Gamification: leveraging fun
The term “gamification” has been a hot buzzword in the last few months. Forbes posted a great article about how Marriott, Deloitte, Aetna and the Department of Defense are all leveraging the gaming craze to reach their own goals in recruitment, training and health & wellness.
In fact, Glowdot is now in production on two projects with major corporate clients that fall squarely into this “gamified” category, and have completed a few similar projects in the past.
There are two things to note about this gamification craze: first, that this is relatively new territory, and second, that the gaming craze I mentioned above really isn’t new at all.
Treading new ground
The idea of reaching decidedly non-gamelike goals using gamelike elements (or even full blown games) is really an emerging concept — at least in the way it is being used today. There have always been marketing and/or cobranded games which served to drive brand awareness. Think Tapper in the 80s (the Budweiser and A&E root beer version) or early console games like the Dominos Pizza “Avoid the Noid” game, or the 7up “Cool Spot” game. There are actually countless examples from the 80s and early 90s, but in each case, the goal was brand awareness and brand loyalty.
With the mobile explosion over the last couple years, along with the immense popularity of gaming on platforms like Facebook, games have been used more for marketing a product rather than just as commercials. In the past few months, we’ve seen games released ahead of major films and TV shows with the purpose of driving ticket sales or acquiring viewers (“Hunger Games” on iOS, for example). These efforts have met with tremendous success, to the extent that we are now noticing that almost every marketing campaign has some sort of game (or at the very least, app) component to it. In many cases, the game or app is the centerpiece of the campaign.
It seems natural that the next step would be harnessing the power of games to engage users in new, more “real world” ways. But this isn’t as easy as it might seem.
Take, for example, a game which aims to teach employees the proper way to file a long report. This is a firmly un-fun activity. A game, on its own, is defined by its fun-ness. These two concepts are in direct opposition to each other. If you make the game too fun, you risk failing at your goal to train the employee. If you make the game to training oriented, you risk making a boring game no one wants to play. You have to strike a balance.
This is in no way an impossible task. In fact, internally we’ve developed several concepts that we can apply to almost any business purpose. The key lies in three stages: finding a partner that understands how to make a fun game, finding a partner that understands the needs of business, and then, most importantly, planning, planning, planning.
The real power of using games this way is that games have the ability to hook in a player and keep them engaged. They can do this like nothing else I can think of. A great film can engage a viewer for around 2 hours. A great book can engage a reader for a couple hours a day, over a couple days or weeks. But a great game can hook a player for months or even years. Look at simple games like Farmville or Cityville, or more in-depth experiences like World of Warcraft. If you can engage a person with a compelling experience, you have their attention and focus, and that really is a powerful jumping off point to teaching, training or educating that user.
As hard as it seems?
So is finding this balance really as hard as it seems? I think for a truly conscientious game developer, this should be a struggle in any game, not just a gamified application.
We have to balance fun with other, non-fun factors in every game. We have story and atmosphere to deal with. We have our own training of sorts, in the form of in-game tutorials and instruction. And most importantly, we have the monetization issue to deal with. Each of these factors hinders fun to different degrees.
For example, if we want to drive the story forward, we can halt the game and show a cut scene. This works, and its used often, but the best story driven games figure out how to drive the story through in-game elements, like dialogue, decision trees, and so on. Atmosphere (sound, art style, mood, etc) also is a critical part of a great, compelling game. But the best games make the atmosphere part of the story, rather than a distracting afterthought. See Limbo for a terrific example.
The player needs to be taught how to play the game. In the old days, this was handled with a printed manual shipped with the game. Later breaks from the printed manual included video tutorials, static screens explaining the controls and combos. But in my opinion, the best games teach you how to play the game while you play the game, through, for example, an initial tutorial level that walks you through the controls while giving you a bit of story and gameplay. The absolute best examples of this do it seamlessly, where you don’t even feel like you’re being taught — the instructions make sense in the context of the game itself. Imagine a game about a ninja, where the initial level is the ninja receiving training from his master. Or a war game where the initial tutorial level takes place in a boot camp. Or a game about flying that begins in a flight school.
And finally the monetization issue is common in game design. Any time you ask the player to spend money, the game’s fun disappears. It is always a difficult balance of giving enough for free to make the player happy, while charging enough to pay the development costs. The best games blend the two seamlessly to the point where players eagerly pay for in-game stuff. See FarmVille (or anything by Zynga really) for great examples of this. In fact, Zynga has essentially created a science of determining when and how to ask the user for money in order to receive the least amount of friction.
And that really is the essence of merging two seemingly opposed goals into one product — marrying the two in such a way that it doesn’t seem forced, while not sacrificing either goal. In the best possible case, the two goals complement each other — the game is fun because you are learning, and you are learning because it is fun.
So in the end, the challenges that pop up in the design of a “business game” are great, but they aren’t unfamiliar to game developers. It’s simply a matter of applying decades of game evolution to a new concept, and doing so effectively and smoothly to guarantee a great final product.