Playing the game of gamification of IT

Almost everyone loves to play. It helps us relax, it helps us learn, and most importantly, it engages us. Sometimes to a fault, as actor Alec Baldwin discovered when he was kicked off a plane for refusing to stop playing Words with Friends on his smartphone, after the flight attendant told passengers to shut off mobile devices in preparation for takeoff.

While getting people ejected from airplanes is probably not a good strategy for business, gaming techniques are gaining increased value as a way to hook customers. It’s called gamification.

Gamification is defined as the use of gameplay mechanics for non-gaming applications. According to Gartner Inc., by 2015 more than half of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify them, and by 2014, gamified services for consumer goods marketing and customer retention will become as important as social media services such as Facebook. Furthermore, Gartner says that more than 70 per cent of Global 2000 organizations will be using gamification concepts in applications.

“Play tends to be a universal thing,” notes Chuck Hamilton, social learning and Smart Play leader for IBM. “The population is more diverse and disparate worldwide, so we have to find ways to connect.” The use of playful tactics can help companies engage both customers and employees.

It can be something as simple as offering points in loyalty programs (think Air Miles, for example), or it can be a bit more complex.

Unlocking rewards or becoming “mayor” of locations by checking in on Foursquare turns marketing into a friendly competition (as well as irritating non-players who get tired of the check-in messages on Twitter). Nonetheless, says technology analyst Carmi Levy, “gamification’s promise lies in its ability to turn what might otherwise have been a stale and undifferentiated customer experience into something unique and memorable – which translates into a warmer, longer-term customer relationship.”

Companies are gamifying all sorts of unexpected things, for all sorts of reasons. In many cases, the goal is to encourage certain behaviours.For example, the Nissan Leaf electric car’s telematics system, Carwings, doesn’t just display vehicle and battery status. It also feeds each driver’s personal portal, where they can see trip histories and energy consumption on their computers or smartphones. There’s nothing game-like about that part, but they can also see how their usage compares to that of other drivers in their regions, and win gold, silver, and bronze virtual trophies (and bragging rights) for their green driving habits.Gamification can also be a great tool for companies trying to differentiate their products in a crowded or single-vendor dominated marketplace. E-reader vendor Kobo faced that problem, trying to fight the Amazon Kindle, so it employed gamification tactics to address a key issue.

Getting kids (especially teens) to read can be a challenge in these hectic days. So Kobo came up with Reading Life, a program that turns reading into a social activity to make it appeal to today’s connected generation. By completing various tasks, such as reading daily, at specific times or for certain amounts of time, making notes in e-books, using the embedded dictionary, completing various numbers of books, or other activities, readers receive awards. If they choose to link their Kobo accounts to their Facebook accounts, those achievements are broadcast to friends, along with notes, quotes and passages from favourite books. Users can rate books, and see what pages are generating the most activity and comments by looking at the Pulse, a flashing indicator that gets bigger and brighter depending on activity on each page.

Teaching customers about a company’s capabilities is often done with brochures, Web materials and sales calls. If the sales person is uninformed, or the customer doesn’t ask the right questions, opportunities may be lost. But what if they could play their way to being informed?

To help both sides become acquainted with the many issues around plant management and its expertise in that arena, Siemens has released an award-winning game called Plantville.

In Plantville, a virtual manager named Pete helps players learn how to manage a plant and monitor performance using key performance indicators (KPIs). They have to think about everything from worker safety to quality and delivery. A social component, the Plantville Café, lets players post comments, ask questions and participate in Web events led by Siemens experts that are designed to help them in Plantville and in the real world.It’s even a recruiting tool: the game’s home page says “Plantville is serious fun, just like a career in engineering and manufacturing at Siemens,” with contact information. IBM’s CityOne addresses a different audience in a similar way. It lets players optimize banking, retail, energy and water solutions through an online, sim-style game in which the player guides industries within a city through a series of missions.

They work to improve the city by attaining revenue and profit goals, increasing customers’ and citizens’ satisfaction, and making the environment greener with a limited budget. In parallel, they learn how the components of business process management, service reuse, cloud and collaborative technologies (all offered by IBM as products or services) make organizations in the city system more agile. It’s both a learning tool and a marketing tool; in fact, it was developed because people who understand tech don’t speak the language of those running cities, and vice versa. “It’s a much more engaging approach than sitting in meetings,” notes Hamilton. “One reason we got into gamification was to help people understand complexity. The model is even being taken into universities now.”Another form of gamification, says Hamilton, is crowd challenges. In a crowd challenge, a problem is presented and an open environment provided for people to suggest solutions. So far, this just sounds like any old discussion forum; the “game” kicks in when users are asked to vote on the suggestions, or some sort of reward is offered for the winner. That reward may be public acknowledgement, or implementation of the winning solution, or even something tangible. Hamilton says that IBM uses the technique internally to solve real-world problems. “It’s a smart way to engage a global population,” he says, adding that implementation of ideas works better than prizes.

“Prizes keep people in the game,” he notes, “but if you actually implement a customer’s idea and the customer sees that it’s implemented, you probably have a customer for life. There’s nothing more compelling that getting recognition for hard work.”

“You don’t have to be a gamer to appreciate how a token- or reward-based methodology – a core element of even the most basic game – can also supercharge typically routine customer or online interaction,” adds Levy.

Hamilton advises resellers that would like to either use gamification techniques in their own work, or to assist their customers in building their own solutions, to start small and use simple concepts. “Get some help,” he says. “People who have done it before have found out what works and what doesn’t. Understand that it’s appealing to human nature. You’re not looking for something to foist on people. It should be part of what they’re doing every day, it has to be subtle.”

It can be worth the effort, says Levy. “Resellers that adopt the zeitgeist early stand to win more than just a few contracts. They build trust among customers that they can identify bottom line-driving trends before anyone else.” Adds Hamilton, “It’s a brand new area; we’re all learning as we go.”

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree

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