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Sustainable Brands '11: Game On

By Ali Hart

Sustainable Brands ’11 kicked off Tuesday, June 7th in Monterey, CA. Sustainable Brands convenes sustainability, brand and design professionals leveraging sustainable innovation as a driver of business and brand value. This year’s theme is “play on” so it seems quite fitting to launch a series of articles on the conference with some fascinating insights from Gabe Zichmermann’s “Gamification Applied” workshop.

Gabe Zichermann is a gamification thought leader and author of Gamification by Design and Game-Based Marketing. He makes it clear that gaming is a serious business. Zichermann cites that the auto industry spent $10M to develop real-time feedback games in electric vehicle (EV) dashboards. Need more proof? Premal Shah, Kiva’s President, named Zynga as the organization’s largest competitor. A microfinancing platform considers a game developer to be its largest competitor? That’s right. Zichermann isn’t kidding when he says that “we’re all competing for people’s discretionary attention.” So how do we compete?

First let’s look at why people play games. According to Zichermann (or his sources), it’s for mastery, to de-stress, for fun and to socialize. That all seems simple enough but like a complex game, there are many levels. For example, social game expert Nicole Lazzaro purports that there are Four Keys to Fun:

  • Hard fun – personal triumph over adversity

  • Easy fun – curiosity

  • Serious fun – relaxation and excitement

  • People fun – amusement

While these are the foundation for why people play, what they want is equally important to keep them engaged. In descending order of importance, what players want is: status, access, power and stuff. Luckily for companies and organizations, the rewards also happen to be listed in order of cheapest to most expensive (and most engaging to least engaging). People can accurately value stuff – they know the value of a DVD or a coupon or a car – but they often overvalue status, access and power because they’re intangible.

So there’s a simplified version of the why and the what, but the how is expectedly intricate. Game designers strive to get players “in the zone” (also known as Mihaly Czikszentmihaly’s “flow”) – the state in which the only reason a player would pause the game is to perform a necessary bodily function. In order to achieve this condition, a player must be between anxiety and boredom for a certain period of time. Leaning too much toward either will cause a player to disengage. If that doesn’t sound methodical enough, the rewards can’t be too predictable. Studies have shown that a more variable recognition schedule keeps players more engaged (slots in Vegas, anyone?).

Additionally, point systems and their award levels must be carefully thought out. Are you allocating points appropriately for each required action and outcome? Are you taking into account how users might “game the system” based on your point structure? Suddenly games don’t seem so simple anymore…

Finally, but not exhaustively, onboarding – getting players to try your game – is particularly difficult but Zichermann praised Zynga’s Frontierville as a prime example of how to onboard new users. When you check out the game on Facebook, instead of giving you a tutorial, you just start playing and learn how the game works by doing, not reading. You’re also in a scenario where you can’t do anything wrong and can only be rewarded, which you are. And then you’re asked to invite friends. Smart way to onboard.

There are a lot of variables when it comes to creating successful games, but two things are for sure: building them takes a significant amount of research and development and once you employ them – especially in the form of a loyalty program – you need to do it for the long-term or users will get angry.

If you have experience with gamification, please share your stories in the comment section! To learn more about gamification, check out Gabe Zichermann’s The Gamification Blog.


Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life's essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.

Ali Hart headshot

Ali Hart is a media strategist and content producer helping change agents harness the power of humor. From developing creative TV and web concepts to managing comedians to strategizing grassroots campaigns, she has devoted herself to exploring which messages and messengers inspire behavior change for good. Ali holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, where she currently laughs.

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