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The State of Play

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Thinking of gamifying? Break out of your shell with a well thought-out strategy.
Thinking of gamifying? Break out of your shell with a well thought-out strategy.

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. It's a life philosophy applicable to everything from fashion to oral hygiene—and it's also true for game mechanics in the marketing world, says game expert Jim Wexler, president and founder of gamification strategy company Experiences Unlimited.

“These days, a lot of people think anything can be gamified—like gamification is a magic wand you can wave at something and make it suddenly appealing,” says Wexler, who's also chair of the 2013 Enterprise Game Forum, taking place in NYC on September 24 and 25. “What we're talking about starts with the strategy, because to me gamification is an activation exercise.”

At its best gamification delivers users with a relevant, contextual experience centered on meaningful learning that mirrors the way people engage in real life. At its worst—or shall we say at its least effective—it's an ultimately pointless distraction.

It's like the difference between a cat food brand making you play a long, drawn-out bizarre catch-the-red-dot iPad game to win a $1 coupon for salmon kibble (annoying/I just made that up) and an insurance brand like AXA Equitable. AXA's “Pass it on” app deftly demonstrates the unpredictability of life and the importance of buying life insurance by creating an emotional connection with users. No easy feat, considering that life insurance products are difficult to understand, often boring (despite being important), and scary because they put mortality on the mind.

But AXA was able to take something complex and make it connective. Players move through the levels of “Pass it on” looking for pots of gold and a protective shield to safeguard them from danger. Fairly typical game play. But before starting out, a player also creates digital avatars for his or her family members who can take over if the original player loses—but only if the shield has been acquired. As the game progresses, the message is elegantly put across: The game of life is fun. It's also unpredictable. But by protecting yourself with the shield of life insurance the game doesn't have to be over for the others if the main player doesn't move on to the next level.

“Companies need to ask themselves what they care about,” says Wexler. “If your brand isn't about anything and you can't decide what your key driver is, then what are you even trying to gamify?”

The idea of mastery, of learning, is essential to successful gamification and appeals to something deep and primal within us all.

“Since the earliest dawn of mankind, when people would learn something or master a challenge, the reward would be dopamine flowing into their brain,” he says. “Those same exact mechanics are not only present in gamers—they're why games have become an art form and the most popular medium in the twenty-first century.”

A tick in the “pro” column for marketers on the gamification fence. “The good news is that the effectiveness of gamification has been proven over the millennia,” says Wexler.

The caveat? Make sure to have a game plan in place first. Pointless marketing shell games aren't going to fly with consumers.

“You can articulate the essence of a brand through the lens of gamification,” says Wexler. “But it's only going to work if there's a meaningful challenge and a strong message at the core.”

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