Gamification: The New Virtual Worlds?

Six years ago, I was caught up in (and probably contributed to) the hype around virtual worlds — environments typically built using videogaming technology for training, meeting, or social interaction and entertainment. Second Life (which is still going, believe it or not) was the best known of these. For consumers, the main problem with many of these worlds was that they lacked clear goals — making it difficult to retain a critical mass of engaged users, especially given the limitations of keyboard and mouse control of 3D avatars. (Some of the games that could be classed as virtual worlds, such as World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and even Minecraft,  work well because of their compelling stories and user-engaging goals. Perhaps we’ll see a successful second wave of virtual worlds as voice/motion control UIs and 3D displays create a more immersive experience.)

Anyway, I was reminded of the above when looking at the newest, hottest “videogames-without-the-actual-game” topic of gamification. While the idea behind gamification is not as fundamentally flawed as that of virtual worlds (ain’t hindsight great!), the field is developing in a very similar way:

1) A couple of visionary firms start “gamifying” their consumer interactions — Mint is a great example here.

2) Other firms jump in with either their own offerings or infrastructure to support gamification — see Badgeville for a good example of the latter.

3) Breathless articles start appearing in the press about how gamification is going to be BIG! These are usually accompanied by new conferences springing up to support the field. See No, Second Life not overhyped versus Inside the gamification gold rush. Ahem.

4) Brand marketers jump in, all hoping that this will give them an advantage — albeit temporary — over their competitors in consumers’ eyes.

5) Profit?

Now, I recognize that being around cutting-edge technology for as long as I have can make you cynical, but I think it’s clear that gamification is not the panacea that many marketers hope it will be. From the consumer’s perspective, we have:

  • The good: Making mundane tasks more interesting is a good thing; setting and achieving goals and sharing experiences makes ongoing commitment more likely — as WeightWatchers knows well. And there are few areas as dull and ripe for sprucing up as personal finance, professional networking (see the BeKnown Facebook app), or regular shopping trips. Gamification is win-win here.
  • The bad: But, as with ‘following’ a product, how many of these different games, badges, and groups can consumers really stomach? Early-adopter brands may gain a fleeting advantage, but competitors will copy them — often at a fraction of the cost, given all the new tools. That’s the reality of modern marketing.
  • The ugly: You the consumer start ‘playing’ a personal finance service, love it to bits, and recommend it to everyone you meet. The trouble is that most other people don’t bite, so the service is shelved (virtual worlds hit a similar stumbling block here); you’ve spent hours getting badges/points/custom items, all of which will shortly vanish. Now, how does that make you feel about the brand concerned?

I’ve experienced this last point first hand recently. I’m a big fan of Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) in general and the Final Fantasy series in particular — so I jumped at the chance to start playing Square Enix’s Knights of the Crystals Facebook game around 2 years ago and have been dutifully building my characters pretty much every day since. But at the end of this month, it is closing down — and I feel like I’m losing a friend! (I certainly spent more time on it than with any of my real or Facebook friends over the past couple of years.) Before jumping on the gamification bandwagon, marketers need to think carefully about the long-term sustainability of their game — or risk alienating their most engaged  followers.