Gameocracy – Play To Win

thomas Blog

A close friend of mine once recalled how as a young child, his older brother often succeeded in getting the better of him. While they both watched TV, he was regularly asked by his older brother to go upstairs and get something. At first, he would refuse, defiantly, until his older brother took out his watch, pointed at it and said “I’ll time you.”.

With a time-based challenge, he found himself spurred into action, racing up the stairs in an attempt to complete the task as quickly as he could.

For the average consumer, the sensory stimulation and escapism that TV offers has become a deeply ingrained addiction. According to Nielsen research published in 2009, the average American watches 5 hours of TV per day. In his book “Cognitive Surplus”, Clay Shirky describes how, en-mass, the total hours across society spent watching TV represents a massive under-utilisation of talent and spare capacity. He conjectures that if the trillions of man hours spent each year watching TV could be put to better use, it could afford great benefits for society. For example, the total human effort to create the Wikipedia, a resource with over 20 million articles, took only 100 million man hours to create.

By taking what many would consider a form of work, and turning it into a game, my friends older brother was able to manipulate his behaviour and create an opportunity that was more compelling than watching TV. The art of taking a task and turning it into a game is popularly referred to as gamification, and the principles that make games engaging, compelling and which steer our behaviour are an emerging field known as game mechanics. A time based challenge is one form of game mechanic of which there are many. Other popular examples include a progression dynamic (think progress bar) and status (title or ranking, as compared with others).

In her fabulous TED Talk “Gaming can change the World”, Futurist Jane McGonigal explained how the best computer games create profoundly satisfying learning experiences, where gamers work very hard, blissfully, with high levels of concentration, skill and productivity to complete tasks in virtual worlds. Her ideas are grounded in hard research; World of Warcraft, the most popular multi-user role playing game, sports over 12 million subscribers globally who play for an average of 22 hours per week and collectively complete over 16 million quests per day. Farmville, the most popular social game playable via Facebook, has over 80 million monthly users, generating in excess of US $1m dollars in daily revenue for it’s creator Zynga.

Jane McGonigal explains that, the best games use a blend of stories, social structures and feedback loops to give tasks meaning that make them fun to complete, and that the principles that make people work hard in virtual worlds represents our best opportunity to get vast swathes of our population to team up, work harder and literally save the World. She believes that, if we can repurpose the cognitive surplus in society by using game mechanics to change individual behaviour en-masse, we can build a better society. She predicts that, by 2023, a game designer will win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Mobile technology is blurring the interface between games and reality, and game mechanics are already being used effectively to influence group behaviour. For example, Foursquare is a location based mobile game that involves users showing up in various locations and checking in using their mobile phone. By playing, users earn real rewards (such as discount vouchers) and virtual rewards (such as badges and titles) and social rewards (like status). Since Foursquare launched in March 2009, it has amassed over 5 million users and the collective population of Foursquare is now crowd sourcing location based wisdom to help people determine where is good to go in their locale. The rapid user adoption rate and utility has led to the World Economic Forum declaring Foursquare as a Technology Pioneer for 2011.

When you consider the technology costs of yesteryear, society is getting wealthier in terms of technology at rate that far exceeds economic growth. For example, adjusted for inflation, in terms of cost per megabyte, hard drives were approx 16 million percent more expensive in 1998 than 2008, and in terms of cost per megaflop (measure of CPU number crunching power), processors in 1984 were 2 billion percent more expensive than processors in 2009. The increased capabilities available at lower costs are driving many smarter uses of technology throughout society; and based upon research published by Gartner, in the first two quarters of 2010, sales of Smartphones increased by 50%. These smartphones can run a variety of apps, games, access the Internet and most include GPS technology for location based services. According to Jupiter Research, it is estimated that by 2014, over half of mobile phone users will make payments via their phones, and over 1.5 billion people will own smart mobile phones with GPS technology.

The parallel trends of declining costs of technology, increased connectivity, more people figuring out better uses for technology and new models for user engagement are changing the basis of how society operates. Over the last decade, mobile phones have been used to make TV more interactive; Reality TV shows use text message based voting to allow viewers to collectively decide what happens, and occasionally participate and win prizes. More recently, Web 2.0 technologies are allowing data to be shared in ways that better harnesses and serves the needs and wisdom of the crowd, for example, Facebooks API lets Zynga create social games that can be played within Facebook. A variety of algorithms operate like mini-user voting engines such as Facebook’s open graph protocol that uses the number of “likes” as a factor to help determine ranking in it’s search engine, and on YouTube, where the most watched videos become more findable. These voting mechanisms are so efficient and agile that their existence should spur a re-examination of our political structures, in light of what technology makes possible.

Modern marketers must take heed of how computers, tablets and mobile phones are quickly becoming our most popular interface with information in our World, and learn new or updated ways to add value in a connected society. In terms of engagement, passive marketing cannot compete with interactive marketing, just as a good one way message cannot compete with a good feedback loop. A lot of marketers know what they need to do to get a press release to be featured in a national newspaper, but don’t have a clue how to create a video that gets 100,000+ views on YouTube in a short period of time, or how to set up an email auto responder that sends subscribers a different email depending on their actions. In the future, you won’t have a chance unless your marketing process is data-driven. Google has more data about modern psychology of the World than any other organisation, based upon a 2 year anonymised archive of what everyone searches for and uses this data to keep growing and winning more business. Zynga has figured out from it’s 80 million Farmville users how to sequence challenge, reward and social integration at just the right level to become so addictive that 18% of users play Farmville every day.

As the cost of achieving anything with technology decreases, a huge opportunity emerges to do business better. The most developed domain of how to engage, manage and steer attention and make competing tasks fun is using games. The games industry has developed such power and traction in society that in 2009 in the UK, 40% more money was spent on games than on movies. Now you can learn from the games industry, and as a modern marketer, apply principles of game mechanics to get better results in business. Simple examples include building progress dynamics (like a progress bar) into a checkout mechanism on a website (to make people more likely to complete a checkout process), to using competitions that engage your customers in thinking about your product, to measuring the productivity of your staff, and based upon a variety of metrics, rewarding them with points, virtual items such as badges and titles, to orient their psychology to progress to becoming higher perfomers as they work.

If you want to further validate these possibilities for yourself, find a teenager, and quiz them about how motivated they are to succeed in school versus how motivated they are to play games. Then ask them, if school became a giant computer game, do they think they could learn more and would they spend more time learning?

As society evolves, game mechanics are going to pervade more areas of our lives, because they work so well, they will ultimately become part of our interface with information, leading to a more connected society, that leverages fun, psychological and data driven principles to get everyone to engage and participate more.

When you blend game mechanics, connected technologies, capitalism and democracy, you will find our society becomes a Gameocracy. To succeed within it, you’ll have to play to win.

(as published in The Digital Times)