All the World’s a Game, and Business Is a Player

Congratulations. Reading the first paragraph of this article has earned you a badge.
If this made-up award makes you feel good about yourself, then you are on your way to understanding gamification, a business trend — some would say fad — that aims to infuse otherwise mundane activities with the excitement and instant feedback of video games.
Many businesses are using these game tricks to try to get people hooked on their products and services — and it is working, thanks to smartphones and the Internet.
Buying a cup of coffee? Foursquare, the social networking app that helped popularize the gamification idea, gives people virtual badges for checking in at a local cafe or restaurant.
Conserving energy? More than 75 utilities have begun using a service from a company called Opower that awards badges to customers when they reduce their energy consumption. Customers can compare their progress with their neighbors’ and broadcast their achievements on Facebook.
“I’m not going to lie — I hate those online game apps on Facebook. I delete them,” said Brett Little, who works for an environmental nonprofit group in Grand Rapids, Mich., and has been known to share his energy-saving progress online. “This one I really enjoy.”
Of course, people and businesses have long added game elements to parts of regular life. Parents reward their children for household work with gold-star stickers. Business travelers pump their fists when they hit elite traveler status on an airline.
But digital technologies like smartphones and cheap sensors have taken the phenomenon to a new level, especially among adults. Now, game concepts like points, badges and leader boards are so mainstream that they have become powerful motivators in many settings, even some incongruous ones. At a time when games are becoming ever more realistic, reality is becoming more gamelike.
“We have a tendency to be dismissive about games, but what we’re learning is that games in general are wonderfully powerful tools that can be applied in all sorts of serious contexts,” said Kevin Werbach, an associate professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, who teaches a course on how businesses can use games and recently wrote a book on the subject.
The adoption of games has found particular resonance in the workplace, where games are no longer just a way to goof off.
Employers like Reed Elsevier, the publishing company, are using a Web-based game service from a company called Keas that encourages workers to stay healthy by grouping themselves into teams of six and collecting points for achieving mental and physical fitness goals. Among the challenges Keas assigns: laughing randomly for 30 seconds. The members of winning teams at Reed each get $200 gift cards.
Restaurants are using a service from a Boston start-up company called Objective Logistics to rank the performances of waiters on a leader board, rewarding the good ones with plum shifts and more lucrative tables. The company plans to add “karma points” that waiters can earn for picking up shifts from colleagues or otherwise being good teammates.
Even the Israel Defense Forces has embraced the concept as it tries to rally global support for its operations. Recently it raised eyebrows with a system that awards points and badges to visitors to its Web site if they share its messages on social networks, passing along blog posts like “How Does the I.D.F. Minimize Harm to Palestinian Civilians?”
Some tech bloggers criticized the system when they discovered it after the beginning of Israel’s recent military confrontation with Hamas, saying war and games did not mix.
Capt. Eytan Buchman, a spokesman for the I.D.F., said the game system was introduced in July, months before the conflict. It was intended to “expand the vibrant community of followers who are actively engaged in sharing and promoting I.D.F. content,” he said.
Doling out badges and points has its skeptics. Ian Bogost, a game designer and professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says the increasing use of games is little more than a fad promoted by marketing hucksters.
“It’s a concept being invented and mastered by speakers, conference organizers and business consultants in order to provide them with a short-lived burst of success,” said Dr. Bogost, who last year wrote an essay that, in its off-color title, bluntly dismissed gamification.
Gabe Zichermann, a gamification consultant and conference organizer, says he likes Dr. Bogost but, unsurprisingly, has a different point of view. He says making activities more like games is a kind of “homeopathic remedy” that, for example, can engage children who might otherwise be distracted by traditional video games.
“Games have made it hard for kids to focus to some extent and to do things like their chores,” Mr. Zichermann said. “We use game concepts to get them to focus on things.”
Kyle Kroll fits that description. After graduating from high school, Mr. Kroll said, he was unhappy, overweight, living at home and playing World of Warcraft at least six hours a day. He turned things around after starting to work out at a gym regularly with the help of a fitness app on his iPhone called Fitocracy, in which badges are awarded by a robot named Fred.
Mr. Kroll, who has lost about 75 pounds, says he plays video games less frequently now, but he still enjoys the gamelike challenges that the app sets for him at the gym. He said the game gave him “the same satisfaction of getting points and leveling up” that he gets from games.
Sheli Snawder and her 9-year-old daughter, Emma, also know how well embracing games can work. Ms. Snawder signed up for a service called Zamzee to encourage Emma to be more physically active.
Throughout the day, Emma wears a small motion sensor that records her activity level and rewards points for a brisk walk, an impromptu dance party in the living room and any other activity that gets her pulse thumping.
In her home in Salem, Ore., recently, Emma showed off the digital treats that the service’s Web site uses to inspire her, including a Persistence badge and Level 3 bronze medal status.
She can also use the virtual currency that she earns through exercising to get tangible rewards, like a video game system, from the site. “It’s very, very effective,” said her mother, who is studying to be a nurse.
Jesse Schell, a game designer and assistant professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University, said game ideas were creeping into “every nook and cranny of everything” because reward systems are satisfying. “Our affluence has allowed us to move to a place where we tend to make things pleasurable, as opposed to efficient,” he said.
 
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