Gamification, Barely a Year Old, Could Implode & Take a New Industry Down With It—Thoughts From Bobber Interactive’s Scott Dodson

5/12/11Follow @curtwoodward

These are dizzying days for the business of games. It was almost exactly a year ago that we first wrote about the idea of applying video game features, like rewards and leaderboards, to websites and other connected services. Known as “gamification,” this new niche business aims to increase the amount of time people spend with sites or apps, thereby driving up advertising revenue or even getting users to shell out real money for virtual goods that are used within their game of choice.

Today, it seems like you can’t swing a dead cat in the tech world without hitting something gamified. Zynga, the maker of addictive Facebook games like Mafia Wars and FarmVille, delivered on the social network’s financial potential by getting people to tend their online gardens or hunt down adversaries. In February, multiple reports had Zynga raising money at a $10 billion valuation.

Startups are trying to repeat some of that success by tying games into all sorts of online experiences—Seattle’s BigDoor Media, for instance, just landed a marquee partnership with Major League Baseball, getting its platform on one of the best websites in professional sports.

And Seth Priebatsch, founder of Boston-based group-buying startup SCVNGR, got worldwide press coverage for his keynote speech at SXSW Interactive in March, when he declared that “The last decade was the decade of the social layer … Now, the game layer is coming.”

So you’d think a guy like Scott Dodson, whose company is bringing game mechanics to personal finance for kids, would be psyched by all this momentum. Except he’s not—quite the opposite, in fact. Dodson, a gaming veteran who serves as operations chief at Seattle-based Bobber Interactive, actually thinks that too many gamification efforts are merely employing the surface aspects of what makes a game experience compelling—the rewards, rankings, and progressive levels. At next week’s Login online game developer conference in Bellevue, WA, Dodson is giving a presentation on this issue with a dire title: Gamification will eat itself.

Dodson argues that, by focusing on the outcome of games instead of the internal dynamics that make them addictive, the current gamification trend could become generic, leading the entire idea to be considered annoying and passé. And Dodson says that presents a problem for companies like Bobber, which he says is trying to deliver a deeper level of gamification. “It risks sinking the whole ship. It risks de-legitimizing the value that actually does exist in creating a game layer,” he says.

By his own recounting, Dodson was among the early wave of people to start publicly promoting the notion of broad gamification. In a session at last year’s Login conference—the speech was optimistically titled “Gamification!”—Dodson tied together several threads in the then-burgeoning field. When he pitched the talk a few months ahead of time, it was little more than a word and an idea.

“I dug out my old proposal, and it was literally like, ‘Look—I don’t even really know what I’m going to say. I’ve just got this word. But trust me, it’s going to be big, and it’s going to be good,” he says with laugh. “At the time, I did a search for the word gamification and I got literally four results. And that was it. There were no other references Google found to the word gamification.”

As Dodson was developing that presentation and ramping up work on Bobber, game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell spoke about the idea at DICE, a major game conference, … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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