Getting Gamified: Publishers Score Big With Online Games

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Article ImageGames have been around since before recorded history, but it's only within the past 2 years that they've really gotten down to (online) business. As acceptance of and familiarity with game mechanisms within online social networks and on entertainment sites increase, games are popping up on once-static web properties as a means of captivating audiences, enhancing market research, and stimulating conversation between companies and customers.

The term "gamification" refers to the application of gaming techniques and mechanisms -- such as points, levels, challenges, leader boards, and virtual goods -- to nongame problems. Game theorists believe that integrating these techniques into online interactions appeals to a range of fundamental human desires, including rewards, status, achievement, self-expression, competition, and even altruism.

The payoffs for businesses that incorporate gaming in a meaningful way can be profound. "During a game, you get to see people's behavior at its most authentic," says Brad Crowell, managing director and founder of PartingGift, LLC, which creates monetizable social games for business. "You're seeing honest, unfiltered responses." The fundamental appeal of fun can't be overlooked either. "Games have become an integral part of a brand's social strategy because they draw users in and keep them there," Crowell says.

Gaming Hits New Levels

There's little debate about whether games have caught on with consumers. A November 2011 study of social gaming in the U.S. and U.K. from video game maker PopCap Games, Inc. found that there are approximately 98 million social gamers in the U.S. and 20 million in the U.K., a 71% increase from a year earlier. The number of social gamers considered "avid," who play more than 6 hours per week, had doubled from 7% to 15%, and 42% of respondents said that time spent playing games had increased over the prior 3 months, according to the study, "2011 PopCap Games Social Gaming Research."

A major factor in the rise of gamification stems from the success of carefully cultivated squares of virtual farmland on Facebook. With the success of Zynga, Inc.'s FarmVille, CityVille, and other social games, millions of Facebook members have gotten a taste of the payoff for participating in online social games; almost 10% of Facebook's 800 million members play FarmVille on a daily basis, according to WebMediaBrands, Inc.'s AppData. Crowell says, "Facebook is an important enabler of all of this. We wouldn't be having this conversation if they weren't around."

Rajat Paharia, founder and chief product officer for Bunchball, Inc., which produces the Nitro gamification platform, agrees, saying, "There has to be a giant consumer role model before people can figure out how to use a new technology in the enterprise." Although Bunchball was founded in 2005 as a social gaming platform, Paharia credits the 2010 success of both FarmVille and location-based social networking platform foursquare for providing a tipping point that led to increased demand from business customers who want to apply game techniques to their own processes and products.

In April 2011, Gartner Group, Inc. found that more than half of organizations that manage innovation processes will add elements of gamification to those processes by 2015, while more than 70% of Global 2000 organizations will have at least one gamified application by 2014. And a September 2011 forecast by M2 Research pins the overall gamification market in the U.S., now at $100 million, at more than $2.8 billion by 2016.

More Vendors, More Choices

The rapid establishment of a competitive field for gamification platforms is also driving demand. More choices in gamification vendors, and more real-world implementations for companies to learn from beyond the media and entertainment properties that were early adopters, means an ever-increasing rate of adoption.

"The curve of gamification is happening faster than social networking did," Bunchball's Paharia says. "There was no industry a year and a half ago, just us." Now the field includes vendors such as PartingGift, Badgeville, and BigDoor, Inc., all offering platforms that enable customization, game iteration, and solid behavioral-tracking data. The September M2 Research study predicts revenue growth of nearly 200% for some of those vendors in the coming year.

While Gartner analyst Brian Burke agrees that the increased number of vendors offering gamification solutions helps organizations just now considering the strategy, he believes the benefit is more subtle and potentially more important. "The gamification vendors bring an understated and valuable expertise about which game mechanics will change user behaviors in the desired way," Burke says. "There's a moderate but real risk that a poorly designed game will inspire the wrong behaviors and result in unintended consequences for a brand."

Publishers On the Fence

Burke says that as a whole, publishers have been conservative about using game techniques, though he points to The Huffington Post as an early proponent. Along with a badge system that enables readers to earn points for article comments respected by the community, The Huffington Post has a Predict the News game in which readers can vote on likely future news stories. "It's a little more fun than just rewarding badges for reading articles," Burke says.

Bunchball's Paharia says one obstacle preventing deeper penetration of gamification into publishing organizations may be the concern that gaming will sully the seriousness of how content is received. "Publishers may think that gamification is more appropriate for entertainment properties," he says, pointing out that the earliest forays by some publishers into gamification were around relatively "light" content, such as recipes.

It may also be the term itself. "Certain industries are allergic to the term gamification," says Paharia. "That's why we talk about ‘Measure and Motivate.' Nitro is a motivation engine." Similarly, PartingGift's tagline is Market Research, Gamified, and the company sells the promise of its platform based on the vast array of data points collected during the course of each game played. And at the first-ever Gamification Summit in 2011, sponsored by the highly regarded Gamification Blog, Badgeville's CEO and co-founder Kris Duggan referred to his company's product as a "modern loyalty platform."

Resistance may be lessened as gamification finds traction in traditional enterprises in areas such as training and professional development. Bunchball recently created an onboarding application for Jive Software, a provider of enterprise social networks, to encourage employees of Jive's enterprise clients to familiarize themselves with the full functionality of the platform. Through the process of completing tasks, employees achieve levels such as In the Game, Brown Noser, and Grouper. "The onboarding application takes the stuff no one would do on their own, wraps it up, and pushes the user through via games," Paharia says.

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