You're Being Gamed

Gabe Zichermann, the author of Game-Based Marketing and a startup advisor and one of those incredibly likeable connector-type people, likes to talk about what motivates people to do the sort of things that make people money. The best incentives aren’t often cash, he thinks, unless the money is really good. His acronym for incentives is SAPS, which stands for status, access, power and stuff. Those are in order, by the way, of things that people say they like best. This is an idea that most every businessperson likes, for obvious reasons, including that giving away “status” and “power” can have no ongoing cost.

“Now we care about what motivates the consumer and we think we can shape it,” Zichermann told me recently, while I was talking to him for a story on startups. “We used to only care about consumer attributes. But now buying is just one of the things that we want consumers to do — we want them to share and flirt and poke and trade. We have all these new verbs. In the cold hard calculus, we ultimately want them to produce ‘buy,’ but it’s the journey rather than the destination.”

Zichermann gave his first lecture on gamification in 2006 in Europe, and out of 160 attendees, only three people came up to talk to him after. That was then; in a couple of weeks from now, his baby, Gamification Summit 2011, will take place in San Francisco.

Because it’s taking place in San Francisco, and because the business and startup worlds are still somewhat coast-myopic (“the Bay Area is the beating heart of the world’s technology business, by far and away, not even close,” Zichermann said) much of the participation is from straight tech companies, and with people from Zynga and Bing and Google and a number of game designers — though there’s a bit of media, in the form of Playboy’s digital person and at least one TV person.

What this indicates, looking at how ideas have trickled down over the last ten years (and trickled east as well), is that we’re just at the beginning of gamification on the web and in the real. It’s also relevant that the conference’s keynote talk is on the subject: “Why Engagement is the Power Metric of the Decade.” The shiny graphs of; the little affirming hearts of Tumblr; the follower count on Twitter: the integration of reward and status and play into transactions is already embedded. They’re there because what games — and emotional cash and prizes — do is that they stretch your engagement time. Games (both covert and overt) are, for instance, why Facebook has such an enormous on-site time per user.

What industry doesn’t benefit from gamification? Let us not let this, from a description of a workshop at the conference, pass without notice: “Rapper Jay-Z’s recently-released memoir ‘Decoded’ turns reading back into a game for adults with a new campaign sponsored by Bing and headed by New York ad agency Droga5.” When I was young, the library gave out awards to the kids who’d read the most books (which, yes, they were giving me status!); now there’s this, notably for adults. This sort of campaign is the tip of the iceberg of activities at the always brilliant and astoundingly evil Droga5.

Not just book publishing but also the news business is benefitting from becoming a game. Khoi Vinh, the much-heralded former designer director of the New York Times website, was talking about the ever-growing importance of shareability and community at newspaper websites years ago. He was saying, early in his tenure, that the future New York Times front page was the one that your friends made for you. Not only are you more likely to listen to your friends, you gain status and power by being an influential recommender. Or, elsewhere, by being a star commenter, or giving and getting “gold creddits” on Reddit.

Advertising is a game — as the lucky recent winners of a New York City scavenger hunt can tell you, when they go to pick up their new Ford Fiesta.

Food is a game. That’s why your beverages are becoming snacks and your snacks are becoming beverages. Apparently, drinks are just a game you play with your mouth!

Environmental stewardship is a game; hence Recycle Bank, “the premier green rewards program that motivates people to take environmental actions.” Charity is a game: when Zynga started donating money to Haiti through its monstrous Farmville (which, hmm), people ran to jump in. Kickstarter, on the other hand, is the friendly, less-evil hitching of our gaming impulses to do-gooding.

Going beyond the goals of keeping people on-site and involved and busy at play, there can be more nefarious applications of urges to loyalty and compulsive activity. Work itself may be, in some very limited circles, already becoming a game. (The implications for this are actually the most harrowing, I think; although at its least frightening, gamification in the workplace has all the coolness of being named as TGI Friday’s top up-seller — you get a free apron, and you get a free apron!)

But down the road, when you’re more of a consumer than a worker, what happens? “Healthcare, government, transportation, education,” Zichermann said: “it’s influencing almost every large market. We’re witnesing the birth of what I think is a completely new chapter in psychology and marketing.” Guess we’ll probably find out soon, because yes, CNN agrees: “Industries like health care, media and retail are already toying with game dynamics — awarding active employees or customers with virtual badges, for example.” See also: news organizations that offered cash bonuses as a game for their employees for getting the most Twitter followers and the like. If only they’d offered status or power, perhaps it would have worked out better. Although, we should never forget that status is tied up in the real-world value of money. As we’ll see in the future, when you have an underpaid employee population, making people compete for cash rewards can be plenty effective. But maybe you’ll want to play, and maybe you won’t.