In case you haven’t heard, gamification is a big deal. The concept has been a buzzword and strategy du jour since it’s modern mainstream coming-out party roughly three years ago, and everyone who is anyone in the tech/marketing/small business scene has been bandying about the term as a great way to get more people involved in a product.

But, what the heck is gamification anyway?

If you’re unfamiliar with what the strategy actually does, there’s help: Gabe Zichermann, author and chairman of yearly gamification convention and workshop series gSummit, knows more about gamification than just about anyone. In addition to running the next series of gSummit, happening from April 16 to April 18 in San Francisco, he’s on the precipice of releasing his next book on the subject, The Gamification Revolution, this spring.

The Next Web chatted with Zichermann about the basics of gamification, and how it’s much more than just a fancy word for providing badges.

 

TNW: What is the basic definition of gamification?

Zichermann: Gamification is the use of game concepts in non-entertainment contexts. So, another way that we often talk about it is that it’s about taking the best ideas from games and applying them to things we wouldn’t normally expect to apply them.

 

What’s the history of gamification? Who made it popular?

The foundational principles of gamification are actually thousands of years old. To some extent, you could say that we’ve been gamifying things since the beginning of time. Probably the most stark and obvious example of this is the military, which has both used concepts that we think of gamification and innovated concepts that we think of as gamification together for thousands of years. The whole idea of levels or ranking comes from the military. Badges — another concept in gamification. And even playing games to induce simulation for strategy. It’s all things the military has been doing for a really long time.

It’s not really a new idea, but the contemporary discussion began in 2010, and it was really driven by a couple companies, namely Zynga and Foursquare, that really demonstrated the power of game concepts to change people’s behavior. I think that was something that caught people more off-guard.

 

TNW: What are the common hallmarks or totems of gamification?

The main constructs that we think of game mechanics that you expect to see are ranks, levels, badges, leader boards, and challenges. Those are some of the hallmarks of gamification, but at the core we talk about the “Three Fs,” which are feedback, friends and fun. Those are the three things a good gamified system has to have. The more of those three things there are in a system, the more people tend to like it, the more they want to to engage with it, the more they want to come back to it and so on. So those are the essential elements of the experience for most gamified systems.

 

TNW: Where do you find gamification most readily taking place? Which industries are embracing it the fullest?

At gSummit, we’re seeing that roughly the discussion separates into two categories. The first one is gamification of marketing, and the second is gamification of the enterprise or HR. The latter one tends to catch people by surprise, like, “Gamification of work? What? Where does that come from?” But in practice, it’s about 50/50 in the terms of excitement and enthusiasm. You get these two groups of people side by side, maybe even from the same company, working on two completely separate facets of gamification, but from two different perspectives. It’s the same technologies, techniques and methods — just different folks behind them with different business objectives.

 

TNW: So, onto the consumers. How do they react when they experience gamification? 

The biggest fundamental thing with gamification is that the world is a pretty boring place on its own. It’s not a really engaging place, and most of the interactions that we have with businesses, with government, or with various systems in our lives can be really dry and boring — they just don’t have a lot of excitement in them. Gamification initially enables a dynamism, a bump in enthusiasm and interest, that comes from having that interaction made enjoyable.

 

Think about going to the ATM, pulling out your card to swipe for lunch, getting in a taxi cab, brushing your teeth or combing your hair — all of these interactions that we’re having aren’t necessarily fun today. But why can’t they be?

That’s the crux of the matter. That’s the big question. In general, when you first interact with a ramified system, there’s delight. Surprise and delight, like, “Oh my god, this is awesome! This is way better than the old way.” Then the hard part starts: how do you take that and make that scalable, or the kind of thing you can get engagement over a very long period of time? That’s really challenging.

 

TNW: What kind of results does gamification, that surprise and delight, get for companies? Are more of them flocking to the strategy?

If you take a look at the roster of different companies, everyone has a different experience and it’s hard to draw a conclusion. Now that we have three years in the contemporary discussion, we’re starting to get great case studies.

For example, Autodesk gamified the process of their trial software and they raised trial usage by about 40% and raised conversion to paid software to 15%, which is a very significant number when the software is $3500 a piece. And that was all predicated on the concept that in order to get people to use the trial, they had to teach them how to use it. What they discovered that if people didn’t know how to use it, they wouldn’t buy it even if they should have. They really thought about this in the deep way we encourage people to — it’s a part of the discipline. A core part of that discipline is thinking very deeply about what the consumer actually wants, and delivering that experience with the maximum feedback and fun. That seems obvious, but it’s a little counterintuitive to people.

On the business side, Deloitte gamified their employee training system and right now they’ve increased the total number of people going through it by 50% and the total amount of completion rate by 50%. That’s pretty substantial.

There seems to be an average number coming out of our heuristic research of about a 25 to 30% increase in engagement in the first year. Many people have much higher rates, with certain case studies reaching engagement boosts of 200 to 300%. That’s not uncommon, but it’s definitely not standard.

 

Through gSummit, you train others in a certification program for mastery in gamification. What do you find people most struggle with when you’re teaching them how to gamily an experience?

Probably the hardest thing in the workshop is teaching people to think about the consumer or the employee’s motivational state — not their demographics, but their motivation. This makes all the difference in the world, because we’re thinking about what drives them. Why are they using the product in the first place? What kind of player are they? Are they really competitive, collaborative, social, or exploring? All those questions we must ask and work on — that’s how you design a system.

Then, probably the hardest thing for people to actually do in the workshops is design what’s called a “progression to mastery.” Everything we build in gamification is about helping people accomplish their goals and objectives. That’s an essential part of the experience. We have to figure out what it is that they want to achieve and then help them get there. In order to do that, you actually have to think about all the steps.

Here’s an example: what if I just say, “Hey, go learn German”? If you’ve never learned German before, or if you’ve never learned a language before, you don’t even know how to approach that problem. And, I set a very high bar for what I want you to do. If you’re not able to make progress on that fairly quickly, it’s pretty likely that you’re going to feel demotivated and you’re going to get disappointed and walk away from it. If we want to make sure you’re successful, the first thing we have to do is break down the process of where you are now to learning German in a lot of detail. Every single detail needs to be considered.

That’s a core discipline in gamification and people are surprised we go into that level of detail. People just think that we’re making a game all the time, but the truth is in order to do make things more fun and engaging, you actually have to go into the weeds.

 

Do you find that these problems are also apparent when companies start their own gamification experiences?

The main differences between them are actually the perception of the management or employee. One of the common myths in employment is: “Whatever distraction that employees might have in the regular world, they leave that all behind when they get into the office. They’re not checking their iPhones 20 times per day.” Those companies don’t design for that consideration.

If you were designing a piece of software or product,and you didn’t think of the odds of interrupt of the consumer, you’d get a major smack down. Like, what? You know better than that. But companies consistently don’t pay attention to that and just assume that employees are doing what they’re supposed to be doing at all times. And that’s false.

The next thing that’s often the issue is that when you’re gamifying, you have to consider how to attract people to the system. When you ask, “How do you think you’ll get them to follow the process?” And they respond, “Well, we’ll tell them they have to do it.” It’s like, no matter how fun your game is, if someone tells you that you have to play it, it’s not going to be that much fun. This is a very big problem in the enterprise.

Bottom line: part of the reason that I designed gSummit the way that I did, where everyone interacts and shares with each other, is that it’s actually not that different from one category to the next. Gamifying health isn’t different from gamifying education or gamifying the workplace. They’re not fundamentally different, though people think they are. So it’s important that everyone learn and share across disciplines.

 

Okay, so, is there anything that gamification is not?

I think the quick answer is that gamification is not about making everything into game. The most likely case is using the best ideas from games to create engagement.

Another common misconception is that people think it’s just about badges, and that’s enough, because that’s what they saw on Foursquare. In practice, that’s not sufficient. You need more complete thinking.

 

How is gamification changing for the future? Is there anything we should be looking out for?

I think the big thing that’s happening is that gamification is transitioning to be a strategy. My new book, Gamification Revolution, talks about how gamification is being used as a strategy — not just tactics. It’s not just about how we use gamification to tackle a problem, but how we use it as an overall strategy within the organization. That’s a big difference, and many companies are having a great deal of success doing that across a number of different spheres.

It also portends the rise of a new job category, which we call the Chief Engagement Officer, or CNO. The CNO is a new a job that is about understanding engagement science and applying it to customers, employees, and business systems and processes from top down and bottom up. So, we estimate that there will be about 5,000 of those jobs created over the next three or four years as companies seek to add this skill set to every facet of their organization.