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Take me to your leaderboard: Gamification growing up

It's pretty much impossible to surf the web these days without coming across some kind of gamelike feature. Do a Google search and a glinting +1 button accompanies each result, beckoning you to click. What's all this about? It's called gamification, and it's the hot topic for web design. There's only one problem. No one really knows how gamification works. There is no formula for fun.

Last Monday (Oct. 3), Penn's Wharton School hosted Gamification: Practical Advice from Game Developers. Ultimately, practical advice was trumped by theory. Panelists and speakers agreed that gamification is a nearly undefinable term. We know it when we see it. But how to achieve it?

If you think about the kids today and their incessant videogaming, refocusing the online experience to act more like a game makes sense. "Ninety-seven percent of kids 12 to 17 play videogames," cited Wharton professor Kevin Werbach, referring to a recent Gartner study. The mobile check-in service Foursquare is the poster child for gamifying, he said, with its point system, leaderboards, badges and fun little icons. Werbach also pointed to FoldIt, which was developed by researchers to crowdsource the process of protein folding. Werbach's current provisional definition of gamification: "The use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts."

It's plenty easy to define what gamification is not. But getting to a place of practice is quite another challenge. Panelists included Frank Lee from Drexel University's gaming program who comes from a psychology background; Playmatic's Margaret Wallace; Ethan Mollick, an assistant professor at Wharton; Jesper Juul, who writes The Ludologist blog and is a visiting prof at NYU; and 30 year gaming veteran Eric Goldberg, managing director of Crossover Technologies.

Mollick, who wrote the book Changing The Game, said that the billions of hours spent online playing games are a powerful message to business. "It's a reality is broken approach," explained Mollick. "Life is boring. Games are fun." One thing all agree upon: if gamifying a site is purely a marketing ploy, it will not fly. Chris Grant, editor in Chief of Joystiq, posited to the panel that no one is fooled by a crass attempt at commercialization. Gamifying cannot be unethical, immoral, or exploiting people's time.

Eric Goldberg responded, "Games are an art form, like movies and fiction. One of the core lessons game developers learn early on is that we are in the crack cocaine business. It's the manipulation of people. Manipulation, like any other tool, has the potential for evil and good."

So, back to practical advice. Mollick concluded, "Fun is hard to theorize about. Competition is fun. Randomness and art are fun. The best way to figure out what is fun is through development, testing and gathering data on how to get closer to fun." Because fun is good. And quite possibly lucrative.

Source: Kevin Werbach, Ethan Mollick, Eric Goldberg, Chris Grant, Wharton Gamification Conference
Writer: Sue Spolan
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