Although the term gamification is somewhat new, the concept is not. It’s basically taking something and trying to make it “game-like”. People have always tried to do this by making tasks more interesting or fun. Anything from coming up with a scoring system to rate your own output, to creating teams or groups that compete at certain things. These efforts could all be considered gamification in some form or fashion, which probably leads to some confusion, especially for small businesses. Adding to the confusion is the fact that most examples of gamification we read about are based on large companies that mostly sell to consumers. This drives a lot of people to think gamification is loyalty programs, or points and badges, or even games like McDonald’s Monopoly.  While these are gamified systems, they definitely don’t apply to everyone, nor should small businesses necessarily try and duplicate these types of gamification. But, once you understand the real point behind gamification, and how it can be approached, hopefully it will be easier to build a strategy that works for your business.

What gamification is

Gamification is taking very specific real-world tasks and making them more intriguing, motivating and fun. When it’s done right it can keep users engaged for long periods of time, allow them the ability to express creativity, build meaningful relationships, and even learn. Companies approaching gamification correctly can build engaged users, customer advocates, energized employees, active referral networks, and even stronger sales channels. Building a powerful system starts with truly understanding your player (the actual user of the system), learning what motivates them, and evaluating that against your needs. Whether it is an employee, customer, partner, or vendor, you’ll need to truly understand how your strategic business goals relate to them. It’s how your goals relate to the player that is important, not how the player is related to your goals.  Forcing the latter is a recipe for failure.

It’s this customer first mentality that gamification expert and author Yu-Kai Chou refers to as “Human-Focused Design”, and it’s this mentality that is the start of truly engaging gamification systems.  Once you have determined the motivation of your players, you can start to construct a system that helps them and by extension, helps you.

If you’d like some case studies on a number of different successful gamified systems; from education to sales – check out the 91 examples here.

What gamification is not

Quite often when companies talk about gamification they are referring only to specific game components or game mechanics. These are things like leaderboards, point systems, badges, and levels – things that almost everyone is familiar with. If you’ve ever played an online game like Angry Birds, or a card came like Euchre, or even watched a sporting event like hockey, you’ve been exposed to components like these; they are used to help drive play of the game. Unfortunately, these components end up being the only consideration when businesses discuss gamifying something. The misconception is that if you add points to something then magically users will want to participate. Gamification doesn’t work that way.  You may be able to drive some increase in engagement temporarily, but just adding PBL (Points, Badges, Leaderboards) doesn’t mean you have created an engaging and fun environment for your users.  The novelty of the PBL additional will wear off quickly and it will be much harder to get their involvement the next attempt. Cutting corners is one the primary reason so many gamification initiatives fail.

Another misconception is thinking that gamification is about the business. It’s not. It’s about the player. Good gamification requires you to think about what your players will find interesting and fun.  Yu-Kai Chou, author of Actionable Gamification, sums it up by saying “you design for human motivation and not for functional efficiencies”. Which means that making a system that is fun and engaging for your users may come at the expense of some functionality or efficiency. If you are creating a system based primarily on what you want the user to do for you, it will most likely be an uphill battle. Players are very good at determining authenticity. If they feel the scale is unbalanced, they won’t continue to participate.

Overall gamification is an extremely powerful way to drive player engagement when performing various real-world tasks. But first you must fully understand who your players are and what motivates them. When you do, you can use a wide array of game components and techniques to produce great results. Focusing only on the business’ objectives, and adding game components as an afterthought, is a losing strategy.