Game Over? 6 lessons from the bursting of the “gamification” bubble

On June 15, 2014, Foursquare announced the launch of its new Swarm app—a developed almost immediately heralded by tech journalists as yet another sign of the death of the recent "gamification" craze. The new app places renewed focussing on real life social interactions rather than on racking up badges, which, the company itself professes, “stopped feeling special long ago."

Even before the advent of Swarm, tech gurus had already been ringing the funeral bells for gamification. Fortune magazine columnist Heather Clancy recently declared gamification to be a spent force, noting that “Despite powerful hype in recent years, very few companies are using the tactic today, and even fewer are doing so successfully.”

The term gamification entered popular parlance in 2011 in response to the advent of smart phone app-based video games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga. By 2012, gamification had become a veritable marketing obsession, with companies ranging from Nike to Marriott to WestJet leading the gamification charge.

Fast-forward to the present and while the term retains considerable currency, the craze for Farmville-esque HR tools, Foursquare nobility badges like "NASA Explorer" and "Sexiest Man Alive" and pretty much anything with the word "ninja" in the title is clearly on the decline. Nevertheless, rumours of the demise of gamification, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, many companies and organization are successfully employing game tactics to their social media strategies with little fanfare.

Gamification, rather than dying, is simply reaching a maturation crossroads, wherein the hype around it is giving way to a fine-tuning of strategies. Gamification isn’t dead; it’s just that companies are realizing that it’s not the solution to absolutely everything. But it can still be made to work by keeping the following six guidelines in mind.

1. Appeal to basic human psychology.

Gamification has never been about ‘games’ per se. Rather, it’s about the application of game psychology and mechanics to marketing and communications strategies. And while the mechanics are important, it’s psychology that’s paramount. At the recent CPRS National Summit, author and gamification guru Gabe Zichermann noted that human beings are hardwired to respond positively to challenge and achievement, and that game structures are a great way to tap into this basic human need.  

The key to successful gamification is Zichermann’s "loop": incentive, challenge, achievement/reward, feedback and mastery. Anything, whether communication, marketing campaign or even a game, that can satisfy these fundamental human needs stands a good chance of success. By contrast, dishing out badges willy-nilly in an attempt to make a website more engaging is a complete waste of time and resources.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out what makes for a satisfying game experience. Just think back to your own game-playing experience and bear that in mind as you venture forth into the world of game tactics. 

2. Make it relevant.

Successful social media game campaigns all have one thing in common: they’re all tied to activities that the target audience would already be doing. Edmonton International Airport’s ‘Find the Cowboy’ campaign, centred on the airport’s new route launch to Dallas/Fort Worth, worked well because it provided passengers with a fun airport terminal time-killing campaign—something we can all relate to.

In a similar fashion, United Airlines has recently gained plaudits for its #UnitedIn Instagram-driven treasure hunts, real-life treasure hunts in destination cities driven by hashtags like #UnitedinDenver and #UnitedinChicago. Like with #FindtheCowboy, the #UnitedIn games provide travellers to destination cities with useful dining, lodging and other tourist tips while adding an extra bit of social media fun to it. But again, it’s tied to activities that travellers would likely be doing anyway.

3. Make it clear and easy to understand.

In the company’s launch announcement for Swarm, Foursquare alluded to having not really thought through the long-term consequences of their pre-Swarm game structure. Specifically, the company conceded that while lofty badge titles like ‘Mayor’ and others were realistically attainable at the platform’s outset, once Foursquare user ranks swelled they became practically impossible to obtain.

As a rule, gamification efforts should be kept simple and unburdened by complicated rules, and promised rewards must be seen to be actually attainable. Otherwise you’re either driving away your audience or encouraging them to cheat.

4. Intrinsic (rather than extrinsic) rewards work best in the long run.

When it comes to short-run social media campaigns like #FindtheCowboy or #UnitedIn, extrinsic rewards—like money, free travel and other prizes—can do the trick beautifully. But for longer campaigns, it’s been shown again and again that intrinsic motivators like mastery, competition and recognition are the best rewards.

A classic example of an intrinsic reward-driven gamification structure is that of TripAdvisor. One of the world’s earliest adopters of user-generated content, the popular travel website encourages travellers to submit reviews by tendering a wide range of area expert badges for various review benchmarks, while also highlighting number of reads and recommendations.
And in contrast to Foursquare, there’s no cap on how many people can achieve the top TripAdvisor rankings. Quite the contrary—the more people get involved, the more recommendations your reviews are likely to generate.

5. Strategy ≠ Tactics.

The trouble with gamification as a marketing and communications tactic du jour is that many have come to see it as an end in itself, something they “ought to be doing because everybody else is,” and in doing so have lost sight of the crucial difference between a strategy (e.g., a communications initiative) and a tactic (e.g., a game setting). Gamification has never been a magic bullet and cannot, as Zichermann noted, “make a bad experience fundamentally good.”

Over the past few years many major companies have made this mistake. In 2011, Google introduced badges to its online news service, a move that was widely ridiculed by tech reviewers and was dumped by the company a year later. Similarly, the Marriott hotel chain’s Farmville-inspired HR game, in which employees were encouraged to manage their own virtual hotel, was launched with considerable fanfare in 2012 and then abandoned. Reason? Virtually nobody wanted to play it.

Figure out what you want to communicate and then consider if gamification is an appropriate tactic. 

6.    Not everything needs to be gamified.

Gamification evangelists have been quick to cite certain ridiculously successful examples of games literally saving the world. The most oft-cited example is the puzzle game Foldit, which was developed by the University of Washington’s Centre for Game Science and famously resulted in a major breakthrough in AIDS research. 

But while the psychological benefits of game structures are well established, the recent fizzling out of the gamification craze clearly shows its limitations. Early attempts at gamifying news services have largely failed—a clear indication that people want their news delivered in a straightforward manner with no gimmicks. The same is probably true of HR training manuals, personal finance and other areas where gamification has flopped.

It should also be noted that you don’t need a game structure in order to tap into Zichermann’s loop. In 2012, the London-based microcredit charity MicroLoan launched a highly successful campaign called ‘Pennies for Life’, in which members of the public were encouraged to make donations via SMS, and in doing so populate billboard images of smiling women made entirely of pennies. Not a ‘game’ per se, but definitely a campaign that appealed to basic human desires: altruism, achievement and reward.

When in doubt, ask yourself whether you would take time out of your day to play the game you’re proposing to foist on your audience. Your audience is probably just as fed up as you are with never-ending invitations to play Candy Crush Saga. Bear that in mind as you enter into today’s jaded post-gamification bubble world.

But if it’s been well thought out, supports with your goals and objectives and meets with the above-mentioned criteria, then by all means, play on!