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

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in a speech cited as among the first major public explorations of gamification. Dodson calls it “the shot heard ’round the world” about adding a game layer to other experiences. Discussion of the idea exploded online, and in corporate boardrooms.

“Now, depending on the search, you’re getting a million hits at least. And this is in essentially the span of not much more than a year,” Dodson says. “It’s been kind of surreal to have that experience. I wish I’d taken a screen shot of that first Google search I did!”

If you had to boil this explosion down to a single phenomenon, it would probably be Zynga’s success at developing games for Facebook—games that could finally harvest serious money from Facebook’s enormous user base.

“The VCs looked at the gamification of Facebook as resulting in the sustained engagement and monetization models of the social network,” Dodson says. “Up until that point, it’s hard to think about it now, but they were scratching their heads waiting for a business model to emerge … and all of the sudden, Zynga essentially built a game layer on top of Facebook—and now it was cooking with gas.”

Since Zynga solved such a closely watched problem in a new and novel way, the natural reaction was to search for as many ways as possible to apply that template to other online businesses. But those Zynga games were relatively shallow, Dodson says.

“I remember being in a business meeting and this guy all of the sudden flipped out and said ‘I’m sorry, just one second.’ And he got on Facebook and his soufflés were about to fall in CafeWorld,” Dodson says. “And it was so bizarre to me, because this is a guy who was like a game-industry titan—I thought he missed a VC call or something like that.”

This kind of behavior should sound familiar to everyone who’s heard the story about Pavlov’s dogs. And Dodson says that’s precisely the reason gamification could become a victim of its own success. By using game mechanics to simply elicit a response, developers virtually guarantee that their game won’t bring people back in the long term. So Mafia Wars players become FarmVille players, become CityVille players, and so on—they’ve got to keep being recycled into a new game because the engagement only lasts a few months, Dodson says.

“Whenever you tie the reward mechanism too closely to the behavior, it feels manipulative. And people reject that. Human beings are designed after a while to just vomit on that, essentially. Like, ‘Wait a minute—no, I’m not going to be a rat in a maze and just click this thing. I’ll do it for maybe three months, but I’m not going to do it forever,'” Dodson says.

So rather than Pavlov-style behavioral psychology, which deals with rawer stimulus-response behavior, Dodson and others see the real value of games explained in the field of motivational psychology—the study of why people do things.

It’s no coincidence that one of the key advisers to Bobber Interactive is Scott Rigby, a psychologist, business consultant and co-author of the book “Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound.” Rigby’s academic research has included a study that showed how the … Next Page »

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