updated 9/26/2011 11:45:13 AM ET 2011-09-26T15:45:13

Anyone who has exerted themselves beyond what they thought possible on the sports field or stayed up all night playing an addictive video game knows how powerfully games can motivate behavior. Competition, rewards and the fear of failure have proven so powerful that a new class of social engineers believes games can motivate people to radically change their life for the better — or for the worse. Participants can already earn points, rewards and leader board bragging rights by recycling more trash at home, exercising to stay healthy, learning lessons in school, pushing for innovative business solutions, watching more episodes of a TV show and even devoting more time to a terrorist cause.

Such "gamification" tactics all inject fun into ordinary activities to provoke deeper engagement and dedication. Recyclebank has encouraged home recycling by rewarding people with shopping points redeemable at local and national stores. A Volkswagen contest spawned Sweden's "Speed Camera Lottery" that rewards drivers who observe the speed limit with a chance to win money from fines on speeders. Even scientists have harnessed online gamers playing "Foldit," a protein-folding puzzle game, to map the structure of a protein key to the development of the HIV virus.

Many more examples emerged at a "Gamification Summit" held in New York City on Sept. 15 and 16, where venture capitalists and entrepreneurs rubbed elbows with game designers and educators. Startups set up booths offering to help customers "gamify" anything from marketing campaigns to internal systems for employees.

"I believe in incremental steps toward producing a more fun world," said Gabe Zichermann, chair of the Gamification Summit and Workshops. "Whether it's in our cars or at ATMs or workplaces, it's all about making things more fun."

The best rewards

Much of gamification may not look especially new — after all, airlines and credit card companies have offered loyalty rewards programs for decades. But one big difference comes from its embrace of noncash perks as having their own value for people, rather than simply relying on cash payouts, shopping points or similar monetary rewards.

"The entire marketing industry is based on the idea that, if you reward customers today, you need to give free rewards or discounts," Zichermann told InnovationNewsDaily. "We're pushing against that with simple concept of noncash rewards and game systems."

Noncash rewards can take the form of online social status among fans, such as earning special badges or a top spot on a leader board — a concept that even Islamic extremist groups have embraced in online forums. Rewards can also take the form of special privileges; people who spent $10,000 shopping on the flash sales website Gilt get an extra 15 minutes to preview limited supplies of designer clothes going on sale.

Some success stories mix both rewards. USA Network created a website for its popular TV show "Psych" where fans compete on leader boards by completing challenges worth points. Such points can be redeemed for either virtual goods or limited quantities of real-world goods, such as DVDs and clothing offered by the show's sponsors. The "Club Psych" website not only saw a huge jump in its online fan base, but also created a 40 percent boost in viewers among the 18 to 34-year-old demographic.

Every step you take

Gamification has benefited from a world where anything that people do online or even offline can be tracked and measured by Web analytics programs and wireless sensors. Such real-time monitoring of human online and offline behavior could create a future where people can receive timely rewards anywhere in the world, said Geoff Lewis, co-founder and chief executive officer of Top Guest

During the Gamification Summit, Lewis 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.'"

Some efforts already make use of technology to monitor and reward offline behavior, even if it's not in real-time. Hopelab created a small flash drive device — an accelerometer that measure short bursts of movement and vigorous activity — for kids to hang on their belt or put in their pocket as they run around outside. When kids plug their Zamzee device into a computer, a program rewards them for their recorded activity levels by granting points that they can spend on virtual goods or on real-world rewards such as Amazon gift cards.

The game of life

But gamification faces limits as different innovators try to gamify classrooms, healthy living initiatives and even government innovation programs. Zichermann and others have 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.

"A lot of people say school is already a poorly designed game; it gives grades and points and has levels," said David Samuelson, director of games and augmented reality for Pearson. As a moderator for a Gamification Summit panel, he wondered how far gamification could go in overhauling classrooms and the education system.

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.

Zichermann doesn't disagree with critics about the importance of inherent satisfaction gained from beating a meaningful challenge. But he suggested that there is no reason to ignore the appeal of external "carrots" as rewards. "The smell of that muffin baking near the window is not a challenge you need to master," Zichermann said.

If modern humans do end up chasing points and levels all of their lives, they can at least take consolation from history — ancient Egyptians liked the board game Senet so much that they took it to their graves.

You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

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