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Businesses are using game mechanics online to rev up sales

Dubbed gamification, companies are turning to various incentive programs to get people to spend more time on certain products — be it a website or a piece of software.

February 28, 2011|By Alex Pham, Los Angeles Times

It's also a basic game design principle, said Kim, the Silicon Valley consultant.

"Games are about designing compelling experiences around the player's progress in their journey," said Kim, who has worked on games such as Rock Band and Ultima Online. "Actions and feedback loops are at the core of that."

Kim, however, cautions against seeing gamification as "magic pixie dust" that can fix flawed products.

"It's been jumped on as an easy solution," she said. "It's not."

Rewards attached to pointless tasks can become repetitive and boring. "In games, it's called the grind," said Carless.

Worse yet, some developers, including Kim, believe that point systems could have a detrimental effect. If designed poorly, people can view points as cheap manipulation, for example.

"Gamification is a totally absurd word," said Chris Hecker, an independent game designer who worked on Spore and other titles. "It's really just behavior modification. And it doesn't even work that well at that. When you reward people with gold stars for doing something, they tend to focus on the gold star and not the thing you are trying to get them to do."

Jesse Schell, a game design professor at Carnegie Mellon University, cites a series of studies performed in the 1970s and 1980s that tested the effect of rewards on children's enjoyment of tasks.

One 1971 study by the University of Rochester took two groups of children and gave each child an hour to solve a series of puzzles. Those in one group were given $1 for each solved puzzle. Those in the control group were not given any reward. Researchers wanted to know what the children would do when they were left alone for eight minutes at the end of the hour.

"The regular kids kept playing with the puzzles," Schell said, "But the kids who were paid just sat there. So if your idea is to create a bribery system to get them to try something, it can backfire. When the bribes go away, people are less inclined naturally to do the thing you want, even if it's fun."

The rising interest in gamification is part of a larger societal trend toward designing products that are more pleasing, not just purely utilitarian, Schell said.

"This is a new territory for most designers," he said. "But this is what games have always been about. Games have no other purpose than to please. So the things that game designers know have become things that all product designers are starting to want to know."

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