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Game On!
Brand gamification can change the world if it embraces engagement.

Gamification. As I write this, there are probably no fewer than 25 books on the subject and 50 speakers making the various circuits about how this is “the next big thing” in branding.

The use of game-design techniques to solve problems, motivate and engage people is not new. We’ve seen it in loyalty programs, brand-sponsored contests and elementary school fundraisers. What’s new is the technology that allows game elements to be applied to virtually any experience. It is in the places where this technology lives that the game and brand universes have finally intersected.

As it currently exists, gamification is still somewhat of a novelty. Most “gamified” applications or services employ systems of badges, achievements and levels, but lack interactions containing any degree of behavioral complexity. This complexity is key to creating the gamer’s state of intense engagement or “blissful productivity.” As author and game designer Jane McGonigal said in a TED talk: “Gaming can make a better world.”

Whether gamification can evolve out of this early phase and into a meaningful tool for brands to create loyalty and engagement remains to be seen. One thing is certain: The marketing world is taking notice. Brand consultancy Millward Brown predicts gamification will become a leading digital marketing trend in 2012 and beyond. Technology research firm Gartner forecasts that, by 2014, 70-plus percent of Forbes Global 2000 companies will have developed at least one gamified application.

That doesn’t mean that they’re all going to get it right. If it isn’t given the room to grow that it deserves, gamification will become yet another throwaway buzzword in the branding lexicon. Brands have a real opportunity to effect positive change and create truly absorbing brand stories with this tool, but getting it right means spending sufficient time and money exploring the possibilities and limitations that this nascent opportunity offers.

Why not stick to the more traditional, tried-and-true methods of engagement: advertising, direct marketing and social media? Of course, that begs the question: Why should companies spend that kind of time and money on an offering that is too young to have a proven track record for return-on-investment? In today’s “attention economy,” can they afford not to?

An Opportunity for Engagement

The engagement level of games is one of the most coveted elements a brand could seek to capture. From the casual to the hardcore — and every genre in between — people are gaming. Think about this: Since its release in 2009, the collective time spent playing Rovio Mobile’s megahit, Angry Birds, comes to over 200,000 years. That’s about the same amount of time modern humans have existed. Today, more than half a billion people on the planet spend more than 3 billion hours a week playing online games, reports Jane McGonigal in her best-selling book, Reality Is Broken.

Maybe part of that success is because of the increasingly mobile and on-demand aspects of entertainment. Or, maybe it’s that as the Millennial generation comes of age, gaming is more accepted as a mainstream leisure pursuit. There are dozens of reasons why games are receiving so much of our precious attention — and are projected to receive much more in the future.

As passive forms of media like television and film start to share equal time with (and even take a back seat to) gaming as the public’s entertainment-form-of-choice, companies are doing their best to convert this shift in attention to customer engagement and brand loyalty. It makes perfect sense. From a marketing standpoint, the type of deeply focused commitment that games provide is the kind that most brand managers would drown puppies to get.

The problem is that, historically, mixing marketing with gaming has been less like a chocolate-and-peanut-butter experience and more like a toothpaste-and-orange-juice one. Understandably. The act of simply putting messages, ads or sponsorships from even our most beloved brands injects the one thing that we definitely don’t want in our leisure pursuits: reality.

Gamification, when properly executed, could be a means to create engagement that won’t dial up the consumer BS alarms to 11. Why? Because it’s fun. It’s absorbing. But most important, it’s voluntary. While Web 2.0 took away most opportunities for brands to dictate messages to the consumer, gamification provides an opt-in choice to receive those messages — and the possibility of being rewarded for doing so. Done well, it’s a win-win for both parties.

But it’s not being done well — at least not yet. It certainly is not being done well by enough brands for any of us to hail gamification as the brand world’s new “killer app.” The reason for this lies, strangely enough, in gamification’s poster child: Foursquare.

The Foursquare Illusion

Arguably the company that brought the concept of gamification into the public consciousness in 2009, Foursquare introduced some very basic game mechanics to its application and created a simple, yet highly absorbing, user experience. In return for points, rewards and climbing up the leaderboards, consumers didn’t mind if the app pointed them to sponsored or partnered content. (And they still don’t.) However, Foursquare’s successful formula is deceptive to brands that wish to do the same for their products or services for a couple of reasons.

First, badges and points alone do not instantly make your app a game, nor do they guarantee that your audience will engage with your product simply because those elements are present. What Foursquare spawned almost overnight was a whole slew of badge-having, points-awarding, achievement-unlocking apps (GetGlue), blogs (DevHub) and websites (Huffington Post) that all utilized the exact same mechanism that they did — but without the context of any goal or meaningful rewards. Badges, achievements and points were awarded for doing things like clicking a link, “liking” a site on Facebook or watching a specific TV program.

The absorbing parts of a game — the element of discovery and play, mastery of challenge and the immensely satisfying epic win — were replaced with empty or repetitive tasks that the user was either likely to do without additional encouragement or not motivated enough to do by the pseudo-reward offered. As game designer Sebastian Deterding has pointed out, these subpar gamified experiences have begun to outnumber the truly superb ones, casting them all in a light that makes them look faddish and superfluous for business purposes.

Second, the success of Foursquare and similar apps make it seem like all that’s necessary to create a gamified experience for a brand is simply to tack on a badge/reward system for their app or mobile site and voilà! — caviar slushees for all. This leads companies to believe that gamification is an offering that can be introduced with relatively little cost or difficulty. (The fact that companies like Bunchball and Badgeville offer this slap-on solution does little to debunk this myth.)

Companies must realize that a gamified offering is a project in and of itself. Time and money must be invested in having people with experience execute it. That means getting game designers, user experience designers, professional coders and web and mobile platform strategists on board. Game designers have more than a 40-year head start on marketers for what makes a game fun and what doesn’t. Prototyping, iterating, playtesting and balancing are not just nice to have; they are required for success.

The point is, gamification is about more than simply badges and achievements. Companies that want to go further and push their brands forward will need to resist the urge to tick the boxes with shrink-wrapped, gimmicky add-ons. That will be tough for all but the most forward-thinking brands because there is no clear path forward, no arrow pointing “this way!” As designer Marty Neumeier aptly puts it: “One must ‘design’ the way forward.”

Designing A Better Future

What does the way forward look like? We can increase brand recognition and engagement, be stellar corporate citizens and literally change the world if only we push ourselves to create experiences that go beyond corporate profitability checklists.

For example, what if Safeway wanted to reinforce its position as providers of ingredients for life and created a gamified urban farming experience? Players could pick up urban garden kits in-store and pair their real-life urban garden with a Safeway-branded FarmVille-like app in which players would tend to a virtual farm that actually paired with another user’s real-world one. Points and achievements could be earned by “tending” to their virtual farm, and, in turn, that activity would provide reminders, encouragement, and tips for the corresponding player to use on their real one.

Benefits would come in the form of overall increased success of fruit, herb, and vegetable harvests, along with sponsored benefits, such as sharing user-grown produce at Safeway location-based community farmer’s markets, or in-store discounts on non-produce products. Even the simple pride and sustainability awareness created in growing and consuming something you grew yourself could map positively back to Safeway and keep the engagement flowing.

Suppose small businesses gamified their health- care plans. Employees could participate in employer-based fitness and wellness programs sponsored by their employer’s insurance/health care providers, and receive tangible benefits not only in the form of improved health, but also possible financial or time incentives, as well. Employers could reap the benefits of a more productive and efficient workforce, and possibly a discount on their overall health-care costs for their employees.

Imagine Goodwill tapping into a growing public desire to reduce, reuse, and recycle by gamifying donations to deliver most-needed items to the right place at the right time. One of the greatest challenges organizations like Goodwill and the Salvation Army face is logistics: getting the items to the specific communities that need them — especially after disasters occur. The game itself could be framed as a scavenger hunt in reverse.

A Goodwill-branded, location-based app could help communities form teams, locate the items in need and bring them to a specific drop-off site within a certain time frame. Benefits could be received not only through winning the challenge and the ensuing “feel good vibes,” but also by providing tax write-offs for local causes, based on the value of the donated items. Double points or matched value from Goodwill for items on the “most needed” list, or token freebies from vendors like Starbucks or Jamba Juice, could be part of a rewards system, as well.

These are all blue-sky concepts, I realize. I have no idea how they would play out — or even work — in the real world. But if gaming has taught us anything, it’s that if the experience is engaging enough, anything is achievable. That’s where the beauty of a well-constructed gamified experience lies.

Companies and non-profits are already employing these techniques to create results that were previously unimaginable (Foldit, PepsiCo’s Social Vending System, Nike+,’s MyQuit Coach), but there are still so many more to explore.

The jury is still out on whether gamification is going to be a game-changer for brands or simply another faddish afterthought to agency or company offerings. But traditional forms of media are changing and evolving more rapidly than ever before, and this is true of every generation. Armed with just that simple truth, advertising and marketing firms have an opportunity to reinvent what they offer, and to define the real-world benefits they can provide their clients and their customers.

We may see only one or two shining stars among every thousand examples — but wouldn’t it be nice to see this nascent trend explored fully and deeply, to get to what lies beyond the surface and really harness the power of this tool to create more productive workplaces, more efficient global and local communities, and happier and healthier individuals?

Isn’t that an achievement worth, well … unlocking?

jason bice
JASON BICE is senior manager of verbal branding in the San Francisco office of Landor Associates, where he develops brand names, taglines, naming systems and brand nomenclature strategies. He can be reached at

SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2012 | PDF | Subscribe | Home