Gamify This: Seattle Web Experts Give Pointers on Using Game Mechanics for Good and Evil

7/14/10Follow @gthuang

They are the holy triumvirate of the “gamification” movement here in Seattle. OK, I just made that up. But if you want to learn how to use video-game mechanics to enhance your business’s website, drive traffic and customers, and maybe boost your revenues, you could do worse than to talk to Scott Dodson, Neil Patel, and Keith Smith. Each is working on a different aspect, but it’s thanks to entrepreneurs like them—and more broadly, Seattle’s expertise in gaming and digital media—that the region has become an epicenter of activity in gamification of the Web.

Now we just have to be careful not to overdo it.

The two-minute history of gamification goes like this. Games have been around in some form since we were cavemen, possibly even before the inception of human language. Sports and competition are deeply ingrained in our psyche. Fast forward through board games, Dungeons & Dragons, and early console video games. Now gaming has gotten to the point where companies are using it to manipulate human behavior—namely, getting people to spend more time and money on the Web.

That’s according to Dodson, the co-founder of Seattle-based Bobber Interactive, who gave a brilliant talk on gamification at the NWEN Breakfast Buzz event last Friday. Dodson, who says he “gamified everything as a kid,” also talked about how adding a “game layer” has improved some absolutely vital functions in society, like air traffic control (through graphics and a game-like interface). It has also led to effective and economical ways of driving behaviors through things like Boy Scout merit badges and frequent flyer mileage programs.

But when it comes to the Web, adding game mechanics—like keeping score of points earned through various activities on a site—is all about the game metric (virtual currency), persistence (things carry over between visits), progression (do more and you earn badges or levels), and what Dodson calls the velvet rope (a certain amount of exclusivity and scarcity). Some early examples: Priceline (“you can win,” he says) and Google image labels. About 20 million Google image labels have been created by people playing a kind of matching game for a small reward. Another point he made is that games are fun and all, but tying game mechanics to real life is where the real payoff could come.

Some more recent examples of gamified websites or related services: Foursquare (of course), LinkedIn (which uses goal completion to urge people to finish their profiles), CauseWorld, MyTown, GroundSpeak, Urbanspoon, DailyBurn, Swoopo, Lockerz, Seriosity, Ribbon Hero from Microsoft, Mindbloom, and, yes, Bobber Interactive (Dodson’s financial services site). Meanwhile, DevHub, made by EVO Media Group, recently has added game mechanics to its website-builder product (see image above).

Also in Seattle, BigDoor Media, led by Keith Smith, is making a splash in trying to become the go-to software platform to help companies add game mechanics to their websites. As I understand it, the main goal of this sort of gamification is to strengthen customer loyalty, not so much acquire new customers—though that might be a side benefit.

To that point, Neil Patel, the search engine marketing expert and angel investor, posted some interesting advice on his blog today about gamification. Essentially, he says game mechanics, if done properly, can improve a site’s optimization for search engines. In other words, you will rank higher on Google or Bing if you make your site more addictive. You can do that by adding scoreboards, rewarding people who comment and therefore add engaging content to your site, and giving heavy users certain privileges.

Any talk of addiction rings warning bells, of course. It also makes me think more about what Silicon Valley startup guru Dave McClure told us recently about appealing to consumers’ “reptilian psyche.” What he meant was that smart Internet entrepreneurs should engage with consumers by tapping into their primal urges for things like sex, money, and power. So add competition and games to the list of deep drivers of behavior. But with that comes the responsibility not to get carried away to the point where our children, and people in general, can’t do anything without being rewarded. (Sorry, my own editorializing here.)

Dodson, for his part, is well aware of the dangers of gamification. While he proudly says there’s nothing he can’t gamify, he sees efforts by Las Vegas casinos to install video screens as an extra layer on top of slot machines, for example, as falling into the “‘gamification for evil’ category.” When I caught up with him after his talk last week, he admitted that gamification in moderation is a wise philosophy. What’s more, he doesn’t see the game-mechanics trend as taking over the Web indefinitely.

“This is probably a 10-year trend,” he says. “Then it will morph into something else.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at Follow @gthuang

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  • Jason

    Why only a 10 year trend? I don’t think fun and competitions are things that are going away anytime soon. The internet and ways people interact with sites and applications will definitely change, but it will still be all about making things fun. It will be interesting to see how companies adopt and add ‘game mechanics’ to their existing applications.

  • Gregory T. Huang

    Jason, I can’t speak for Scott Dodson on this, but I could see “gamification” (as it is now) as being obsolete in 10 years. It’s pretty hard to predict what the Web will look like then. Maybe most sites will have game mechanics, and we won’t even notice it anymore. Or maybe the trend will die out or change if there’s not enough money in it. But I agree the concept of making things fun and sticky is here to stay.

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