Companies can use gamification as a doorway to innovation

Using game mechanics in apps to engage users, solve problems is on the rise

SAN FRANCISCO -- Gamification, or the use of game mechanics in applications to engage users and solve problems, is something humans today are wired to love. And video games are creating a generation of multitasking young adults who are not only smarter than past generations but are better problem-solvers and innovators.

That innate ability to solve problems, which comes with the promise of a gaming-style reward of greater social status, will become a standard for solving complex problems that even the greatest supercomputers could not hope to achieve.

"It's the challenge, achievement loop. Any time you challenge yourself and achieve that thing, your brain releases dopamine: the wonder drug," said Gabe Zichermann, an author and a CEO of two companies, Gamification and Dopamine. Zichermann spoke at the CITE Conference and Expo here yesterday, explaining that gamification brings intrinsic reinforcement to humans, who are left saying, "May I please have another?"

"Challenge, achievement, success, and pleasure. A game does that 100 times an hour," he said.

The CITE Conference is looking at how consumer technology is being rolled out in the corporate world, and how that trend is affecting IT.

Zichermann pointed to studies showing that people who grew up playing video games actually have higher IQs than earlier generations because their brains have been challenged to solve problems and to multitask. Gaming actually changed their brains.

"We view the youth as lacking patience," Zichermann said. "We'll say they have ADD. But that's not the case at all. It's that we old people are just too slow for them. They're moving quicker. They're more evolved."

Today's employees can be incentivized by achieving real, or even virtual, social status by attaining goals through gaming -- even more so than they would be by the promise of more money. According to Zichermann, money comes in a distant fourth place to social status. Status is followed by access to new capabilities and power -- either real or perceived.

That means gamification can be used to improve employee happiness, drive innovation, produce results and educate employees.

Zichermann pointed to a recent example of how gamification can be used to solve nearly impossible tasks. In 2011, the crowd-sourcing game Foldit, developed by the University of Washington, made headlines when 46,000 people worked for just 10 days to solve the secret of a key protein that scientists believe may help them cure HIV. Scientists had been working on the problem for 15 years.

"Those were not 46,000 scientists," Zichermann said. "The game took the activity and broke it down into something the average person could accomplish and have fun at it."

By 2015, 50% of corporate innovation will be gamified, according to research firm Gartner. And in that same year, U.S. corporations will spend as much as $2.5 billion on gamification applications, half of which will be targeted at their own employees, Zichermann said.

For example, Charlie Kim, CEO of NextJump, wanted to encourage his employees to use the corporate gym because he felt it would better their health and lead to improved productivity and a happier workforce. NextJump began by offering a $20,000 reward to the five employees who used the gym the most in one year. The incentive program boosted gym use from about 3% of the workforce to 12%.

Then Kim made a game of it, and challenged teams of employees to hit the gym with the promise that they would split the same $20,000 pot. The social value in being on the best team raised the number of employees using the gym to 85%, Zichermann said.

Zichermann also pointed to Ananth Pai, a public school teacher at Parkview Centerpoint Elementary School in Minnesota, who turned groups of failing third-graders into overachievers who attained fourth-grade-level reading and math skills using old Nintendo games.

Pai used off-the-shelf learning games on Nintendo DS systems to make learning fun, so much so that students even played in their free time. "Could you imagine if your employees played in their free time?" he said. "Can you imagine the productivity? What would your products look like?"

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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