Gamification: The buzzword that can ruin your apps and business

This new piece of tech jargon is mainly about short-term marketing, though some aspects are worth understanding

The tech industry loves a good buzzword. Marketing people like them even more. One that got a boost recently (thanks to some work at Stanford University and aficionados of the technoglitterati-oriented TED conference) is "gamification." Gamification, they claim, is the answer in this era of consumerization of IT. But the answer to what, exactly?

The unfortunate truth is that gamification is a largely hollow new buzzword for a very old marketing and sales technique: bribe customers with prizes or recognition to get them in the door when the appeal of your actual products and services isn't doing the trick. In tech circles, there's no shortage of "gamification consultants" who will help you rework your website to attract more visitors. The whole thing has the "get rich quick" feel of SEO (search engine optimization) consulting -- another area where for a while anyone could make a quick buck teaching a basic principle as if it were arcane revelation from on high.

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The roots of gamification
You know those scratch-off games given out at fast-food places? That's pretech gamification. So are the leaderboards on 1970s-era pinball machines, where the list of high scorers got kids to keep playing not for the joy of the game necessarily but for the desire to be recognized. The "gamification" label is a new way of saying "incentive-based marketing," and consultancies like Badgeville and services like Klout are pushing the notion in the virtual world.

There's nothing wrong with gamification per se, as long as you realize that most people lured by the promise of prizes and fame stop coming as soon as the games end. That's why in the virtual world, gamification is often built in as a permanent feature. Your Klout score, that dubious measure of your influence, is one example. So are all the badges that pop up on social sites -- how many +1s or Likes a post has. Or how many friends you have in your Google+ circle or Facebook wall, or the number of LinkedIn contacts. Competition around issues of reputation and self-worth is a very effective motivator.

Gamification is an old concept prettied up with a techie-friendly label.

How to use gamification to get people to do more
Does gamification have uses outside of marketing? The answer is yes. Microsoft, for example, uses gamification to encourage non-QA staff to do bug testing and to get employees to contribute better language translations in its software localization efforts. People are rewarded for doing this extra work through ego-oriented motivations from managers (attaboy emails, temporary use of more convenient parking spaces, and in-house certificates) and by publicizing top contributors to create a sense of competition for status among peers.

Forrester Research analyst TJ Keitt says these status-tapping "games" are common and effective. NewsGator uses "badges" as a way to get people to complete certain tasks in Microsoft SharePoint, he notes. And the Google Image Labeler effort attempts to crowdsource image identification by capturing where people agree on conceptual terms as they tag pictures in an online "game." Applied Marketing Science has a technology called Idealyst that is designed to use badges and other reputation enhancements to encourage employees to contribute to product-development and process-improvement ideation systems. (Contributors' scores are public but not the ideas they submitted, so the game can't get personal in a bad way.)

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