Word-Transformation: "Gamification"

It's all the buzz at sales and marketing conferences: the term "gamification." To them, it means clever and cost-effective ways of increasing customer engagement, mind-share, positive brand association, and gobs of customer profile data. All in a new, best way possible: by making it FUN to interact with the company brand. Right in the palm of the customer's hand (or right on their favorite desktop or laptop computer.)

By carefully analyzing what makes people loop and become obsessed with something, be it on the "go viral" level of funny videos or the must-conquer-frustration level of things like the Flappy Birds game, marketing departments want to engineer "sticky" activities to engage more of their customer's time, brain, clicks, and loyalty. They want to be the app on your smartphone, the page you're looking at on your second-screen, and the friendly competition that spawns gauntlet throwing at the office watercooler. It's effective in several ways, and it's held as a grail quest in the minds of marketers everywhere.

What's marketing gamification?
  • Adding trackable, affectable metrics to simple customer actions.
  • Presenting those metrics to the public or to a subgroup in a themed, "fun" way that provides competition or rewards.
  • Providing prizes, rewards, freebies, or recognition awards to the highest-metric participants.
  • Reaping lots of customer data in the process, hopefully to be used to continously increase sales.

And in a meta-view way, chasing this gamification buzz is in itself a big game: it's hit-or-miss, strategy-plus-a dice-roll game of making certain company customer metrics go up. The master metric ("score") is dollars, of course, but this game is enticing because there are so many metrics to manage ("points to earn") between start and profits... and they are all mostly vaguely, but believably, connected. More or less. Clicks count. Downloads count. Conversions. Likes. Tweets. Follows. Mentions. Pins. All numbers, all viewable by the minute or hour, and all render into colorful charts and graphs at the touch of a button. Like any addictive game, some levers you pull will get you points, and some levers only might get you points. You've got a goal, you've got competitors, and you've got endless combinations of levers to pull. The clock is running!

With so many people buzzing and working on making gamification the ticket to corporate win, you can bet that it is a field getting worked over. Every aspect is getting examined, beta-tested, rolled-out, and promoted. Every strategy is being applied to winning the gamification game, and some of those strategies are producing some pretty edgy interpretations and systems for hijacking customer's time and brains. Luckily, we humans are so varied and diverse that nothing works on everyone. We have a magic level of neuroplasticity so that things only fad for a while. So the quest to find "the perfect gamification design" and "next big hit" continues.

Meanwhile, outside the corporate marketing department but still inside the corporation, gamification is being applied to keeping employees excited and engeged. Point systems, leaderboards, badges, and rewards are attached to to everyday tasks like data entry, completing jobs, and going to meetings. Similar to customer games, but different flavors. And these efforts do cross over into corporate training as well, which makes it confusing.

Is that what you thought of when you heard "gamification" at your last professional development or continuing education conference or meeting? It probably isn't what was meant if you did.

All this to say the term "gamification" is now taking on an entirely different meaning in different domains. The current big buzz for gamification is in marketing and sales, and that domain has so many more people than all the other domains - such as professional learning - that corporate marketing has appropriated and transformed the term. Yet various domains still have different meanings for the word. When someone says "gamification", it is now about as clear as mud what aspect and meaning they have for the word.

Games in continuing education and professional development

Which is exactly why I wanted to clarify what in-course mini-games are and how they work. Using games for learning and competency demonstration is an entirely different prospect, purpose, and method than the gamification going on in the corporate marketing world. So different, in fact, that I hesitate to use the term gamification for what is happening in the world of online courses. Regardless, it is the term that people are using and that has everyone's attention, so let's clarify it for our domain.

Gamification approaches, goals, and implementation specifics are often completely different in different domains.

When a learning professional hears gamification in a sense of applying it to training or learning, the term is much more to do with providing exercises ("games") that directly include the skills or knowledge being learned to be applied in a system ("rules") that provides a clear outcome ("win or lose", "measurable benefit or loss", "rank"). Quality games provide problems or resource situations that cannot be solved well without the skills or knowledge being learned, and allow participants to experiment and "tweak the dials" to experience the outcomes and effects of different strategies and factors or sequences. It may also include tracking game outcomes and running a class leaderboard or competetition, but those are minor aspects compared to gaming to exercise and apply specific new knowledge and concepts.

We've played games in the training room and classroom for decades. The military has used games for training forever. Using gaming in this way isn't new. What is new is the combination of the Internet, online courses, and the low-cost of production and use of cross-platform HTML5 games. Suddenly, making small, custom games for specific learning objectives in an online course has become affordable. It's nice timing, too, because everyone gets bored reading PDF's to get continuing education units, but Gen Y especially expects more. Everyone enjoys an online course more -- and learns more deeply with better rention -- when they play games in the course that exercise and apply the new knowledge and concepts they just learned. The impact is very high, however, in the younger generations. Online courses with games have much higer enrollment and completion rates for everyone, but especially for learners under 35.

Professional learning has never been more important or urgent, and it's nice that we are getting some upgrades to online courses now. And, hopefully in the near future, we'll see in-course games replace multiple-choice quizzes as demonstrations of competency! Won't that be nice: a far better way to prove you can competently apply what you've just learned... and NO multiple-choice quizzes to pass! Just win the game - a much more fun way to pass a course.

What kind of gamification do you mean?

Gabe Zichermann's definition is a good one, and can apply to many aspects: "Gamification is the process of using game thinking and mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems." That still has a commercial leaning to it, though. Gabe does talk about the power of gaming in education as well, and maybe Gabe would say these educational kinds of application are simply gaming, not gamification.

At it's basic and most popular level - and maybe that's the safest definition - gamification just means adding some aspect of video games or computer-assisted scoring to an activity that seems more boring without it. Which leaves two big things for you to decide: (1) is any particular gamification effort a truly fun mix of games-and-reality, and (2) are the benefits worth the costs?

So the next time you hear someone say "gamification" in a conversation about your business, or your online courses, be sure to clarify what they mean. It's an exciting and worthy concept in all domains, but the approach, goals, and implementation specifics are often completely different in different domains.

Respectable and Relevant Next Clicks

www.gamification.co - Gabe Zichermann's company site. News, insight, and commentary on gamification. Gabe is a great speaker and thought-leader on gamification, and founded one of the first companies focused on helping corporations apply gamification successfully in several ways. He's one of the key folks that added credibility to gamification.

Try a CE in-course mini-game! Here's one from a course for architects about how to get LEED credits for using various kinds of materials in their buildings, and the materials certifications that qualify them. Materials Reporting 4 mini-game, co-developed with Lowther 7 and Green CE Sustainable Design Continuing Education.