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Gamification: Rewarding Engagement
Tuesday, March 27 2012

If you're a child of the late 1970s or early 1980s, you likely grew up with at least some level of interest in video games. Even if you're not, gaming has become fairly ubiquitous over the past twenty-plus years, catalyzed by the birth of dedicated gaming consoles like the Atari and the Nintendo Entertainment System. While a lot of gaming today is still centered around these systems, it also permeates across other technologies, such as the Web and smartphones. The allure of gaming is that you are presented with a challenge and rewarded for overcoming that challenge. Sometimes you finish one level and your reward is to move onto the next; maybe you stumble upon a secret area that gives you a "power-up"; you may defeat your nemesis and win the entire game.

As video gaming has become more engrained in U.S. culture, its core concepts are being used for applications that are entirely untethered to video games themselves. This application of game design or game mechanics in non-game contexts is called "gamification", and you can expect to see a lot more of it crop up in the Web and mobile applications that you use.

It makes sense that gaming is being used in a broader context these days. One only has to look at social gaming powerhouse Zynga, which makes addictive, Facebook-integrated games (like FarmVille and Words with Friends) to see how popular gaming has become to the general populous. The company claims 240 million active users, leveraging the power of relationships on Facebook to promote its use. While Zynga develops actual games, its popularity has driven more comfort and acceptance of using game theory in entirely new ways.

One of the earliest and most prominent users of game mechanics was location-based mobile app Foursquare. Foursquare uses badges, points and leader boards to generate competition among friends, and add "stickiness" to its app, making users want to use it again and again. Did you check in to five restaurants with a photo booth? There's a badge for that. Did you check into a place where 50 or more people are also checked in at? That place is "swarming" and you get a badge and extra points. This underlying gaming system keeps people engaged with Foursquare and makes them want to use it again and again.

Gamification is being adopted increasingly by marketers and advertisers to keep their audiences engaged longer, and also to deliver a more valuable experience overall. Brands that have adopted gamification concepts in the recent past include Coca-Cola, Dell, Nike, Pepsi and Viacom. Recently, automaker Ford launched a gamification campaign in conjunction with the launch of its TV show, "Escape Routes". Each team on the TV series has their own social page that users can interact with in real-time, and those users can earn points to win lucrative prizes (Ford Escape, vacations, and other goodies) by interacting and inviting friends to play. For Ford, it means that its audience can engage with its brand in a much more intimate, long-term way than ever before, and the game mechanics behind its campaign drive that usage.

We've come a long way from Pac Man and Donkey Kong, but the core concepts found in those decades-old games are alive and well in gamification today. By providing the proverbial carrot on a stick through levels, badges and points, audiences can be enticed to stick around for a while and engage like they never have before, providing value to that audience, as well as the brand.