a duration of more than a few minutes - whether one extended playing session or many brief sessions over a longer period of time
  • It engages the business as well as the player - marketing, operations, and other business units are affected and must support (it's not just a "website thing" that the rest of the business ignores) 

And a suggestion likely a gimmick if ...

  • It's "just for fun" and the player accomplishes nothing for the player or the business outside of the game experience
  • It is a decorative element or a lure, which draws in players who are not qualified customers of the business
  • It applies game elements (avatars, badges, etc.) without considering how they derive from game mechanics (objective, rules, tactics, etc.)
  • It is a distraction from doing "real business" with the company
  • It engages the user for a short period of time, after which he loses interest in interacting with it ever again

My sense is that if those criteria are considered, many bad ideas can be sorted out and scuttled well before they waste resources and damage brands.

On the larger scale, the question remains: will discernment and discipline be applied before the very idea of gamification is ruined by hyper-enthusiastic fanbuys and the gullible decision-makers who fund their silly proposals?   Burke doesn't seem optimistic about the chances and I'm inclined to share his perspective - but it remains to be seen.

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