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State of Play

How companies are shaping your behavior by turning real life into a game

Author PAUL KIX

ILLUSTRATION BY YAREK WASZUL

Seth Priebatsch was an unusually precocious boy, but a boy nonetheless: one who hated cleaning his room and wasn’t above tormenting his little sister. So to get him to behave, his parents devised a game. Every time he tidied up after himself or did his homework, he’d get a star-shaped sticker. Every time he started a spat with his sister, one would be taken away. The more stars he earned, the more money he received from his parents to spend on toys. Suffice it to say, he bought a lot of toys.

Priebatsch had the star system in mind when, having enrolled at Princeton in 2007, he decided to compete in the school’s annual business plan contest, which offered a first prize of $5,000. Priebatsch figured he had it in the bag. Drawing on his parents’ belief that games could shape behavior, he put together a proposal for a company that would lead people on scavenger hunts by sending text messages to their cell phones. These texts would direct the players to participating brick-and-mortar businesses, and for every clue found there, they would receive points. Earn enough points, and the players would get discounts on merchandise at a store of their choosing.

Priebatsch won the $5,000. A year later, he dropped out of Princeton to launch his business. Today, his company, Scvngr, which uses a mobile app instead of text messages, is valued at more than $100 million, having been funded by the same venture capital firms that first helped Google. Scvngr is a prime example of the next wave of social media, something that very smart people are calling the “gamification of the real world.”

Gamification, in this sense, is not playing Farmville or Mafia Wars with your Facebook friends. Gamifying real life is more evolved than that: It’s about weaving games into our real-world interactions, games that are so alluring they change our behavior. In a way, the airlines and credit card companies that introduced points programs a generation ago were the first to understand this. But today’s Web- or mobile-based firms use games much more overtly to accomplish everything from raising revenue to tackling societal ills. This emerging industry is predicted to be worth $2 billion within the next few years, says Timothy Chang, a managing director of the Mayfield Fund, which invests in gamified companies.

One of those companies is HealthTap. On the Silicon Valley firm’s website, users post health questions that real-life doctors respond to. The physicians aren’t paid for their expertise; instead, they receive points, climbing through HealthTap’s gamelike levels and earning honorifics like the “It’s Not Brain Surgery” prize, which is bestowed on a doctor who answers 21 questions at the site.

WHILE HEALTHTAP MAY SEEM like a minor innovation, it actually represents a significant breakthrough. For years, businesses in the healthcare sector have looked for ways to grab and hold doctors’ attention away from the office. “The problem is they’re super-busy,” Chang says. “And people always tried to use money as an enticement to get doctors to help them.” But HealthTap suggests doctors don’t necessarily want money. They want esteem. The genius of the site is that doctors post their answers for everyone to see, including their peers. A doctor’s expertise, eloquence — it’s all on display. Add in the game layers and the inherent drive to compete, and now you’re getting at doctors’ egos, too. As a result, HealthTap has grown from 5,000 participating doctors to 10,000 in just one year.

“Gamification has unlocked the truism that consumers are pleasure-seeking creatures and, given an option, will always choose the activity that they find more fun or pleasurable,” Gabe Zichermann, co-author of Game-Based Marketing, notes in a recent video posted on YouTube.

Still, this doesn’t mean that games will cater exclusively to hedonistic or commercial impulses. Recyclebank uses games to get people to recycle more, and chief revenue officer Samantha Skey says the firm has gone from 1 million registered users a year ago to 3.2 million today. Anything can be gamified. As game developer Jane McGonigal writes in her book, Reality Is Broken: “I foresee games that tackle global-scale problems like climate change and poverty.”

This is Priebatsch’s plan. Right now the Scvngr founder leads people on forages that result in, say, cheaper burritos. But he talks openly about wanting to help put a “game layer on top of the world” to get at seemingly intractable problems like hunger in Africa or failing schools in America. “Social media has gone through three phases,” Priebatsch says, explaining that the first phase informed users, the second connected them to each other, and the third, the gaming phase, will see users acting on the information they receive. “A game layer just makes everything” — whether trivial or vital — “a bit more fun,” he says, “and that much more powerful.”

As a senior editor at ESPN the Magazine, PAUL KIX spends his days studying a different type of gamification.

THIS MONTH’S AMAZING FACT

Ladies in the Red
A world without women would be empty and sad. And broke.

If you’re already envious of your buddy who works in an office full of single women, here’s some worse news: A new study suggests that your friend is probably richer than you, too.

In an experiment conducted at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, male subjects who read fake news articles claiming that men outnumbered women in the local population elected to save 42 percent less from a hypothetical paycheck — and borrow 84 percent more on a hypothetical credit card — than those who read articles claiming that women outnumbered men. Even when the subjects just looked at images containing fewer ladies, they were more likely to choose an immediate reward ($20 at the end of the experiment) than to wait a month for something larger ($30).

Scientists think the phenomenon stems from males’ willingness to use their resources to compete with one another when females appear scarce — a tendency that is common among other animals. Women’s spending decisions, meanwhile, were unaffected. —JACQUELINE DETWILER

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