GAME ON: How Gamification is Changing the Way Companies Market, Train and Research

gamification.If you sell to a consumer audience, you know the dilemma: a new generation of buyers is emerging and the rules of engagement have dramatically changed.  Chocolate chip cookies at hotel check-in and the promise of a friendly face at the teller line aren’t enough to get the attention of the Digital Natives, much less build a real relationship. That’s why companies in multiple industries are turning to gamification to connect with this oft-distracted but profitable demographic in a whole new way.

“On the most basic level, gamification is all about engagement; it’s a tool that can be used to change behavior or reinforce positive behavior with the target audience—be that customer or internal employee,” explained Naureen Meraj, senior global director, Gamification and Strategic Engagement at NTT DATA. “The strategy is based upon three fundamentals: competition, recognition and the inherent human need to see progress in one’s own performance.”

Think traditional customer loyalty program meets Candy Crush, with “friending” options.

“Research shows that traditional rewards programs are losing active participants. For the emerging market, earning individual points for prizes or discounts isn’t enough to build brand loyalty anymore,” Meraj said. “Today’s generation of buyers is used to a different kind of social engagement, with competition and digital interaction with their peers.”

In other words, the way to their hearts is through their smartphones.

“We did a three-month promotion with a hotel chain that had a loyal 30-year-old to 40-year-old customer base. They wanted to find a way to make the brand more relatable to the under-30 crowd,” Meraj said. “Through the course of the game, players could take a virtual tour of the hotel, earning keys, then points for using the keys to open “doors,” so they could see more of the facility. There was also a social media element attached, so players earned more for likes, references and getting their friends to join the game. We also collected data on the players as they went through the process, so the hotel could tailor subsequent communications and rewards to their specific preferences.”

It’s clear to see how gamification techniques could help build loyalty for a hotel, restaurant or retailer, but what about more traditional industries, like banking or insurance?

Some experts believe that gamification may just be the key to attracting that elusive younger demographic and cut through the growing “white noise” of the digital world. For example, a game that teaches money management fundamentals or one in which the player progresses through different lifestyle levels (first car purchase, first house purchase, big vacation) by making smart virtual money choices could build brand loyalty early and provide a real service.

If your business is very conservative, you don’t have to go all-in—and probably shouldn’t.  Sometimes, just adding one or two gamification techniques can make a big difference, without going against brand.

“Two of the best examples of very subtle, very effective gamification techniques are the LinkedIn progress bar (that icon that shows you how far away you are from what’s considered a ‘complete’ profile) and the profile strength icon, ” Meraj said. “These little additions play into the basic human need to complete things, and inspire competition, even without a scoreboard or a leaderboard. No one wants to feel like he or she is falling behind, particularly on a site that’s often used to attract employers and customers.”

A New Approach to Training

 Gamification could also help reduce the learning curve that accompanies new software implementation or conversion. This approach is ideal for eLearning, with its ability to simulate actual experiences, and its social element, allowing players to engage with peers to discuss or determine the correct answers.

Now, some software providers and implementation consultants are offering this form of training as a value-add.

“We’ve developed our own self-guided, gamified training for SAP, as an add-on solution for our customers,” Meraj said. “SAP is a complex and sophisticated system. The game is based on the concept of developing a city, and different parts of the city represent various SAP modules on which the training is imparted to the end-user.  The players get to go through immersive learning content on how to use particular SAP modules through a series of videos and scenario-based challenges.   As players complete the different learning modules, they see their city develop.”

The game provides immediate feedback as individuals move through the various levels and provides a centralized scoreboard so they can see how their colleagues are doing, as well. If someone is stuck on a certain level and sees her my peer, Bob, has surpassed that level, she can engage him for help, or a tip, or a hint. Companies can also set up competition between various departments to increase the enthusiasm around the training and ultimately accelerate adoption.

Fun, Games and Scientific Breakthroughs

If you’re still a little skeptical about the potential of gamification, consider the work done by The University of Washington’s Center for Game Science. Among its many creations is a game called Foldit, which tackles the problem of protein folding.  It seems the more scientists understand about the 3D structure of proteins (how they fold), they’re better able to figure out how to cure disease and create vaccines. Although it’s possible to determine protein shape in the lab, the process is very slow and extremely expensive; and trying to solve the problem through computational computing alone never was completely successful.

So, some brilliant minds from the Center developed a game that augments the computational computing with large-scale human spatial reasoning ability. The game’s embedded biochemistry simulations bring the laboratory to the populous to see if some fresh perspectives can shed some light on a difficult scientific problem.

Essentially, the player tries to fold the protein using a specific set of tools, then is scored by how “good” the fold is. The score then is uploaded to a leader board to inspire competition and keep the brainpower going.

And inspire, it did.

According to the Center’s website, since its release, Foldit has gained 100,000 players from all walks of life, throughout all parts of the globe. The most interesting part? The best Foldit players have little to no prior exposure to biochemistry.  Not only does this validate the potential of using crowdsourcing to solve complex scientific problems, but it shows how gamification can transform novices into researchers.

Could gamification one day lead to a cure for cancer, AIDs and other diseases that have baffled researchers for years?  Time will tell. But, by providing a new way to engage bright people with a unique approach to solving problems, anything is possible.

We’ll have to see how it all plays out.

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