Gamification, Barely a Year Old, Could Implode & Take a New Industry Down With It—Thoughts From Bobber Interactive’s Scott Dodson

These are dizzying days for the business of games. It was almost exactly a year ago that we first wrote about the idea of applying video game features, like rewards and leaderboards, to websites and other connected services. Known as “gamification,” this new niche business aims to increase the amount of time people spend with sites or apps, thereby driving up advertising revenue or even getting users to shell out real money for virtual goods that are used within their game of choice.

Today, it seems like you can’t swing a dead cat in the tech world without hitting something gamified. Zynga, the maker of addictive Facebook games like Mafia Wars and FarmVille, delivered on the social network’s financial potential by getting people to tend their online gardens or hunt down adversaries. In February, multiple reports had Zynga raising money at a $10 billion valuation.

Startups are trying to repeat some of that success by tying games into all sorts of online experiences—Seattle’s BigDoor Media, for instance, just landed a marquee partnership with Major League Baseball, getting its platform on one of the best websites in professional sports.

And Seth Priebatsch, founder of Boston-based group-buying startup SCVNGR, got worldwide press coverage for his keynote speech at SXSW Interactive in March, when he declared that “The last decade was the decade of the social layer … Now, the game layer is coming.”

So you’d think a guy like Scott Dodson, whose company is bringing game mechanics to personal finance for kids, would be psyched by all this momentum. Except he’s not—quite the opposite, in fact. Dodson, a gaming veteran who serves as operations chief at Seattle-based Bobber Interactive, actually thinks that too many gamification efforts are merely employing the surface aspects of what makes a game experience compelling—the rewards, rankings, and progressive levels. At next week’s Login online game developer conference in Bellevue, WA, Dodson is giving a presentation on this issue with a dire title: Gamification will eat itself.

Dodson argues that, by focusing on the outcome of games instead of the internal dynamics that make them addictive, the current gamification trend could become generic, leading the entire idea to be considered annoying and passé. And Dodson says that presents a problem for companies like Bobber, which he says is trying to deliver a deeper level of gamification. “It risks sinking the whole ship. It risks de-legitimizing the value that actually does exist in creating a game layer,” he says.

By his own recounting, Dodson was among the early wave of people to start publicly promoting the notion of broad gamification. In a session at last year’s Login conference—the speech was optimistically titled “Gamification!”—Dodson tied together several threads in the then-burgeoning field. When he pitched the talk a few months ahead of time, it was little more than a word and an idea.

“I dug out my old proposal, and it was literally like, ‘Look—I don’t even really know what I’m going to say. I’ve just got this word. But trust me, it’s going to be big, and it’s going to be good,” he says with laugh. “At the time, I did a search for the word gamification and I got literally four results. And that was it. There were no other references Google found to the word gamification.”

As Dodson was developing that presentation and ramping up work on Bobber, game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell spoke about the idea at DICE, a major game conference, in a speech cited as among the first major public explorations of gamification. Dodson calls it “the shot heard ’round the world” about adding a game layer to other experiences. Discussion of the idea exploded online, and in corporate boardrooms.

“Now, depending on the search, you’re getting a million hits at least. And this is in essentially the span of not much more than a year,” Dodson says. “It’s been kind of surreal to have that experience. I wish I’d taken a screen shot of that first Google search I did!”

If you had to boil this explosion down to a single phenomenon, it would probably be Zynga’s success at developing games for Facebook—games that could finally harvest serious money from Facebook’s enormous user base.

“The VCs looked at the gamification of Facebook as resulting in the sustained engagement and monetization models of the social network,” Dodson says. “Up until that point, it’s hard to think about it now, but they were scratching their heads waiting for a business model to emerge … and all of the sudden, Zynga essentially built a game layer on top of Facebook—and now it was cooking with gas.”

Since Zynga solved such a closely watched problem in a new and novel way, the natural reaction was to search for as many ways as possible to apply that template to other online businesses. But those Zynga games were relatively shallow, Dodson says.

“I remember being in a business meeting and this guy all of the sudden flipped out and said ‘I’m sorry, just one second.’ And he got on Facebook and his soufflés were about to fall in CafeWorld,” Dodson says. “And it was so bizarre to me, because this is a guy who was like a game-industry titan—I thought he missed a VC call or something like that.”

This kind of behavior should sound familiar to everyone who’s heard the story about Pavlov’s dogs. And Dodson says that’s precisely the reason gamification could become a victim of its own success. By using game mechanics to simply elicit a response, developers virtually guarantee that their game won’t bring people back in the long term. So Mafia Wars players become FarmVille players, become CityVille players, and so on—they’ve got to keep being recycled into a new game because the engagement only lasts a few months, Dodson says.

“Whenever you tie the reward mechanism too closely to the behavior, it feels manipulative. And people reject that. Human beings are designed after a while to just vomit on that, essentially. Like, ‘Wait a minute—no, I’m not going to be a rat in a maze and just click this thing. I’ll do it for maybe three months, but I’m not going to do it forever,'” Dodson says.

So rather than Pavlov-style behavioral psychology, which deals with rawer stimulus-response behavior, Dodson and others see the real value of games explained in the field of motivational psychology—the study of why people do things.

It’s no coincidence that one of the key advisers to Bobber Interactive is Scott Rigby, a psychologist, business consultant and co-author of the book “Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound.” Rigby’s academic research has included a study that showed how the satisfaction of mastering a first-person-shooter video game was likely the most attractive part, rather than the violent war-game imagery that can become the topic of controversy.

Using the psychology of motivation as a backdrop, Dodson argues that three elements are crucial for real success: Participation has to be voluntary, the game has to fit well within a specific setting, and it has to be intrinsically motivating.

That last part is probably the most complex, so here it is explained further. To tap the spark of motivation, Dodson says, the theory goes that any given experience should give someone three things: The autonomy to explore on their own, the ability to get better at the task, and the feeling that your participation relates to other people around you.

This explains why, when you open the car door at the local park, your kid rockets toward the playground equipment—he or she is free to explore the whole thing at will, can conquer some new feature they’ve never climbed before, and share the joy of a thousand little games with the other kids there.

But if you took that same equipment and slapped on a bunch of points, badges, levels and other raw game mechanics, Dodson says, the kid would be able to sense the artifice of it all and probably feel like the whole thing was a big bummer.

“If I grab him and say, ‘Wait, wait—hold on. Before you go out there, look, here’s what I need you to do: I want you to play on every single thing in the playground, OK?’ All of the sudden it’s no longer an intrinsic experience—even though sliding down the slide is going to be the same fundamental experience. So it is really a tricky wicket, because it’s very much about creating that contract with the user and creating kind of a different mindframe,” Dodson says.

It’s fair to ask a guy working on game mechanics for kids’ savings accounts why his gamification company is better, deeper, and more meaningful than someone else’s. Of course, since Bobber’s product is still in stealth mode, Dodson isn’t willing to offer specifics about how Bobber is really on the side of angels in this whole discussion.

But he says the ideas of driving lasting, meaningful, real engagement, are a core part of the company’s mission—and he just hopes that more people, and more real game heads in particular, get involved in the field before the points-and-badges side of the trend gets too hot and turns off investors and customers.

This is how quickly the world turns—at last year’s Login conference, Dodson was spreading the word about a crazy new trend that stood to revolutionize the consumer web. This time around, his speech will boil down to a plea for gamers to get more involved before it’s too late: “Gamification needs you, so that it’s not just run by marketers.”

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