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Is Gamification More Than Just a Buzzword?

At times the social media industry appears to be a front for a buzzword manufacturing operation. Even in such a competitive jargon market, few words have lingered longer than “gamification.”

We already know that gamification is "The One Key To Social Media Success" (not whatever the blogs said it was last week), but do we all really know what it means when we use the word?  Don’t worry, I’m not going to say “The Oxford English Dictionary defines gamification as…”

Gamification is the carrot on the end of the stick.  It’s the progress bar that tells you there’s a reward up ahead for all your time and effort.  It’s the promise that if you perform a task, you’ll get something in return.

The technique is used to incentivise the completion of an objective; typically to make an unappealing chore seem fun or to keep an audience glued to a process they already enjoy.  It’s nice to see that gamification is also fast becoming a tool to motivate creativity, and to support people in need.

Let’s begin with something familiar: Foursquare.  This is the social networking phone app that rewards users for “checking in” on their travels.  Users receive points and badges based on the location they check in at and the frequency of their visits, encouraging them to keep using the app.   What does Foursquare get out of it?  Ad sales.  Businesses can buy ads that are displayed to users who happen to be nearby, or who have a history of checking in with similar businesses.

Foursquare isn’t the only business using gamification to drain our phone batteries. “Zombies, Run!” is a fitness app that motivates runners to pick up the pace by placing a horde of undead at their heels in a series of audio-based alternate reality game missions.

If you find it hard enough to put your running shoes on in the first place, you might need a productivity app. Applications like CARROT aim to keep users focused on their goals by rewarding them for crossing tasks off their to-do lists, or even punishing them for slacking off.

Gamification can also motivate us to get jobs done for the benefit of others.  Duolingo offers a “scientifically proven” gamified learning system for picking up a new language.  The game works on two levels.  The end user’s studies are gamified by testing them in translation tasks, employing familiar game mechanics like countdown timers and the loss of “hearts” for answering incorrectly.

Meanwhile all Duolingo’s users are participating in a larger game to translate real documents from one language to another.  An individual user may have translated one simple word as part of a test, but his effort combines with that of 64,999 other people  to translate a whole novel.  Using this method, 1 million Duolingo users could translate the entirety of Wikipedia from English to Spanish in just 80 hours.

Boosting productivity for customer service teams

Gamification is also employed by businesses to squeeze extra productivity out of their staff.  Freshdesk Arcade gamifies customer support, rewarding staff with points and badges for solving support queries quickly and for satisfying customers.  While it’s always nice to clear your support queue, I have to wonder whether emphasising speed leads to more mistakes or a lack of personalisation in customer support responses.

Microsoft uses gamification for staff appraisals

Microsoft has been in the news since the announcement of CEO Steve Ballmer’s resignation (which led to the company’s share price increasing by around 7%).  Various reasons have been put forward for Microsoft’s less than stellar performance under Ballmer, but one stands out to me.  Microsoft uses a staff appraisal system known as a “Vitality Curve.”

Under the system employees are ranked as top performers, good performers, average, below average, or poor, with compensation and potential for advancement in the company based on this review.  The catch is that it’s not possible for all employees to be rated as good or top performers.  To maintain the graph’s bell curve, a certain percentage of employees must be placed in each bucket.

This means 7% of all staff have to be branded as poor performers, even if they’ve actually been performing well – just not as well as others in their department.  The smaller the department, the more likely there are to be some harsher categorisations. Put 10 of the company’s most brilliant minds in one team, and at appraisal time one will still get “poor” stamped on their record.

Former Microsoft employees have cited this particular use of gamification as the cause of counterproductive competitiveness between staff.  An employee with a great idea is less likely to share and collaborate with his colleagues, because if he keeps it to himself it could give him the edge in the ranking game.

Fortunately gamification isn’t always so cut-throat.  During a disaster, like Hurricane Sandy or the Fukushima earthquake, hundreds of thousands of related posts hit social media sites every minute.  Many of these contain valuable, actionable information that could be used by disaster responders, but the task of sorting through them seems insurmountable.  The Internet Response League (IRL) aims to break the job down into “micro tasks” and assign them to gamers.  It posits that gamers could be asked to search through the information haystack and flag the most urgent tweets, or geotag Instagram photos to help emergency services to locate the people and places that need their attention.

The IRL (see what they did there?) is appealing to developers of online games like World of Warcraft to integrate their micro task system right into the games. The IRL suggests that WoW’s 7,000,000 subscribers could compete to increase their “Online Volunteer Score” in return for access to in-game content.  This, it says, would make players happy, do wonders for public opinion of game developers, and bring about a “social revolution”.

MTV's Hottest Summer SuperstarI'm also giddy with excitement about a practical example of gamification that’s still unfolding. Every day MTV UK is inundated with tweets from its audience praising specific artists and making the case for band X being better than band Y.  MTV's Social Media Team came up with a way to gamify this outpouring of support with a tweet-to-vote poll.

Fanbases mobilised to tweet in their droves and push their favourite acts up the leaderboard, building to a televised reveal that will show the MTV audience just how well they did.  We’ll have more to say about the #MTVHottest campaign in the coming weeks, but its effectiveness can be summed up with two stats: the #MTVHottest hashtag appeared in over 165,000,000 tweets and trended in 158 regions. 

Perhaps predictably, gamification has winners and losers.  Some incentivise an audience in a way that encourages, rather than exploits, while others perhaps bring out the worst of our natural competitiveness.  I think the key is mutual gain.  When designing a gamification system or campaign it’s obviously important to have it ultimately contribute to your own goals, but there needs to be something in it for all of the game’s players.  If everybody wins, then there’s less inclination to look over at the guy next to you and see if he came out of it better than you did.

Gamification has applications for social media campaigns, and for social media professionals.  When reasonable goals are set and coveted rewards are up for grabs it’s clear that gamification can be a whole lot more than just a buzzword.

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