Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Does business really need gamification?

March 10, 2012

I have to admit that, although I’ve spent my life frolicking in a bottomless ocean of technology, I’ve never seen the point of video games. I’ve played them off and on, but never caught any sort of gaming bug. In fact, I have to say that games in general bore me. I’ve told people that I’ll become enthusiastic about chess when they change the rules so that the queen can conspire with the bishop and the knight to assassinate the king.

As for gambling, I agree with the wag who said he’d just as soon save time by flying to Vegas and handing over his money to a casino employee on the tarmac, then flying back home.

On the other hand, they say business is a game, and that’s a game I can enjoy. More than pride is in play then. Business combines the camaraderie and endurance of online gaming with the people skills, excitement and decisiveness of Texas Hold ’Em.

Perhaps it was my ambivalence about gaming that made me miss the gamification revolution—or at least what observers are calling the gamification revolution. I’m still not sure I’ve seen it, but I’m told it’s all around me. The purpose of gamification is to apply the principles of gaming to another environment, like education or business. And as “gamifiers” admit, this is really old hat in business.

Jingle and essay contests have been run as long as the general population has been literate. A particularly successful housewife in Ohio raised 10 children by systematically entering such contests (and is memorialized in “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” a book written by her daughter Terry Ryan).

Despite her success, few people became so deeply engaged in “business gaming” and the principles of games continued to be more art form than science until the late 20th century, when video games stormed into barrooms and living rooms, consuming vast amounts of time and money and making games into subjects for doctoral dissertations.

Successful game designers now believe they can teach the business world a thing or two about how to boost productivity and marketing by using gaming methods. I have to say that if they can make customers become as rabid about buying lawn mowers as they are about killing zombies, we might have something to really talk about during happy hour.

Some game principles have already sneaked into our everyday lives. The networking site LinkedIn, for example, has used a thermometer-style graphic to indicate how much of a profile still remained to be filled out, giving the user a target to shoot for. The smart-phone app Foursquare encourages users to compete with others to be the most-frequent visitor to particular locations. Trainers foster good-natured competition between student teams. And sales managers have posted scorecards since before Fred Flintstone bought his first foot-powered “green” automobile.

Essentially, gamification is tapping into the human desire for fun and friendly competition to achieve business ends. The difference between Fred’s day and today is that we have technology that is at once faster and smarter than ever before—technology that can react to users in ways undreamt of in prior eras.

Video games capitalize on human psychology by enabling anyone to fulfill fantasies and get rewarded for it. Gamifiers claim these same incentives can be ported to the business world to make us faster, stronger, better. For instance, little electronic boxes on workout equipment can detect our current body fat or weight and entice us with rewards and comparisons, such as, “You’ve lost two pounds! Just a little more work and you’ll be at your goal. Your wife is almost at hers so don’t fall behind!”

Bunchball (www.bunchball.com) is just one company that promises to use gaming to put boosters on our sluggish old business vehicles. It claims our customers are “hungry for reward, status, achievement, competition and self-expression, and they’ll go out of their way to engage with the businesses that give it to them.”

As far as I know, I’m not all that hungry for most of those things, and the ones I do have a hankering for generally come around with hard work and innovation. I’m not sure any business can provide what Bunchball offers, even in business games. A museum game that challenges the visitor to plan for a trans-continental Conestoga trip in the early 1800s is excellent training for later business forecasting problems, for instance. But actually making the trip is far more satisfying and likely to promote achievement than just winning the game.

That’s why I’m not as enamored of gamification as I might be. Games are all very well, but if you don’t have real skin on the line, it’s only a pale shadow of the real games we all have to play just by virtue of being alive.•

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Altom is a consultant specializing in pairing businesses with appropriate technology. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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