Can games really change the business world?Gamification? What's that got to do with business?
The idea is simple: how can we make life as much fun as looting dungeons for treasure or waging a one-man war in the latest blockbuster video game?
The answer it seems is to take the regular cycle of rewards and other mechanics that make video games so compelling and build them into everyday tasks or problems that need solving.
Provide an example.
The list of ways that gamification is being used is growing every day, and runs from taking the edge off the London commute to getting people to take their medicine.
At the same time modern technology is providing the tools and information needed to transform our lives into gamified services - thanks to smartphones that can track our movements or count our steps and social networks that allow us to rate ourselves against our peers in minute detail.
Businesses have been using simple game mechanics to lure customers for years - for example, retail and airline loyalty schemes that reward customers with points in return for purchases.
But businesses today are employing new game mechanics such as competition and are learning how to disguise the commercial motives at the heart of their games.
Brian Burke, VP of research for enterprise architecture at analyst house Gartner, said: "There is potential value in applying gamification techniques to any industry where you want to change behaviour or seek a higher level of engagement of any key stakeholder group.
"It could be customers or employees. Its [reach] is tremendously broad."
How are businesses using game mechanics?
A big draw of many business services is the social aspect, as people use these games to compete for achievements on social networks such as Facebook and location-tracking services such as Foursquare.
For example, the gamified service offered by coffee chain Starbucks, where Foursquare users are rewarded with discounts and badges for repeat visits to its stores. For some users the kudos derived from racking up more barista badges than their friends is motive enough to use the service.
Other schemes place a greater emphasis on providing financial rewards to their customers, such as the service offered by car rental company Avis, which gave users discount vouchers when they checked in at Avis outlets on Foursquare or Facebook’s location-tracking service, Facebook Places.
However, other businesses are using game mechanics and social platforms to do more than simply reward customers for visiting their outlets.
In the US, drinks company PepsiCo and retailer Safeway paired up to provide a service based on Foursquare that offered different rewards to users based on their lifestyle, as determined by the locations they visited. For instance, regular users of a gym were rewarded with a Foursquare Gym Rat badge and a SoBe Lifewater energy drink.
This approach represents a more ambitious use of gamification, beyond just getting customers in store, focusing on creating a positive link with the PepsiCo and Safeway brands by rewarding everyday behaviour.
Is that all game mechanics are good for, selling the odd cup of coffee?
No, game mechanics can also help organisations to tap into the collective brainpower of their customers and staff.
In the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions has set up a digital leaderboard where staff can submit and develop ideas on how to...
...improve the organisation. Staff can post ideas on the Idea Street board and earn points called DWPeas, which can be invested in other ideas on the board.
Staff can gain DWPeas for backing ideas that are implemented and lose them for supporting non-starters.
The prospect of gaining or losing DWPeas leads staff to consider carefully which ideas to back, and motivates them to suggest ways that ideas they invest in can be improved or implemented.
As of November last year, the DWP said it has amassed £21m in benefits from the 60-plus projects born out of Idea Street, and the game has been implemented by three other central government departments.
Another striking example of how game mechanics can motivate large numbers of people to donate their time was provided by The Guardian in 2009.
Following the release of MPs' expense claims, the newspaper created a simple web-based game that allowed users to access the claims online and then click on a panel to categorise each claim as "interesting", "not interesting","interesting but known" and "investigate this".
Users were motivated to take part by the simplicity and ease of the interface, competition to make the leaderboard of top analysers and clear progress updates via a status bar showing how many claims had been analysed.
With minimal investment - the game reputedly took one week to develop - the paper was able to review 170,000 documents in 80 hours. Far more than a lone spy - anagram - would be able to achieve.
None of these sounds much like games?
The point of gamification isn't necessarily to build games but rather to use game mechanics to motivate certain behaviours. That being said, some businesses have made their own games to try and spice up potentially dry and unengaging business activities such as training.
An example is tech giant IBM, which built the game Innov8 2.0 as a way of demonstrating the link between IT and good business processes.
The core game puts the player in charge of a call centre, with the player learning the way the business works by having scripted conversations with virtual managers and then answering questions on how they would run the centre.
The player is then ranked on how well they met key performance indicators, such as the level of customer satisfaction and how long each person is kept waiting before their call is answered. Good performance is rewarded with exploding fireworks, while failure will see the player's avatar on the street, holding a sign saying "Will BPM for food".
Hmm, that's hardly Call of Duty...
No, but some businesses are already hiring professional games companies to produce games themed around their products.
Financial services company American Express launched a UK iPhone game called Cash IQ, designed by mobile games studio Fishlabs, in which players complete brain training mini-games designed to promote the bank’s Plantinum Cashback Credit Card.
Similarly, fast-food chain Burger King employed professional games outfit Blitz Games to make a series of themed games for the Xbox 360 games console.
However, these efforts perhaps cannot truly be portrayed as gamification, as the game is purely a vehicle for promoting a product or brand, rather than using game mechanics to achieve a change in behaviour.
So what's the downside?
Making games is an expensive and risky business. So it goes without saying that organisations should carefully consider the returns before building their own service based on game mechanics.
For a cautionary tale you need look no further than Code of Everand, a multiplayer online game commissioned by the Department for Transport (DfT) to teach kids about road safety.
The game launched in November 2009. But according to figures from Google Analytics via the blog Puffbox.com, the number of users...
... has bottomed out - dropping to below 10,000 absolute unique visitors in November last year, down from a peak of just under 160,000.
According to official figures, obtained by an Freedom of Information request by Puffbox.com, by April 2011 the game will have cost the DfT £2.8m, a total of £16.33 per registered user. It seems a high price to pay, although a report assessing the game's success in improving road safety has yet to be released.
The cost and dwindling user base of Code of Everand demonstrates both the expense of developing games and the difficulty of getting users to engage with them.
There're plenty of successful video games...
True, but for every StarCraft there're five games that will sink without trace
If anything, the designers of gamified services face a tougher challenge than designers of commercial video games.
In commercial games design the goal is simply to entertain the player, via tasks that offer regular rewards balanced against the risk of failure or the player losing their in-game achievements.
In gamified services the type of experiences that can be offered to the player are limited by the need the need to ensure that the game fulfils a certain business objective, such as getting the player to visit a store repeatedly.
Commercial game designers expend a great deal of effort on making their games compelling to play. Businesses need to ask whether they can match that same level of user experience and the finely balanced risk and reward structures that these games offer.
"I have seen some things that are promoted as gamified applications that are tremendously boring and almost cynically direct in terms of their marketing," said Gartner's Burke.
"You do need to make [gamified services] entertaining and that's where the art of gamification needs to grow. How you make everyday experiences more entertaining - that's a problem that is largely unsolved."
Burke believes that levels of engagement created by gamified services will never match those generated by blockbuster games such as World of Warcraft, which he said means services need to ensure they offer players meaningful rewards, financial or social, to compensate.
Is gamification going to be a flash in the pan?
No, gamified services appear to be here to stay in some form, and recent investments by tech heavyweights Google and Facebook suggest they believe in its future.
Take Google's purchase of the virtual world creator Slide or its creation of the location-tracking service, Google Latitude. Or Facebook's launch of its own location-tracking service, Facebook Places, and its Facebook credits service, which allows users to buy credits to purchase virtual goods within the site's many games and apps.
One person with unshakeable faith in gamification's potential is game designer Jane McGonigal, who believes that game mechanics will eventually motivate people to solve major humanitarian problems. True to her word, her recent game, Evoke, educates users on how to start a venture to tackle problems facing the developing world, such as poverty, disease and hunger.
Gamification, then, the cure for all the world's ills?
Maybe, maybe not. But certainly an interesting avenue for any business looking for a new way to engage customers and staff.