Gamification: The Hard Truths

Nike's newest product, the Nike Plus FuelBand, is displayed during a product release announcement on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012
Nike's newest product, the Nike Plus FuelBand, is displayed during a product release announcement on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 in New York. The wristband provides an athletic measurement of daily physical movement in time, calories and steps that integrates with the iphone and social media networks for sharing. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Gamification -- or the use of game, loyalty and economic concepts to engage consumers and employees -- has its fair share of detractors. Many of their criticisms dismiss gamification as a fad, criticize its use of game concepts, suggest its methods are shallow or believe its sole use is for marketing "evil." More often than not critics trot out examples of gamification that "failed" without any facts beyond their own personal opinion of the design. Our industry embraces these dissenting voices more than most -- we regularly invite skeptics to headline at GSummit, our industry's main conference. However we believe good criticism should be grounded in facts and a shared desire to make the world a better place.

What gamification's detractors often ignore is that the industry is delivering tangible results. Every day, tens of millions of people use gamification to improve their lives, their workplaces and their bottom lines. Due to its unprecedented efficacy, gamification has spawned a profitable high-growth vertical that is rapidly adding jobs, spreading internationally and changing the world for the better.

In short, gamification works -- and it's just getting started.

Since the beginning of the gamification industry in 2010, over 350 companies have launched major gamification projects. These include consumer brands like MLB, Adobe, NBC, Walgreens, Ford, Southwest, eBay, Panera and Threadless among others. For B2B companies Oracle, SAP, Jive, Cisco, Pearson and Salesforce, gamification has emerged as a key element in their consumerization of the enterprise strategy. And in 2012-2013 alone, consulting behemoths Deloitte, Accenture, NTTData and Capgemini began practices targeting gamification of Fortune 500 companies.

These organizations, and the hundreds that didn't make the list, have been attracted by gamification's ability to raise engagement and loyalty -- measured in time on site, repeat visits, and viral distribution -- by an average of 30 percent. One global community site, for example, raised Facebook engagement by 92 percent, discussions/comments by nearly 300 percent and social network traffic by 90 percent through a badge and challenge-centric gamified system. And it's not just engagement -- gamification's revenue effects are equally astounding. Autodesk raised its trial usage by 40 percent and conversion rates by 15 percent while Extraco Bank raised their customer acquisitions by 700 percent, and IBM's gamified Innov8 platform has become the company's biggest lead generator.

In the world of work, gamification has also been powering a revolution. Deloitte's training programs now take 50 percent less time to complete and keep more students involved than ever before. SAP and EMC have driven Intranet usage up by over 30 percent, while companies like Spotify and LivingSocial have replace the dreaded annual review with a mobile, gamified solution -- with over 90 percent of employees participating voluntarily. Other organizations, including Target and Omnicare have improved employee throughput and satisfaction while reducing costs through the direct use of gamification.

As gamification transforms business, it's also transforming our lives for the better. For example, organizations like NextJump have used gamification to get two-thirds of their employees into the gym. Consumer brands like Nike+ use gamified feedback to drive over five million players to beat their personal fitness goals every day of the year. Similarly, Zamzee drives activity among poorer children, helping them move an additional 25 miles/month on average. In education, Khan Academy, CourseHero and Codecademy have helped millions learn new skills, while the latter has specifically brought 1 million new coders online. Meanwhile Recyclebank and OPower are increasing recycling by 20 percent and reducing carbon emissions, helping to save the planet with gamified designs.

As a result of these achievements and the dozens more I chronicle in my forthcoming book "The Gamification Revolution," our industry will grow to $500 million in the U.S. alone in 2013, and over $2Bn by 2015 according to M2 Research.

But there are cautionary tales. Gartner Group's Brian Burke -- an early proponent of gamification -- released a report recently that suggested 80 percent of enterprise efforts could fail within the next two to three years. Many folks misunderstood this as an indictment of gamification's future, but a thorough read of the report will reveal that it simply highlights the challenges of making any substantive changes in the enterprise. Burke further challenges us all to create gamification that is substantively designed and continuously improved to stay fresh and current -- a concept that is core to the official gamification certification process we teach.

There have also been failures, to be sure. In many cases, the gamified approaches taken by companies at first haven't been the right designs for their users. Although some abandon their gamification projects because of these setbacks (Google Reader), others are able to successfully iterate and eventually get it right through an agile process (Omnicare). In some cases, even weak gamification examples (Huffington Post) are able to substantially shift behavior and survive despite their detractors. As Founder of gamification platform Badgeville Kris Duggan said recently in an interview:

"Gamification is not a's a program that gets invested in for the long-term. Those that understand that see the most impactful and meaningful results."

The path ahead is challenging - but the future is bright. Every day, a handful of Fortune 500 companies and dozens of startups announce new gamification projects, adding to the momentum of the industry. Each year, hundreds of people choose to earn their certification in gamification, ramping up to 5,000 new jobs in the engagement industries that will be created by 2015. In the meantime, an amazing community has sprung up -- particularly around GSummit -- where folks of all backgrounds and experience levels share insights on what works and what doesn't.

And here's the rub -- gamification is needed more than ever. We live in a world of increasing distraction and complexity, where organizations need to cut through the noise and users need systems that can help them achieve their full potential. Well done gamification has the power to accomplish that and more. Although detractors would like to ignore the fact that gamification works, to belittle its substantial accomplishments thus far, and to foretell a future in which game-like interactions lose their efficacy -- their view is simply not supported by reality. And we contend that with an increasing number of case studies (including a wide catalogue of videos), the breadth and depth of gamification's effect can no longer be ignored.

Perhaps this increased information will help convince some skeptics. And perhaps it won't. One thing's for certain however -- the gamification industry isn't standing still. Platform leaders Bunchball and Badgeville each more than doubled in size last year. At the same time, certified gamification designers and thousands of others are actively striving to make the world a more fun and engaging place by learning from the immense successes and humbling failures of our fledgeling community.

I think we'll all be better for it.