Innovation

Gamification: Why big companies are spending millions on computer games

Myriam Robin /

Imagine a speed camera that rewards good behaviour while remaining cost-neutral.

It exists. In Sweden, such cameras are being rolled out nationally.

The camera’s work normally, by recording speeds and issuing fines, but also utilise gamification principles to rethink what people are most likely to respond to.

People who drive by the camera at a speed above the limit are fined, as usual.

But those whose speed is equal to or less than the limit see their speed on an electronic billboard, with a big thumbs up sign. And that’s not all. They’re then entered into a lottery, funded by the proceeds generated by the speeding tickets on others. (Sweden, which means-tests speeding fines, handed out a $250,000 fine last year.)

Most organisations can only dream of the behavioural change these cameras have prompted.

Average speeds fell from 32km per hour before the cameras were installed to 25km per hour afterwards. As average car speeds have tended to rise rather than diminish, despite increasing fines and regulations around driving speeds, this success is noteworthy.

Gabe Zichermann, the CEO of American company Gamification Co, says compared to video-games, real life is “no fun”.

“In games, such moments of bliss occur hundreds of times per hour. They’re built in.”

This is why Sweden’s speed camera works. By challenging users to slow down and showing them what speed they’re driving at, the camera allows drivers a sense of achievement. And it enhances this up by giving them the chance of a fintion Co, said at a dinner keynote yesterday it’s the best speeding intervention to date. “Nothing else has accomplished this degree of success,” he said.

The reasons for this relate to human psychology. “We’re fundamentally wired for pleasure,” Zichermann said. Dopamine is a mood-boosting chemical released whenever we achieve a challenge. “When we overcome a problem, our brain then tells us, ‘do it again’.”

But in real life, this achievement high is rare.

Gamification is defined, according to Zichermann, as the process of using game mechanics to engage users, and often to solve problems. It can face customers or employees. “Ultimately, if a process or campaign needs to engage users, gamification can be a powerful tool for accomplishing objectives, regardless of industry or geography.”

Gamification has had its widest application, so far, in marketing, and education.

For example, hybrid cars have used gamification in an intriguing piece of post-purchase marketing.

The Nissan Leaf measures how much damage drivers cause to the environment. It does this by looking at their use of the accelerator and brake pedals, the driving and traffic conditions, their air-conditioning usage and the time the vehicle isn’t moving while running. It then displays an aggregate measure of all this information in a graphic of a tree on the dashboard.

When someone is driving efficiently, the tree flourishes, and when they’re not, it withers.

Other hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, the Ford Focus EV and the Honda Insight, have implemented similar dashboard games.

Zichermann points out it would have cost the car companies millions of dollars to develop these ‘games’. But the customers benefiting have already bought a hybrid car. So what’s the point?

It’s about reinforcement. “The car tells you what a good person you are, every single day you drive it,” Zichermann says.

That feedback builds positive brand association, and can serve to foster a long-term relationship with the car company.

Australian companies have been slower to embrace gamification than those in the United States and Japan, but Zichermann says that is changing. A number of Australians are travelling to America to attend a conference Zichermann’s company is hosting on later this year.

In the educational realm, gamification has already been embraced by a wide variety of institutions. For example, the United States’ veterans department has created a role-playing video-game intended to help traumatised soldiers reconnect with their families by playing through scenarios of positive human interactions.

Codecademy, a start-up that aims to teach everyone how to do basic software coding, uses a game format to teach the lessons. Users are guided through a series of coding challenges, with the game only allowing them to advance once they code the segment correctly. The sense of progression helps keep students engaged through an otherwise dull topic.

In America, an American school-teacher called Amanth Pai was given a failing third-grade class as his first teaching post. He accepted on the condition he could write his own curriculum. He then threw out all the textbooks and lesson plans, and instead bought some cheap educational games available to the general public. His lessons consisted of merely helping and guiding students who worked, individually and in small groups, through the games. After 18 weeks, not only were the kids all passing the third grade, but were in fact reading at a fourth-grade level.

Another intriguing example of gamification is Foldit, a game designed at the University of Washington. It’s a game about folding proteins. Protein folding is the method used to create new materials and chemicals in industry, but frustratingly for the field, computers are very bad at modelling it.

Humans however, even those not trained in biochemistry, take to it very quickly – they can figure out the underlying logic.

This fact was what spurred scientists at the University of Washington to approach the university’s game design faculty and ask them to make a game to help them solve problems in biochemistry.  The final game was Foldit.

The game took three years to design, but just 10 days after it was publically released last year, users were able to correctly decipher the crystal structure of an AIDS-causing virus that had stumped scientists for the past 15 years. In January, Foldit users made another breakthrough, designing a protein able to speed up 18-fold a reaction used in synthetic chemistry.

But not all games are a good idea. For example, those offering just money or other rewards are unlikely to engage users for very long.

“Cash and other ‘stuff’ is a weak motivator, it gets priced in very quickly,” he said. This means game designers have to offer higher and higher rewards.

This also means things like virtual badges, unless they offer status in a community, are unlikely to be effective in the long run.

Asked whether games can be manipulative of user’s time, Zichermann acknowledges not all games are created equal.

“In gamification – as opposed to game design – we focus on aligning the long term objectives of users, companies and systems to produce optimal engagement and results. In order to do this, the experience will need to be both rewarding and emotionally satisfying. What works short-term in a game as pure distraction, doesn’t scale as a gamified system,” he said.

What leading companies should take away, Zichermann said, is that gamification principles offer them the tools to engage with stakeholders at a new level, one that will become increasingly necessary as children who’ve grown up on computer games reach adulthood.

“Don’t design for rationality,” Zichermann concludes. “People aren’t rational in what they spend their time engaging with.”

“Organisations should design for the consumers of the future – highly intelligent, multitasking consumers reacting emotionally in an environment with a high degree of noise.”

Gabe Zichermann was speaking at the ADC Forum Future Summit in Melbourne yesterday evening.

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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