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Lead Your Team Strategy

What Is Gamification?

image for AntonioGuillem / Getty Images
AntonioGuillem / Getty Images
  • Gamification involves the introduction of gameplay to a traditionally nongame environment. Gamification is meant to encourage user engagement.
  • Many large corporations have used gamification strategies, including the U.S. Army, Starbucks and Nike.
  • There are limitations to gamification, but companies are becoming more resourceful in finding innovative ways to use the process. For instance, rewards programs are relying on gamification to increase brand loyalty.

Gamification is the application of game-playing elements to nongame environments, which allows social media users to earn rewards for everyday activities such as ordering coffee or watching a movie.  As businesses put game elements into marketing campaigns, consumer products and online applications, they increase customer engagement and loyalty.

Gamification provides businesses with a wealth of customer behavior data and valuable insights into customer activities. This information is part of the big data stream that can help businesses improve operational practices and identify new marketing opportunities.

There are several high-profile organizations that are using gamification to engage users. Here are a few examples of popular campaigns.

  • U.S. Army: The army is using gamification on websites as a recruitment tool. Users can play military training games as a way to increase interest in joining the armed forces.

  • Nike Fuel: Nike developed a game program that allows users to compete against each other in physical challenges. Physical activity is judged on a points system with virtual awards available. The app allows for users to share their results instantly on social media pages.

  • Starbucks: Starbucks has one of the most popular loyalty programs in the world. The company created an app that allows loyal customers to collect stars that go towards redeeming free drinks and prizes.

  • Beat the GMAT: An MBA student was behind this website that encourages competition among those preparing for the GMAT. Points and badges are given for completing different preparatory tasks.   

Rewards can take shape in a number of ways, whether it's earning a badge for checking in to an event or gaining a higher standing on a virtual leaderboard, against both friends and total strangers.

One popular gamification app is Foursquare, which allows users to check-in to locations that they're visiting, from popular restaurants to more everyday locations, such as parking garages and barber shops. By checking in so often, and to certain places, users can earn badges or become the "mayor" of a location, if they check-in enough times, adding to their virtual popularity.

GetGlue is another site that rewards users who check-in through gamification, whether they're watching a movie or TV show. They earn virtual stickers as a result, which in turn they can redeem for actual stickers, which are received by mail.

Gamification introduces a competitive edge to everyday life, and also creates more customer engagement. Starbucks, for example, offers special deals for people who check-in on Foursquare.

Gamification can also occur in real time. At a Gamification Summit in 2011, Geoff Lewis, co-founder and chief executive officer of Top Guest, described a scenario where an American Airlines traveler had just updated his online Twitter status about getting through airport security and having two hours to spare before his flight.

"Immediately after that tweet in real time, we would send the absolute right response message to that loyalty program member," Lewis said. "In this case, 'Here's an access pass to try out our Admirals Club.'"

But gamification faces limits as different innovators try to gamify classrooms , healthy living initiatives and even government innovation programs. Gabe Zichermann, chair of the Gamification Summit and author of Gamification by Design and Game-Based Marketing, warned that no amount of gamification can save a company that has no good content or product to offer. Similarly, gamification can't automatically engage customers who have no interest in the content being offered.

Critics even say that gamification efforts have learned the wrong lesson from game design by overemphasizing points, badges and levels as rewards that motivate people. They argue that game features serve as benchmarks for players in traditional video games to measure their progress; the real motivation and joy comes from the challenge of gameplay and story.

The main benefit of gamification is increased user engagement. For instance, Beat the GMAT takes a serious task and puts a fun spin on it. If the person is having fun, then they are more likely to retain information. Gamification also allows for more practical applications of tasks. Instead of simply reading about an activity or subject, you're participating in the learning process. Feedback is provided in real time to inform the user if he or she is performing well or not.

Competition is another benefit of gamification. Many of us strive to be the best. With gamification, you're motivated to outperform your competitors. This makes you work harder to achieve optimal results. Another motivator is rewards and prizes. Gamification platforms can offer real-world prizes for a job well done. Many people desire the feel of winning something, even if it's something seemingly small like a free cup of coffee.