READ THIS AND EARN POINTS! The curious rise of Gamification

(First published December 2011) The ‘phenomenon’ of Gamification is growing, and whether it’s another advertising and marketing industry fad or not, maybe animation companies should sit up and take notice says Saint John Walker. (The full article is available in the Winter 2011 issue of IMAGINE Magazine)

badgesAs online technologies mature, animation skills have been seen to seep into many new niches like advertising, architectural visualisation, interactive media or games, to service the many new business that spring up in the wake of the web. Currently a new hybrid advertising and games sector may be opening up utilising locative technologies enabled by a new breed of smartphones, and this may eventually become another important important source of work for the animation industry- if the advertising industry is to be believed. They are pinning their hopes that Gamification will be big. So let’s explore this subject; but first a little context is in order.

The advertising industry tends to see customer engagement through the prism of a battle for eyeballs. There are only so many hours in the day to hit people with your products message, and to do that you need to have a campaign focused where your targeted demographic congregates, and that is increasingly around the games space, which online technologies have enabled to proliferate.

2009 TNS-NIPO research study showed the time spent on games for the under twenty target groups gaming is third place, following Internet and TV. The advantage of a game over TV is that playing a game requires one hundred percent concentration, which means there is a maximum span of attention time no other media can compete with, and the Advertising industry is anxious to be there.

With one in three people now describing themselves as gamers, interactive entertainment is more popular than ever before with games being played by people of all ages at home, on consoles, on mobile phones, and on Facebook.

Zynga's Farmville; free to play yet made millions

Zynga’s Farmville; free to play yet made millions


Zynga’s FarmVille was the first Facebook game that really attracted the attention of wider media conglomerates in TV and advertising, hungry for new ways to engage with audiences. Founded in July 2007 by Mark Pincus, Zynga had 45 staffers in June 2008 and had mushroomed to 600 by the end of 2009. With its 100 million players, FarmVille was the top game on Facebook between August 2009 and December 2010, with over 100 million users, and then their next game CityVille claimed the top spot. By 2010, FarmVille had more active users than Twitter, and it still interrupts the behaviour patterns of 20 million people per day, who log in to water virtual crops.

Although FarmVille is now no longer the force it was, Zynga is still heading towards $1 billion in revenue in 2011 with its other games and Google has recently poured $100 million into the company. FarmVille’s success was based on leveraging the connectivity of Facebook (‘invite a friend’!) and analysing how people play in a social media environment. Also, it is free to play, so attracts ‘non-gamer’ audiences, especially women who would never class themselves as gamers.

farmville_friendsZynga games are free- if you want them to be. You can play as long as you like for nothing, but there are extras which will add to your enjoyment and sense of achievement. For instance you might pay for a virtual tractor to speed up your crops growth. 82 percent of Zynga’s customers pay nothing, but around 5 percent spend $1-5 in the game, and about the same amount spend $6-10. 3 percent of FarmVille users spend more than $20 a month. That’s the major way the company rakes in $1 million a day.

That’s a huge amount of eyeballs, but also mouseclicks. The key to the rapid success of many of these ‘casual’ games (the latest includes EA’s Sims Social, which clocked up 4.6 million players logging in every day after only a week after its release), are the metrics and feedback the games company get when you play. In a sense, these games are never fully built- they evolve, improving through user data. They collect statistics of how you play, and what you do and find out where people give up or fail, and update or modify accordingly.

They want you to keep playing, but you’ll only keep playing if the reward is balanced with effort. Zynga employ behavioural psychologists, games designers, and finance managers to constantly tune the game based on the feedback they get from you.

In the pre-online world this form of games balancing used to happen before the game was released, but it’s now become an activity long after the game becomes popular.


NGP_B_Hand_front2The global market for video games is projected to grow at an annual rate of 10.6 percent over the coming years to reach $86.7 billion in 2014. UK businesses generated £2 billion in global sales and contributed £1 billion to GDP.

It’s this ability to engage with huge numbers of people that the advertising industry is anxious to exploit. If by tweaking games mechanics and rules, you can so engross the player to make them come back again and again AND pay for something that’s free, using social media and peoples desires for ‘bragging rights’ about their game achievements, then you have a potent mix to manipulate behaviour and promote brands whilst the player is immersed.

Thus Gamification was born, and it’s everywhere.

foursquarecityGamification is broadly defined as applying game design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. It’s part design, part psychology. The addition of game-like reward mechanisms help to drive involvement and encourage users to engage in desired behaviours. You are using the human propensity for fun and playfulness and rewarding the behaviour you want in the user, even encouraging people to perform chores that they ordinarily consider boring. Gamification is a new way of selling, well, just about anything.

Raj Paharia- the Henry Ford of Gamification?

Raj Paharia- the Henry Ford of Gamification?

“We all need motivation and incentivising” says Rajat Paharia, CEO of Bunchball, one of the top providers of game mechanics servicing clients like NBC, Hearst and Hasbro. “Games Designers have been doing this for years- changing player behaviour through points, badges, virtual goods, high score tables. All these elements can be taken out of the gameworld to anywhere there are people to incentivise them. They can influence user behaviour, drive participation and engagement and loyalty”.

Bunchball sell a Gamification platform called Nitro, which is already serving up to 70 million unique users each month. It allows the tracking of user behaviour and compilation of important user metrics and data, and the ability to apply it to your website. It allows you to use devices such as an avatar builder, virtual room builder, trophy case, an ability to set challenges and track the results, and to apply badges and points to whatever you’re selling on your site.


Jogging Gamified: compete with the world -or yourself

Jogging Gamified: compete with the world -or yourself

Gamification can encourage behaviours in real life too, not just on the web. Nike, the world’s largest manufacturer of athletic footwear and apparel realised in 2008 that one way to sell more trainers was to get more people running. Their solution was to ‘gamify’ exercise.Nike+ is an app on your iPhone or ipod Nano that you take out jogging with you.

Via GPS it gives you information on your runs- how fast you are going, how far, how many calories you are burning, and a map of your journey. When you upload that information to the Nike+ website you can see statistics and a history of all your runs.

Where Gamification is utilised to keep you running (and buying) is by introducing peer group pressure and competition. You can challenge your friends, or people around the world to races, and get rewarded with virtual trophies and medals, and a training program designed online just for you.

This literally healthy competition incentivises you. If you run the shortest distance among the people in your game, then you’ll try harder next time. Online coaching includes footage of well-known athletes congratulating you on your new personal best.

humanrace2009Gamification has turned what many people consider a chore or find hard to get motivated about into a system of social bragging rights and a sense that you are achieving progress through virtual rewards, on a global scale. Recently over 800,000 runners logged on and signed up when Nike sponsored a 10K race simultaneously across 25 international cities. Over 1.8 million runners are currently using Nike+

So, what has this got to do with animation? Well, data needs to be presented in a visual form, and it’s just possible that if this new industry takes off, new ways will need to be found to portray data attractively. Just as the games industry is a major employer of animation talent, it’s just possible gamification might increase that demand too.


Gamification is a hot topic. The Gartner Group estimates that by 2015, 70 percent of the Forbes Global 2000 will be using gamified apps, and M2 Research forecasts that U.S. companies alone will spend $1.6 billion on gamification products and services by that same year. Real-time networked communication, web analytics and location based technologies have all enabled gamification businesses, and allowed interaction with the real world.

Gamification has hit the car industry. In 2009, Ford’s Fusion Hybrid rewarded fuel efficient driving behaviour by the illumination of increasing numbers of leaves on a digital tree on the dashboard. The driver alters their behaviour to the challenge of growing a full leafy tree.

left: the complete dashboard. Right inset: the leaves grow as you save fuel....

left: the complete dashboard. Right inset: the leaves grow as you save fuel….

Gamification influences behaviour, and investors are rushing to fund gamification companies.

foursquare_specialoffer2Foursquare is a location-based mobile app that provides users with a list of places in their nearby vicinity ‘to explore’, such as retail stores, restaurants, gyms and any other type of business. Users check in to a coffee bar, restaurant, cinema or pretty much anywhere interesting and share their location with friends on Twitter and Facebook. By doing so, users can earn points to compete against friends and gain “badges,” which are virtual rewards for checking in to certain places. You can also take advantage of promotions from local businesses. Users who have checked in the most times at a certain venue will be crowned “Mayor” until someone surpasses their number, and this can unlock further badges and discounts. Users around the world are ‘checking in’ at the rate of 23 times per second. Foursquare raised $50 million of investment and has attracted 10 million customers on a platform that was built around solid game mechanics.

Various venues have embraced Foursquare, and offer special deals to users who are “mayors”. You and all your friends in your Facebook and Twitter lists can flaunt badges and share achievements. There’s also a leaderboard to encourage competition and conspicuous consumption.foursquare_highres

As evidence of critical mass, UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently joined Foursquare in an effort to expand his digital presence and better connect with the electorate. Foursquare members can track who Cameron is meeting with, when and why.


The business entrepreneurs who are running the leading gamification industries are the videogame generation. To them, using points, badges, virtual goods, high score tables, a sense of achievement and reward is something they’ve grown up with. They know the dopamine high of winning virtual rewards.

playSCVNGRhereSeth Priebatsch was 20 when he set up SCVNGR, a location based real world gaming platform app dedicated to doing challenges at certain locations and earning points. Users are able to broadcast where they are and what they’re doing to their friends on Facebook and Twitter. Companies, educational institutions, and organizations can build challenges too.

The US chain Buffalo Wild Wings & Bar was the first national company to announce an interactive campaign with SCVNGR. Restaurant guests complete challenges in the restaurants and win instant prizes and rewards that are redeemable there and then. In the first two weeks of the campaign, over 33,000 people played SCVNGR at the chain and one in three came back to do it again. Eating places are regularly seeing 2,000 new gamers a day.

With 60 employees and a total of 18 million dollars of investment SCVNGR is riding high, and can afford official zany job titles (Michael Hagan is Chief Rockstar, and founder Seth is Chief Ninja). Seth Priebatsch sums up the zeitgeist; “We’re moving from a decade-long social phase of communication, where we let Facebook and Twitter capture our social lives on the web – building a “social layer” on top of the real world, towards a new game layer or all-encompassing net of behavior-steering game dynamics that will reshape both education and commerce”.

Seth Priebatsch (photo: Arnold Wells)

Seth Priebatsch (photo: Arnold Wells)

It’s this movement that SCVNGR see themselves as part of. “Facebook own half a billion people, they own all our connections” says Priebatsch, “the framework has been built and decided on- its Facebook’s Open Graph API”. To Priebatsch, because of this there’s little point doing anything with social media outside of Facebook, it is literally ‘Game Over’. The new challenge of this next decade is the Game Layer, which is all about influencing behaviour, and it’s only just begun. The Gamification version of Facebook has yet to be invented.

Ex-college dropout Priebatsch sees a new, gamified world. He talks about how 21st century education is dysfunctional and broken because “It’s a poorly designed game”. To Priebatsch it suffers from two major problems- engagement, and cheating. “Grades are a naive implementation of a status mechanic,” he suggests.

All these apps rely on data, but that data needs to be presented effectively for quick recognition and consumption. “The visuals need to carry the story. Imagine mafia wars without images- it would be a series of abstract progress bars,” notes Sebastian Deterding, a designer and researcher working on user experience. In short, the advance of gamification might mean more work for designers and animators. Gamification company sites are replete with animated infographics showing how simple joining is. Foursquare’s introduction features an animation that wouldn’t be out of place on kids TV. The message is all about fun and ease of use.


It’s worth remembering that much of this zeal is from start-ups who need to attract big investors in the States, and at the moment they seem to be getting it. However, on this side of the pond we are a little more sanguine. Games Designers point out that escapism and fun are often being missed by ad agencies anxious to slap a bit of gamification onto any campaign going, and often ending up with poor results.

Margaret Robertson, game designer, commentator and development director at design studio Hide and Seek took issue with the concept of gamification in her influential 2010 blog“Points and badges have no closer a relationship to games than they do to websites and fitness apps and loyalty cards. They’re great tools for communicating progress and acknowledging effort, but neither points nor badges in any way constitute a game…games set their players goals and then make attaining those goals interestingly hard”.

Robertson penned the term Pointsification, and became a standard bearer for much of the games industry.

American academic Mark Sample agrees; “I oppose pointsification and the gamification of life. Instead of “gamifying” activities in our daily life, we need to meanify them—imbue them with meaning. The things that we do to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die, we need to see as worth doing in order to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die. A leaderboard is not the path toward discovering this worthwhileness”.

now everybody wants to be your friend: Shop on Oxford St, London

now everybody wants to be your friend: Shop on Oxford St, London

The next few years will see if Gamification becomes the normal way we respond to advertising brands and our daily retail choices. We’ll see if the job role of Gamification Animator will slip into common currency. When every commercial outlet wants to woo us with badges, trophies and often meaningless rewards, will there be a backlash? Will we view each offer of engagement with weariness and suspicion? Will we resent the fact that corporations know we are nearby, and ply us with offers?

On one Gamification blog, software engineer and entrepreneur Brendten Eickstaedt exclaimed “Who cares if you’re the mayor of your local grocery store? NOBODY. Gamification is a fad that needs to die quickly. Let’s get back to building games that are fun to play, and then worry about how to bring them into the real world”.

Gamification’s future is in the hands of the advertising agencies, and is becoming a gold rush industry that offers opportunity for games designers, animators and software engineers alike. Make hay whilst you can seems to be a good approach, but don’t open that Gamification Animation boutique just yet.


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