Businesses are using game mechanics online to rev up sales


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Businesses, seeking novel ways to engage customers online, are turning to classic video game tactics such as awarding virtual “badges,” points and trophies to make their websites stickier and boost sales.

Dubbed gamification, the practice involves using game mechanics to get people to spend more time on certain products, be it a website or a piece of software. Driven by the surprise popularity of social games on Facebook and applications such as FourSquare, some businesses are experimenting with gamification to capture the attention of consumers.


As a result, many nongaming companies are expected to attend the Game Developers Conference this week in San Francisco to recruit game designers or pick up a few tricks from the pros who are holding special “gamification” workshops. Your shiny newshound badge — were it real and not used to illustrate a point in this story — could be proudly displayed on your online profile to demonstrate your prodigious intellect (or qualify you for a special discount on a newspaper subscription).

“There’s an increasing awareness among the broader business community of the potency of certain game mechanics,” said Simon Carless, who oversees the developers conference as the executive vice president of the conference’s owner, UBM TechWeb. “People are very attracted to the concept, because everybody wants to make their website or product more sticky. And they see game mechanics as a way to do that.”

A report published in January by M2 Research, a media and entertainment research firm, estimated that spending on gamification projects will grow to as much as $2.8 billion by 2016 from $100 million this year.

“We know anecdotally that engagement increases substantially when game mechanics are applied,” said Wanda Meloni, an analyst at M2 Research. “How that affects customer loyalty and translates in terms of increased revenue is still being worked out.”

Of course, companies have long used incentives to influence behavior. Green stamps, club cards and frequent-flier programs are obvious examples.

But when deployed in a digital setting, they can become more nuanced — and, if done properly, more powerful, said Amy Jo Kim, a veteran game designer and consultant who gave a workshop at the conference Monday entitled “Smart Gamification.”


“Software has become a commodity,” Kim said. “So now you’re competing on good design. The role that game design plays in creating a good experience for the user is huge.”

One example is NBCUniversal’s Club Psych, an online fan site for its “Psych” comedy series on USA Network. The cable network last year hired Bunchball Inc., a San Jose firm that specializes in gamification, to add challenges and contests to the site.

Fans accumulated points by completing tasks — watching videos, solving puzzles or listening to songs, for example. The points could be redeemed for prizes including T-shirts, mugs or a director’s chair autographed by the cast and crew. And high scorers were posted on an online scoreboard.

Page views surged to 16 million last season, up from 9 million the season before. The average visitor came four to five times a month, compared with just twice a month the previous season, and stayed on the site about 22 minutes a visit, up from 14 minutes.

“For us, the whole campaign was a huge success,” said Jesse Redniss, vice president of digital for NBCUniversal’s USA Networks.

SAP Labs U.S. uses similar strategies to reward people who contribute to its SAP Community Networks forum, a technical version of Wikipedia used by more than 3 million customers and vendors of the German maker of business software. Developers who contribute articles or answer questions are awarded points, depending on ratings given by other members of the online community based on how helpful they were.

“People who pop up on our leader boards are recognized as experts in their topics,” said Mario Herger, technology innovation strategist at SAP Labs in Palo Alto. “They’re exposed to potential new customers who may approach them for projects. Some people even put their scores on resumes.”

Game mechanics also helped a San Francisco-based online retailer, ModCloth, to engage its customers — and sell more clothes. The site introduced a program in 2009 called Be the Buyer, which lets viewers vote on whether to buy or reject clothing samples. If an item gets enough votes, the company sends it off to be manufactured. Nearly all products launched through this process are sold out.

“For the fashion industry, being a buyer is the equivalent of being a rock star,” said Liz Bensink, ModCloth’s site manager. “This lets our customers play that role. When we launch a product that they’ve voted on, we notify them so they see that their voices had an impact. This feedback loop is really important to them.”

It’s also a basic game design principle, said Kim, the Silicon Valley consultant.

“Games are about designing compelling experiences around the player’s progress in their journey,” said Kim, who has worked on games such as Rock Band and Ultima Online. “Actions and feedback loops are at the core of that.”

Kim, however, cautions against seeing gamification as “magic pixie dust” that can fix flawed products.

“It’s been jumped on as an easy solution,” she said. “It’s not.”

Rewards attached to pointless tasks can become repetitive and boring. “In games, it’s called the grind,” said Carless.

Worse yet, some developers, including Kim, believe that point systems could have a detrimental effect. If designed poorly, people can view points as cheap manipulation, for example.

“Gamification is a totally absurd word,” said Chris Hecker, an independent game designer who worked on Spore and other titles. “It’s really just behavior modification. And it doesn’t even work that well at that. When you reward people with gold stars for doing something, they tend to focus on the gold star and not the thing you are trying to get them to do.”

Jesse Schell, a game design professor at Carnegie Mellon University, cites a series of studies performed in the 1970s and 1980s that tested the effect of rewards on children’s enjoyment of tasks.

One 1971 study by the University of Rochester took two groups of children and gave each child an hour to solve a series of puzzles. Those in one group were given $1 for each solved puzzle. Those in the control group were not given any reward. Researchers wanted to know what the children would do when they were left alone for eight minutes at the end of the hour.

“The regular kids kept playing with the puzzles,” Schell said, “But the kids who were paid just sat there. So if your idea is to create a bribery system to get them to try something, it can backfire. When the bribes go away, people are less inclined naturally to do the thing you want, even if it’s fun.”

The rising interest in gamification is part of a larger societal trend toward designing products that are more pleasing, not just purely utilitarian, Schell said.

“This is a new territory for most designers,” he said. “But this is what games have always been about. Games have no other purpose than to please. So the things that game designers know have become things that all product designers are starting to want to know.”