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Playing the game

Gamification has become serious business


Since October of last year, the Desjardins Financial Security booth at trade events has seen intense battles with men and women in suits shaking their fists in the air, high-fiving each other, and letting out hollers of delight and moans of disappointment.

What’s behind all this racket? An Angry Birds–like iPad games. In the game, which uses 3-D graphics, players sling Desjardins-branded balls at targets that match the logo of the company’s online retirement simulator called, On Target.

“When we do conferences, people can play it and see where they rank,” says Jackie Patel, a member of the Group Retirement Savings marketing team at Desjardins Financial Security.

When the 60-second game is over, players are directed to the On Target simulator, which allows users to insert their current income and their desired income in retirement, and then displays savings targets. Desjardins uses the game to engage brokers and build buzz around On Target, explains Patel.

“The images pop right out of the screen,” she says. “People think, ‘Wow!’, and that’s what we wanted, to create that ‘wow’ factor. We’ve done it to brand our name.”

Rules of engagement

While it all seems fun and light-hearted, gamification – a strategy that employs game elements like rules, motives and competition in reaching real-life goals – is serious business. By the end of this year, 80 per cent of the companies on Forbes magazine’s 2012 “Global 2000” list of the world’s largest publicly traded companies are expected to have at least one “gamified” system or application, according to Gartner, a U.S.-based technology research firm. According to New York City gamification guru Gabe Zichermann, companies can expect gamified strategies to raise engagement by 30 per cent, as measured by statistics like time spent learning about products, referrals, return visits and so on.

Given this potential, gamification is evolving from simple points systems and plain leader boards into high-stakes worlds of high-tech installations, tight-knit online social networks and addictive challenges. Increasingly, games are not just tapping into a desire to win, but they’re responding to the “core desires we have as human beings,” including self-expression, escapism and the desire to achieve mastery, according to Lennart Nacke, professor of game science at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

Financial services suited to gamification

The financial services industry is especially suited to gamification, says Nacke. “It’s a match made in heaven,” he says. Games are especially good at creating buzz and prolonging attention spans around topics that people otherwise find dry or difficult, Nacke explains. And let’s be honest, few outside of the financial services industry are on the edge of their seat in conversations about loan terms or mortgage payment options.

Zichermann, who chairs an international gaming summit with the Gamification Corporation and helps businesses implement game strategies with his company, Dopamine, agrees that the finance industry is especially positioned to take advantage of gaming. “When we ask people to deposit products, we’re asking them to forgo short-term satisfaction,” explains Zichermann. Gamification, he explains, can “shorten that reward cycle so that customers are given some positive benefit in the very short term.”

“When we ask people to deposit products, we’re asking them to forgo short-term satisfaction. [Gamification can] shorten that reward cycle so that customers are given some positive benefit in the very short term”

—Gabe Zichermann, New York City gamification guru is an example of gamified design that provides users with instantaneous positive feedback when they make smart financial decisions. The online tool displays eye-catching graphs to chart one’s progress in, for example, paying down a line of credit or keeping to a budget.

Motivate participants

Participants are motivated with encouraging messages and enticed to increase their financial fitness score — a number based on numerous financial health indicators. Typifying today’s gamified environment, those who sign up at can also share their goals with social media networks. “It gives feedback like, ‘You’ve saved here; you could make an investment here; you could save here,’” Nacke says of the website. “One of the core principles of game design is to give feedback to the user at all times.”

Another example of high-tech game design is an augmented-reality, wall-based video game launched last fall by Tampa Bay-based Grow Financial Federal Credit Union. The video wall, set up outside a branch, can recognize movements and gestures made by passersby. Users can “catch” money floating around on the screen and play for prizes such as $25 towards a chequing account.

Smart design pays off

The games are paying off. Between 2009 and 2010, a game called Save to Win generated $30 million in new deposits among the 36 Michigan-based credit unions that took part. The game offered customers the chance to win a prize, including a $100,000 grand prize, with every $25 they deposited into a savings account.

Such bright and shiny success stories have marketing managers across the country delving into a world of levels, avatars and installations. But experts caution that gamification is far from a sure thing. Research firm Gartner notes that 80 percent of current gamified applications won’t meet their business objectives due to poor design.

One of the biggest mistakes made by companies in gamification is they don’t do enough legwork, says Zichermann, adding an organization should expect to spend a minimum of $100,000 to build “something substantial” in the burgeoning field of gamification. “Many people will start by saying, ‘Let’s design a game!’ But that’s not where we start at all.” Management teams need to first decide on the goals that they want to accomplish with a game and then define the metrics with which to measure progress. Of course, baseline numbers need to be gathered for comparison. So if one of the goals of a game (and there can be many) is to encourage employees to communicate with customers for a certain length of time, the time period they’re spending on pre-game strategy needs to be quantified. “This is pretty unsexy,” Zichermann admits.

Another no-no? “Over-building,” says Zichermann. It can be exciting to create virtual worlds and attract buzz by launching cutting-edge systems, but if clients don’t find the game meaningful or interesting, the initial hefty investment will be for naught. With numerous firms now delivering customized gamified software, companies don’t have to invest in developing systems, he says. “You can do it on the cheap.” He encourages clients to start small and build from there – adjusting the rules, rewards and so on while participants are playing the game. “No game is fun forever. You have to constantly iterate to keep people engaged over the long term. That’s why you want to start with something easy and fairly inexpensive and build from there.”

Games are especially good at creating buzz and prolonging attention spans around topics that people otherwise find dry or difficult

Desjardins’ target game, for example, was first rolled out to brokers; in the next phase, Patel and her team will launch a version for customers considering investing in their group retirement plans.

Strategies to keep audiences interested

While Desjardins has had success using a relatively simple points-based game, strategies attempting to keep audiences for a long period need to have rewards that are “meaningful” to the user, says Nacke. Rather than simply doling out points, for example, a savings-based game could give a user the opportunity to add new items or additions to a virtual home based on dollars saved, he suggests. Likewise, a game that motivates clients to learn about new financial products could include as a reward more time to talk to a financial planner.

The same “meaningful” engagement requirement is necessary when gamified systems are targeting employees, as Manitoba-based Sunova Credit Union has learned. Several years ago, management initiated a simple points system, says Dallas Kostna, vice president and chief information officer at Sunova. Employees would get points for opening a membership or signing a new loan agreement, for example.

“We looked at that and thought, ‘OK, how can we make this more visual and concrete and make it more of a game?’” says Kostna. So last year, Sunova’s management team launched an intranet-based “dashboard” that visually charts how each employee is doing on dozens of different metrics. The screen displays the “Top 10” employees in various cat- egories while showing employees the progress they’ve made toward their personal goals. To encourage further “friendly competition,” the overall performance of each of the 11 branches is illustrated on a racetrack, Kostna says. Some prizes, like a free breakfast brought to one’s desk, are given throughout the year, while the big titles, both on an individual and branch basis, are awarded at an end-of-the-year party.

“Most of the staff look forward to going on their computer and seeing that dashboard every morning,” says Kostna, who admits employees not performing as well tend to shy away from the tool.

As evidence of the dashboard’s success, Kostna says, the organization’s Branch of the Year for 2012 had only just opened in 2011. The competition inspired the new group to overcome its drawback of relative inexperience, he says. In the future, Kostna’s team hopes to bring in social media capabilities like chat and messaging so that employees can congratulate each other on hitting new levels or “engage in some friendly trash talk.” Indeed, gamification circles know well that feedback from peers can be a powerful motivator.

Follow the three Fs

This brings Zichermann to what he calls the “Three Fs” — feedback, friends and fun. For games to be successful, they need to provide relevant and timely feedback, he says. Ideally, adds Nacke, this feedback should also give players the opportunity to try the next challenge, learn something new and further work toward an overarching goal. “You want to feel like you’re on a journey and you’re achieving meaning by completing these goals in a chained way,” he suggests. Games should also give users the opportunity to engage with other “friends,” says Zichermann, both in the real world and virtually. As for having fun — well, that’s a no-brainer.

Gamification, it turns out, is much like a game – replete with the instant repercussions of bad judgment as well as the possibility of victory. But those who feel overwhelmed by the “rules” of gamification need not fret. For one, there are courses for marketers wanting to develop their gamification expertise, such as those offered by Zichermann’s GSummit. Moreover, numerous gaming consultant firms have popped up in recent years to help with the hard decisions.

Bottom line? Gamification is tricky, but it’s something companies need to engage in to compete in an increasingly gamified world. The best part? The rewards are real. ◊