January 12, 2011

Q&A with Gabe Zichermann, chair of Gamification Summit and Workshops

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Gabe ZichermannAs a self-described “gamification thought leader,” Gabe Zichermann makes a case for using gaming principles to motivate and engage consumers. He co-authored Game-Based Marketing and chairs the Gamification Summit, which takes place later this month in San Francisco. We spoke with him about one of our 10 Trends for 2011,” All the World’s a Game—the idea that brands will increasingly apply game mechanics (leader boards, leveling, stored value, privileges, superpowers, status indicators, etc.) to non-gaming spaces in an attempt to drive certain actions or behaviors.

You talk about “Big G” gaming—video games—versus “little g” gaming—gaming mechanics in non-game categories. How is the larger concept of “games” changing?

Whenever you use the word game, people immediately think of something. Something pops into their head, and that invariably clouds their judgment about everything I say after the word game.

I gave a talk at the New York Tech Meetup. There were about 700 people in the room, and I started by asking, “When I say the word game, how many of you think World of Warcraft?” About 30 percent of the audience put their hand up. “OK, how many of you think Farmville?” About 30 percent of the audience put their hand up. “How many of you think Foursquare?” And 10 people put their hand up, which is a small number of people. But nine months prior, that number would have been zero.

The rapid shift in the definition of games is a big part of gamification. Our understanding is colored by the fact that three generations of people have been irrevocably changed by their exposure to games. It’s in subtle ways we don’t even think about consciously, and we call that game thinking. We’ve been exposed to games, and now we start to unpack and solve problems using metaphors we’ve learned in games and techniques we’re accustomed to learning from games.

And this is super profound. It seems like a small thing, but it’s a really substantial thing. It has broad-reaching implications for all kinds of products, services and human-computer interaction. My favorite metaphor for describing the shift is that if Shakespeare were a real person—and we’re not sure he ever was—he famously wrote “All the world’s a stage.” But in reality, if he’d been alive today, he’d have written “All the world is a game.” Simply because it’s the best metaphor for describing our interaction with the world.

How is gamification changing marketing?

Gamification is rewriting economics for marketing, both in terms of customer acquisition and in terms of loyalty programming. Gamification at its core is a process, and it’s different for everybody. But it’s not like some magic guy behind a curtain who waves this wand and makes everything more fun. It’s incremental. It’s perpetual. I think every corporation will have a chief engagement officer whose job is to focus on nothing but customer engagement as their full-time gig. It’s different from marketing; it’s a very specialized position. And we’re already starting to see elements of that.

Can brands in every category use game mechanics to increase engagement?

There’s almost no cases where game mechanics wouldn’t help. Let’s use an example of cancer, which we don’t generally think of as very fun, right? If you define the objective for cancer in this frame as improving outcomes—reducing mortality and improving quality of life—I don’t know whether we could develop a capital “G” game that would do that. But I do know that if we put a patient on a reward system for taking their medicine and following the protocol, they’re likely to adhere to it better. And I also know that if we take doctors and we apply the same kind of idea—a reward system that encourages them to follow the protocol and deal with patients appropriately—that we will also shape their behavior in a positive way.

So I can’t definitively tell you that I can make cancer treatment fun. But I know I can increase engagement of the parties involved and therefore drive their behavior in a particular way. So if cancer can be affected by it broadly, so can much more commercial ideas like shopping or eating or entertainment or travel or sex or whatever.

All the World's a Game

In your book you mention Bartle’s four player types. What are they, and how do they appeal to different motivations?

Richard Bartle is one of the first researchers to look at how games affect behavior. In the early ’80s, by watching people play massive multi-player online games, he observed four player types, so four different reasons why people play. And those four types have since become 16 or so types. But the four turned out to be very enduring:

Achievers are people who like to win. They like to be successful. And the classic challenge with Achievers is that not everybody can win, which creates a real design challenge. And the second thing is they actually make up the minority of the population. They make up only about 10 percent of the population. But most of the people designing games are Achievers.

The average person is what we call a Socializer. They’re after lightweight, non-confrontational, easy-to-reciprocate social interactions. We estimate that about 80 percent of the population are principally driven to socialize.

Explorers make up about 10 percent of the population. They like to find things. If you ever played Super Mario Brothers, you might remember that some people pre-Internet knew where all the hidden levels were. They were playing the game over hundreds of hours, testing every single pipe and every single opening in the bricks. So this person is really motivated by a desire to find something new and get credibility from the market for that new thing they’ve discovered.

The last group, which is the most controversial and the one that always gets giggles, are the Killers. And the Killers are a lot like Achievers, except it’s not only enough for me to win—I have to win, and you have to lose. And not only do you have to lose, everyone needs to see you lose and me win. And ideally, you need to give me props and respect for having killed. Killers make up a small percentage of the population, less than 1 percent, but they have an out-sized influence on the outcome, particularly in community websites like media-oriented websites or forums, where there are frequently users who play to kill all the time.

If looked at from another way, the Killers are the most passionate advocates for your platform. They just happen to be channeling their energy in a bad way. A typical Web designer or editorial person thinks, “Let’s find some way to block them.” Game designers think about what motivates that user, what they’re actually after, and puts that out as a reward—if they follow a process that we want them to follow. So it’s the carrot instead of the stick.

What is the future of game mechanics offline?

It’s hard to do offline. It doesn’t mean you can’t connect online and offline together. Zynga had a very successful promotion with 7-Eleven … and Chase Bank’s “Pick Up the Tab” promotion kind of melds the two. The actual win occurs over SMS, which is a digital format, but the transaction is a physical transaction. So there are ways to connect the two.

Where is gamification in the hype cycle?

There’s definitely going to be a moment at which there is game saturation in the market, but I think that’s at least five years away. Between now and 2014-15, it’s an absolute arms race to get as much positive, mechanistic stuff going on with gamification and brands.

When JetBlue launched, they said, “We don’t need a frequent flier program. We’re a new kind of airline. Our experience is so much better and so much nicer, our planes are so much cleaner and our employees are so much more friendly, and everything is so much nicer, we don’t need a frequent flier program.” It turns out the frequent flier program is the product, and the airline is secondary. And JetBlue learned that lesson. They had to introduce their frequent flier program.

The same exact thing is going to happen in literally every industry, including the government. I think they too are coming under pressure to use game mechanics to improve outcomes. And I think some of the more academically interesting startups out there are focused on health because it’s such a gigantic market opportunity. You could learn a lot about motivational dynamics from what they’re trying to do in the health gamification space.

Photo credit: Sion Fullana

2 Responses to "Q&A with Gabe Zichermann, chair of Gamification Summit and Workshops"

1 | Collier Ward

January 15th, 2011 at 11:21 pm

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I am a licensed architect (a building architect, that is, rather than some new tech derivation of the term) thinking long and hard about the future of my profession.

Design and construction are so grounded in bricks and mortar and the forces of nature that we still conduct business much like we did a century ago.

Sure, we draw and model with computers, but how do our processes and products reflect life in the info age? Architecture WILL change, but I’m not sure how.

Is there a gamification of architecture on the horizon? I would just “kill” to figure this out!

2 | Frank

October 10th, 2012 at 3:20 pm

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@Coller Ward

I’m no expert in either gamification or architecture, but I would think that it would be more difficult to apply gamification to something like architecture, bc architecture does not require customers in the same way a company like Coke does bc of the frequency of use. If you have a client, and he likes your work on a project, he’ll use you again on another project. And each project takes a long period of time. Coke, on the other hand, is a product that people buy very often.

So I would think that an architect doesn’t need the constant interaction of other types of often repeatable purchases.

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