May 18 2010

Game Mechanics: The Most Important Online Tactic You’re Not Using

Published by at 9:12 pm under marketing,technology

Total read time: 5 minutes

Games have been around for thousands of years. But while Go and Chess are complicated (and have even been proven to correlate with intelligence), for most of history, games have not been taken seriously. Until video games came along. In the span of 30 years, a great gaming industry was built. Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Sony, Atari, and Microsoft owe billions of dollars in revenue each year to games. The video game industry is now worth more than $18BN (incidentally, that’s more than the movie industry). And Zynga, the social gaming company that created Farmville and Mafia Wars on Facebook, went from a valuation of $1BN last year to $3BN in February, to $5BN in April.

It is only since the rise of video games that gaming has been looked at with academic rigor. The findings are compelling: games raise IQs, make us understand intricate social relationships better, and solve problems with imperfect information more effectively. Steven Johnson chronicles all of this effectively in “Everything Bad is Good for You.”

But, even more interesting than the gaming industry itself is how game mechanics have started permeating the marketing world. Game mechanics is the use of gaming principles, norms, and systems. This doesn’t mean that you create a game out of every activity; instead, it means using the gaming framework to move customers and prospects forward. These principles can be used to dramatically improve goal completion for any online activity.

There are several types of game mechanics, but the most applicable to business purposes are victory condition mechanics. Victory condition mechanics are the ways that a player “moves forward” in the game, and eventually “wins” the game. In Super Mario Brothers, the victory condition for each level is that you have to jump on the flagpole. That’s the only way to complete the level. If you don’t do that action, there is no point in playing at all. In Monopoly, the victory condition is accumulation of money. That is the goal of the game, and the winner of the game is the one with the most money. So, everything that you do in the game is designed toward putting you in the best position to fulfill the victory condition.

There are a number of great emerging examples of using victory condition mechanics for all sorts of businesses that are not game:

Victory points: Foursquare’s badges and Gowalla’s passport stamps both act as victory points. Users unlock these rewards by checking in to a predetermined series of locations (e.g. you get the Crunked badge on Foursquare for checking in at four different locations in one night).

Structure building: Farmville uses the concept of structure building effectively. Users must either purchase or receive crops from other users in order to complete their farm.

Resource management: eBay and other platforms with feedback points use this system well. Users must maintain good relationships with each other in order to maintain their resource of positive feedback. This allows them to continue using the system.

Territory control: Google uses territory control to drive billions of dollars in sales on the AdWords platform. Competitive bidding for keywords means that companies are willing to id high to control the top spots in search results – because controlling that real estate reaps significant rewards in the form of increased sales.

These mechanics are useful because they are incredibly effective. Look for ways to incorporate game mechanics into your online interactions, and conversion will improve. Adding competitive elements, or just indicators of level of completeness, will help users understand that they are working toward a goal, and how far away they are from reaching that goal.

There are more specific examples of types of game mechanics here. What other companies can you think of that use some of these tactics? Let me know in the comments.

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