Gamification: Are gamers being played?

January 10, 2012, Author: Neil Hughes

There have been many reports over the last few years about Gaming Addiction, and we have written countless articles about it, dismissing the all too familiar headlines as ‘lazy journalism’ in an age where people look to blame everything but their own personal responsibility.

However, as the world of advertising changes and an increasing amount of games roll out subscription based gaming, companies are looking at ways of keeping you all gaming for as long as possible using, what some might describe, as sinister methods.

In the modern world people are no longer listening to advertisers and their traditional methods have ceased to work, as the great general public turn away from TV. Even if they do watch, they will probably fast forward the adverts. Commercial radio is struggling, spam filters stop e-mail ads, junk snail mail goes straight in the bin, a quick sign up to the telephone preference scheme stops cold callers, and the print media that is essentially run on advertising space is dying a slow death.

With all this in mind, maybe it is of no surprise that the marketing buzzword of 2011 was ‘Gamification’ which, according to Wikipedia, is the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to solve problems and engage users.

There are many books on the subject appearing, such as Game-Based Marketing, which claims to inspire customer loyalty through rewards, challenges, and contests. Game-Based Marketing unlocks the design secrets of mega-successful games like Zynga’s Farmville, World of Warcraft, Bejeweled and Project Runway to give you the power to create winning game-like experiences on your site/apps.

The most obvious example of gamification would be the mayor status feature in Four Square, where you are rewarded for checking into certain locations by businesses. Nike+ has allowed the company to build a huge and active fan base. For example, over 800,000 runners logged on and signed up when Nike sponsored a 10K race simultaneously across 25 cities.

Marketing companies are quickly learning that by deconstructing how we respond to fun and being rewarded that they might be able to change the potential customer’s behaviour to increase both sales and loyalty. Creepy right?

This is only the beginning, as an article on cracked.com demonstrated how companies are trying to get you addicted to games. The article refers to John Hopson, a game researcher for Microsoft Game Studio, with a doctorate in behavioural and brain sciences. Hopson is quoted as saying “Each contingency is an arrangement of time, activity, and reward, and there are an infinite number of ways these elements can be combined to produce the pattern of activity you want from your players”.

His theories are based around the work of BF Skinner, who discovered that you can control behaviour by training subjects with simple stimulus and reward. I like to think that we are all different to the experiments with lab rats and mice many years ago, but the similarities are remarkably similar.

Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.

Sometimes it feels like everything that you do on the internet has had some form of gaming element inserted by media companies in a bid to engage the audience. Research firm Gartner has predicted that half of global organisations will operate a gamified service for consumer goods marketing and customer retention by 2015, they also claimed it could be as important as the behemoth that is Facebook.

The multi billionaire business model that consists of charging players for virtual items in games that supposedly enhance their experience also reinforces the feeling that it’s the gamers themselves that are being played and cunningly manipulated by underhand techniques.

From a business point of view, there are huge benefits to reap from gamification. While your customers are playing games, you can be just as busy collecting valuable data: How do people prefer to learn about your product? Do different demographics prefer different paths? These techniques can also help companies build a community of members or fans. All of the data captured allows companies to improve their website, drive participation and make it more attractive to the customer. Is that really such a bad thing?

Are we being played?

I believe the people originally behind gamification may have had honourable intentions, but my fear is what happens when this power ends up in the wrong hands and a viral monster is unleashed on the masses? Though, that could just be me as a man that has seen too many comic book villains starting out with good intentions but ending up as the bad guy.

The simple fact is, that men in suits have discovered that if they make something fun, it can change our behaviour. If our behaviour changes, then we may be more open to certain products that we might not usually. Is this a clever stroke of genius or is it a step too far? It may just be that, considering that some games may be soon designed with the sole purpose of manipulating our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours by exploiting aspects of basic human psychology.

The fact that some corporations see games as nothing more than the Skinner experiment boxes with a basic ‘push button and get a reward’ concept, shows in many ways how little they know or understand how advanced and sophisticated gaming has become. Maybe they are only interested in the lower end of the market, the ones that frequent places such as Facebook?

Whatever your thoughts or opinions on this subject, the next time you are having some innocent fun, killing some time playing a game on the internet, ask yourself: What mechanics could be behind it all?