Think you can afford to not understand Gamification? Good luck…

scvngrWhy did Seth Priebatsch garner so much attention with his keynote speech on Gamification at SXSWi in Austin this year? At a conference where everyone agrees it is becoming increasingly difficult to break through the noise at all anymore no less.

Why? Because Gamification has not only been one of the trend words of 2010/11 in tech, but also one of the very real trends in the actual designs of user experiences/user interfaces (UX/UI).

Here are some key excerpts from a great recent post, The Gamification of Life, the Universe and Everything by Allan Patrick:

As the first “Gamification” workshop in London was held today, I thought it might be interesting to look at this rather fascinating Fortune article about Seth Priebatsch who:

…sensed something three years ago that most of the rest of us did not: that a generation raised on video games would want to keep playing a game in real life. “I found out that basically the real world was essentially the same game as Civilization [an old computer game], just with slightly better graphics… and slightly slower.”

[…] “I have a much broader definition of game than most other people,” he says, explaining that games are just systems of challenges, rewards, and biases.

So it turns out that a lot of this straight-up Behaviorist thinking is very important in the development of technology, more important than most people realized before the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare, and more important than most of us would like to admit to ourselves. Because… well… we like tho think of ourselves as more evolved than simple stimulus/response “machines”.

But the fact is that whenever a game or game-like structure is presented to people, people as human beings will tend to play them. This fact is of course much older than Social Media, or than the above-mentioned computer games, though Seth may be right that the acceptance of game mechanics in all manner of contexts could have only gone up, not down, from these societal developments.

In fact, The Wall Street Journal wrote recently that “some analysts claim 50% of businesses will be gamified by 2015”!

One recent example of what I call an “indirect game mechanic” is the Twitter “follower count game”, which a lot of people were “playing” rather vigorously ca. 2009-2010. The fact that this count metric is presented front-and-center on the services main user pages, keeping score like a pinball machine, enticed users to jump through all sorts of hoops in their quest to gain more followers.

But even the micro-blogging activity itself on Twitter could be described as having game-like aspects, because 1) the activity is short and regulated (the 140 character limit on Twitter had more implications than people realized).

And 2), there are instant feedback loops such as the tweet count (“score”) going up, your tweet becoming an instantly visible “result” in your and other people’s update stream, and further intermittent/irregular-schedule feedback by other people responding to your tweets, or passing them on as Retweets.

Twitter’s @ mentions tab is the Behaviorist’s irregular reward-schedule mechanism of sorts, because we are literally pre-programmed to check for our reciprocal attention “reward” often. Behaviorists such as Skinner and Pavlov figured out long ago that such an “irregular reward schedule” was the most reinforcing of all.

So it comes as no surprise that the micro-blogging activity has become so self-reinforcing (in other words: addictive) for a lot of people, that they do things subsumed under it that they heretofore shunned. For example, doing a form of short-burst knowledge management (KM) inside of corporate organizations or more loosely-based interest groups.

Twitter clones like Yammer and’s Chatter have sprung up since 2009 that propose to piggy-back on these effects, and are creating real changes to internal information flow and exchange: It turns out that with all previous iterations of corporate KM attempts, people were simply not incentivized in a way that “made them” actually do the desired activity…

Here’s a key quote I curated in 2009:

[W]hoever acquires Twitter will in essence take possession of an army of… tens of millions… of humans who are actively, accurately, and enthusiastically meta-tagging pages. In the arena of human-augmented search, Mahalo is a useful wheelbarrow, while Twitter is a fleet of 747 cargo planes.

The key word here is “enthusiastically”… why? Why is anyone enthusiastic? In large part due to the underlying gamification “rewards” as described above!

It is very important to understand all of this if you want to think yourself into the “games” of current and future social media. As Allan Patrick states:

The trend will be to build in more gamification by adding in more games for people to play:

– There are no badges and mayorships in SCVNGR [Priebatsch’s own gamified geo-location-based service similar to Foursquare]. There are points, and you get these points by not just checking-in, but also by doing various crowd-generated “challenges” while you’re at the place you’re at. […]

– He started a pilot program in Boston and Philadelphia that gives users better and better deals as people continue to come back to a restaurant. “Pure [geo] checking-in isn’t going mainstream,” he says, and is working on a Groupon-Gamification called Level-Up […]

There is no doubt that the “white hat” attraction of Gamification is to get people more hooked on your online businesses rather than the competitor’s, and also […] the “black hat” attraction of getting your hands on more of people’s personal data, the New New Gold.

I would have to agree. Some of it will be explicit, in the form of games that are identified as such. But much of it will be more implicit, or “invisible game mechanics” not consciously perceived as real games, but of game-like character.

And either way these will get you and hundreds of millions of other people online to do certain activities, billions of times a month. Still think you can afford to not understand Gamification?