Game Mechanics, Badges and the Social Web: Where Are We Going?

"In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and *SNAP* the job's a game!" -- Mary Poppins

My parents' four-acre landscape company was a maze of greenhouses and storage bays brimming with every variety of tree, flower, stone or pebble a child could fathom. The weekends and summers of my childhood were spent watering young plants, pulling weeds and mowing a one-acre lawn on a weekly basis. Because my parents weren't about to turn their 10-year-old loose with a riding mower, I walked it the old-fashioned way.

The monotony of my responsibilities -- often times carried out under the blistering Texas heat -- brought to vivid life the words spoken, rather, sung by Mary Poppins in her eponymous Disney flick. My youthful mind would play every last angle in an attempt to find delight in the manual labor I was tasked with. How many weeds can I pull in a minute? What if I mow this lawn east to west instead of north to south? Can I hold more than 6 one-gallon buckets at a time?

I learned quickly to have fun amidst the daily grind as the only child of entrepreneurial parents.

Making a game out of life's tasks is nothing new. The effervescent Jane McGonigal has been exploring real world games for some time now. Yet there is emerging movement today -- especially among the early adopting tech set -- to turn all of one's online and real-world activities into a game. Think of it as an "achievement system for life" if you will.

It all sounds fun, but is this newfound love for all things game-related really the future?

About two and half years ago I found myself sitting on a park bench at the edge of Lake Tahoe. There was a low cloud hanging over the mountain lake that cast a beautifully ominous shadow over the small waves lapping up onto shore.

I was on the phone with my dad and I couldn't help but brag about the amazing scenery I was soaking in. After we finished the call I took a long look at the phone in my hand. It was a white iPhone 3G, the first iPhone with built-in GPS. The idea struck me like a bolt of lightning.

What if we created a passport -- a travel journal -- for your phone?

My co-founder Scott and I had a history a building fun and unique services on the web. Our first product -- an online invoicing service for small businesses -- featured beautiful iconography and a delightful user-interface that made the painfully dull task of invoicing clients easy and fun. Unwittingly, we had turned billing clients and getting paid into a game.

We also created a niche community site for web designers that rewarded power users with iconic badges for their activity. I even worked with the team building Causes, where game mechanics were employed to encourage the masses on Facebook to give to charitable organizations. We wanted to learn if the online achievement systems pioneered by the teams working on XBOX Live and World of Warcraft -- leaderboards, points, icons and badges -- could be applied to social activity on the web.

So when the low flying cloud caught my attention on that October day I quickly grabbed my sketchbook and started imagining what this passport on a phone might look like. Would beautiful iconography and a delightful user interface inspire people to share their favorite places and travel moments with their friends?

Lake Tahoe Photo and Sketches

The Lake Tahoe Photo and Sketches

A few months of feverish work later, Scott and I introduced Gowalla to the world at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. It so happened that Dennis Crowley (of Dodgeball fame) and Naveen Selvadurai unveiled a somewhat-similar project called foursquare. You've probably heard of it. Overnight, a new genre of mobile and social services had galvanized. Icons badges and game mechanics quickly became the talk of the tech world.

We awarded iconic "pins" (the moniker is a throwback to those retro ski-area pins I collected as a kid) for taking a walking trip around a city or for visiting a new state or country. Foursquare awarded badges for activity like checking in a certain number of times at a restaurant or gym.

Silicon Valley took notice and a plethora of services cropped up in the months that followed, rewarding badges for watching television, reading books and giving to charity -- amongst dozens of other activities, both online and off, one might participate in. A couple sites even launched to aggregate activity across these services to reward people with badges for earning badges.

The "game" was on.

Two years have now passed and it's impossible to attend a technology or social media event where game mechanics are not discussed. The fever pitch reached a new high earlier this month when SXSW once again convened in Austin.

The conversation went something like this: Want new users for your fancy mobile social app thing? Add a leaderboard! Trying to get people to care about your old media publishing company's website? Give 'em a badge! Need a solution for global warming? Game mechanics to the rescue!

There's even an awful new word to describe this phenomenon: Gamification.

Some have gone so far to propose that game mechanics will revolutionize society over the next decade in the same way that the social utility of Facebook and Twitter have done so over the last one. Imagine a world with point systems and badges for brushing your teeth, doing your taxes, or even going on a date with your significant other.

Sadly, this is early adopter navel-gazing at its best.

The sentiment that games are -- or will be -- as important as our social connections over the next decade is laughable.

Social validation is the primary driver of activity on the web. I'm no philosopher, but I'd venture to say that social validation is the primary driver for almost anything we fickle humans do on our big blue earth.

Photos are posted to Facebook to be shared and commented upon by friends. Millions of tweets take flight daily to be retweeted in a never-ending loop to boost follower counts. Even LinkedIn understands that at the end of the day social connection reigns supreme over its game-like approach to managing your professional contacts.

While badges and game mechanics may have raised the awareness of our service and industry in the closely held world of Sand Hill Road investors, the true value of a service like Gowalla is found in millions of people sharing their life stories with the people they care about.

In our case, those stories are often about the places we go; the photos, friends and highlights we journal and share as we travel. It's our goal to see the Gowalla community inspire others to see the world through new eyes. The fuel for this inspiration is ultimately personal connection, not a game.

We are human beings. The stories that define our lives are each unique. Pretending we can be boxed like a board game and shipped with a set of rules that define success is shortsighted and naive. The musings of a "world as a game" seem even more uncomfortable in light of the recent social uprisings in the Middle East or the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan. We won't even explore how preposterous this must all sound to the children living in poverty -- or even slavery -- around the world.

There will always be value in making the everyday tasks of life delightful and fun. There will be no lack of opportunity for those who can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. But if in our effort to "level-up" we lose mindfulness of the world around us, we have failed at the greatest game of all.

Life is not about winning. It's about finding delight in the journey.

A couple of weeks ago, I had to carve up a large tree limb that had fallen on my house. As my 4-year-old daughter helped me stack the branches to be bundled, it brought back fond memories of working at the landscape company with my parents. I didn't get a badge for pulling those weeds. My daughter didn't get a badge for stacking the branches.

Neither of us care.