The future is a videogame

Adding rewards and levels to our daily lives will make work more fun — and more addictive.

It was silent around the table. Two summers ago, the group of six — all self-professed foodies — were discussing coffee over roast chicken on a New York restaurant’s patio when Wilburg piped up.

“You know who has pretty good coffee?” said the owner of a sales and distribution company. “McDonald’s.”


“Seriously?” asked Gabe Zichermann, CEO of beamMe, an iPhone software company. “If you’re arguing for McDonald’s, you need something to back up why it’s better.”

Wilburg had nothing but anecdotal evidence, and nobody left that night convinced of the coffee’s merits. Though Wilburg’s friends may have questioned his taste, the real loser was the fast-food company.

“That is absolutely a missed moment for McDonald’s,” says Zichermann, who co-authored a book called Game-based Marketing, a few years later. “In that exact moment, he should’ve said, ‘You don’t believe me, let me beam you a free cup of coffee.'”

Welcome inside the brain of a game designer, where every moment is an opportunity to engage the player. Zichermann says that if McDonald’s had a virtual system that used levels, points and rewards to motivate users, it would have metrics to measure customer engagement. With those metrics, it could determine the most frequent users, and arm them with tools to be ambassadors for the brand. Tools like being able to offer freebies to friends.

Zichermann, who’s worked in the gaming business for the past decade, is one of the faces for a movement called “gamification” — the idea that companies can incorporate game mechanics, such as points, levels and badges, into their products and services. Mechanics are those things that make games addictive, and the most fundamental ones are rewards and levels. Rewards are any physical representation of a player’s success that motivate her to get more, like houses and hotels in Monopoly. Offering levels gives players something to work toward, like the climb of Snakes and Ladders or the ascending numbers in hopscotch. Taken together, the combination of rewards and levels creates a journey that encourages players to make an emotional investment. Take, for example, the six million years that players have cumulatively spent playing World of Warcraft, an online adventure game. Technology has made it easier to transform anything — from shopping to designing a website to driving a taxi cab — into a game. But experts say companies often get consumed by the bells and whistles (and sometimes, they are literally bells and whistles) and forget what really matters. Traditional games make us care about moving a plastic marker around a board or hopping along a chalk line. Gamification is about identifying what turns those trivial activities into addictive enterprises and then applying those mechanics to the way we work, sell and spend. It’s not just about adding badges and leaderboards. It’s about using them in a way that makes our jobs and shopping more meaningful — and more fun.

The successful application of game mechanics underlies two of the tech world’s biggest recent success stories: Farmville and Foursquare. Farmville, a game for Facebook users developed by gaming company Zynga, now has 70 million people a month addicted to watering virtual crops. Foursquare convinced people to use their smartphones to “check in” to real-life locations for virtual badges (“I’m on a boat!”) and virtual mayorship. Both take activities that people are already doing — using Facebook and going places — and make them a little more fun. In the same way, game mechanics can be used to turn life into a “non-fiction game,” by taking what people are already playing and then heightening the emotions involved.

Zichermann believes that if used properly, non-fiction games are the most powerful kind. The reason: playing them is easier to justify because they relate to real life, and for that reason, they attract a broader audience. “RBC has a huge advantage over Zynga should they choose to play their hand properly,” he says. “They can say, ‘This is how much you’re saving and making for real.'”

The speedometer in Ford’s 2010 hybrid car offers its own blend of real life and gaming. It features a graphic called “Efficiency Leaves,” where the plant grows or shrivels depending on how economically you drive. Ford knows you want to be environmentally friendly and feel validated for doing so. By visually showing your progress, Ford rewards you for being eco-conscious. That reward unleashes dopamine, the chemical associated with pleasure in your brain, and engages you in a compulsion loop. You want to be rewarded again, and again, and again. Personal finance website does the same thing. It knows you want to save money and feel good about your progress, so it gives you a lot to feel good about: encouraging you to set goals and transforming the data into graphs and pie charts to show how close you are to the “win.”

Using game mechanics to sell products or services is nothing new. The idea goes back to 1896 when stores sold S&H Green Stamps that were redeemable for other goods, and is maybe best exemplified with frequent-flyer programs for airlines. Collecting points for flying, staying at a certain hotel, or using a certain credit card wins you cheap flights, but more important, a higher status through things like access to a V.I.P lounge or priority boarding. The vast majority of frequent flyer points go unredeemed; as much as people care about cheaper travel, they care most about feeling more important than the average flyer.

“You want to ask, ‘Who are my players and what are their wants?'” says Amy Jo Kim, the CEO for consulting company ShuffleBrain, through which she’s helped companies such as eBay and Myspace “gamify.” “Then build a game that’s a journey users can get better at.”

Companies traditionally use games just as promotional tools to give away sweepstake prizes (think McDonald’s Monopoly). This is both expensive and inefficient, because once the contest is over, user engagement drops off. In comparison, Nike’s found a way to transform your daily workout into a game. For the past four years, they’ve been developing Nike+, which hooks people on the experience of losing weight through basic game mechanics. You place a sensor in your shoe and wear a sport band that tracks the distance, pace, time, and the calories burned each time you run, and the information is then synched to an online platform that socializes all the data. You can see your progress on a chart, how close you’ve come to reaching the goals you’ve set with a progress bar, and post your accomplishments to sites like Facebook and Twitter. You can also socialize with other runners on a forum, and participate in group challenges. All this helps to facilitate the game you’re already playing — trying to get fit — by tapping into your competitive drive against yourself and others.

When Kim, who also has a PhD in neuroscience and has worked as a game designer for MTV’s Rock Band, begins working with a company, she embarks on an intensive process lasting anywhere from a two-day session to a six-month engagement that starts by identifying who the players are and what they want. “If you’re a comparison-shopping site, the game is called ‘Get the lowest price,'” she says. “If you’re Amazon, people are looking for trust. The whole engagement is based on ‘Yes, we got your order.'” Kim says Amazon differentiates itself from the average comparison-shopping site by frequently communicating with users about the status of their orders. They also offer a rewards Visa that operates similar to frequent-flyer programs: certain purchases earn you points redeemable at Though shopping on Amazon doesn’t feel like a game, the company is using mechanics like points and feedback to foster that feeling of trust and customer loyalty.

There’s no blanket solution for making companies more game-like. There are online platforms such as Gamify and Badgeville that make adding things like leaderboards and graphs to a website simple, but in the wrong hands the effect is lost. “This is not something you just slap onto a website,” says Kris Duggan, CEO of Badgeville. “If you do this well, your product will experience a high lift. If you do it crappy, then shame on you.” Or, as Schell puts it: “Man, it’s easy to make bad games.”

That’s why Zichermann predicts by 2015, every major brand will have a chief engagement officer on staff, and every mid-sized company will have a game designer working for them. Since Schell gave a talk at the D.I.C.E conference last year, at least 50 companies have approached him to do consulting. Kim says she recently offered two one-day seminars for companies in L.A. and New York that were sold out with big waiting lists, and is working on a 10-week program for startups in Silicon Valley.

That being said, some companies have successfully incorporated game mechanics on their own. Zichermann’s favourite example is the relaunch of a website called DevHub, an online startup that gives people tools to create their own website. Last year, the company used a platform called BigDoor to add game-like enhancements to their service. Each time users add something to their pages, they get points and coins, which are displayed on a leaderboard and can buy them goods at a marketplace, like upgrades to their own website. To track people’s progress, DevHub uses a graphic of a building that grows as the webpage is built. The company integrated Facebook and Twitter so users could post their progress. DevHub players want to build a site, and feel like they’re being productive. The game mechanics are integrated to facilitate both goals, by giving players a way to go up a level and feeling rewarded. Since relaunching, traffic to DevHub has doubled.

Kim points to ModCloth as another good example — an online clothing store, run by a husband and wife in the U.S., that was ranked the fastest-growing American retailer in 2009 by Inc. magazine. When co-owner Susan Greg Kogger goes to a sample sale and sees things she likes but isn’t sure are worth ordering, she posts them on a page called “Be the Buyer.” Users can vote on clothes they like, and if there’s enough demand, Kogger sells them. “That’s a system people use and can get better at, and that gives you the basis for reputation,” says Kim. “What if you’re one of the first people always picking the stuff that gets big? You can track that in a digital system and build a game around it.” Kim says the company is already using a game mechanic, voting, to hook people on the site, but ModCloth could go even further by using their data to reward customers, perhaps with a chance to accompany buyers on shopping sprees.

So far, most companies integrating game mechanics have been online. Kim says she is starting to get more requests from non-virtual companies eager to bridge the online and real world with games, similar to Nike+. Zichermann is currently working to gamify a cab company in New York, and exploring what motivates people to use the service. What is their emotional journey? He muses that maybe it’s status; taking a taxi makes you feel more important than taking public transportation, similar to flying. Maybe it’s efficiency. “Give customers the opportunity to see how much faster they got somewhere than using public transit,” he says. “Socialize the data so they can see ‘This week I saved three hours of time’ or ‘I stayed out of the rain’ and give them an umbrella badge that says, ‘I’m keeping dry in my taxi.’ It’s not just about giving customers free things for taking an action. That’s almost never enough.”

That’s why Zichermann doesn’t think McDonald’s should give Wilburg himself a free cup of coffee. Wilburg doesn’t want more of the product. He wants recognition for being a loyal customer. Status. In “gamifying” the experience, McDonald’s should make him feel like a coffee expert by rewarding him with special access, such as an invitation to a company tasting event in Times Square to sample an upcoming blend.

By providing him with a virtual token that allows him to give a free cup of coffee to a friend, however, they’d be tapping into a game mechanic Zynga uses well: capitalizing on their users’ social network. Advancing in their games requires users to invite friends to participate by offering them a free gift.

“These are the kinds of opportunities Zynga and game designers don’t miss,” says Zichermann. “Don’t just hope customers will advocate for your product. Give them a reason to.”

Players to watch:

Buffalo Wild Wings
The American restaurant chain is working with social-media network Scvngr to engage customers with smartphones in challenges. Uploading photos of a crowd’s reaction to a big game could win you a trip to the NBA finals.

Healthware Inc.
The health-care company invested in MeYou Health, a startup that turns staying healthy into a game. Their services include sending a daily health challenge on Facebook, and iPhone apps that track eating habits and stair climbing.

Microsoft Office
The word-processing company created a downloadable add-on called Ribbon Hero that helps users learn the program’s features using challenges and points. The system is integrated with Facebook, allowing users to post their progress and compete with friends.

The deal-of-the-day company has turned getting discounts into a game. A certain number of users must buy for the deal to go into effect, creating a “multiplayer” dynamic. There’s also a time limit with users having 24 hours to buy after the deal is announced.

The Q&A website ensures itself a high quality of user through game mechanics. Users vote to rank the best questions and the site offers feedback in the form of real-time notifications.

The online clothing retailer involves customers in their buying process by allowing them to follow meetings with designers via Twitter in real time. Participants are then rewarded with points for their level of input.