'Gamifying' The System To Create Better Behavior

Originally published on March 27, 2011 4:34 pm

Say you're zooming down the highway, when you spot one of those speed-limit enforcement cameras from the corner of your eye. You hit the brakes, but not before the camera's flash catches you breaking the law. A speeding ticket is surely on its way to your mailbox.

Now, imagine that same camera also snaps a photo of your car when you are driving at or under the speed limit. For your safe driving, you are entered into a lottery to win a portion of the money from fines paid by speeders.

That idea was tested in Sweden with great success. It's an example of "gamification," considered the next wave of social engagement and Internet technology.

Gamification "is the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems," says Gabe Zichermann, co-author of the book Game-Based Marketing and chairman of the Gamification Summit.

He tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen that the speed-camera lottery in Sweden turns the whole idea of fines and penalties on its head, in a way that only "game people" think of.

Instead of being structured around punishment and negativity, he says, the speed-camera lottery is "all about positive reinforcement." If you drive the speed limit, or under it, you may win some money.

"And that positive incentive to create better behavior," he says, "is a core tenet of games."

The SAPS Model

Positive incentives also help in other ways — weight loss, for example.

Take The Biggest Loser. In the popular NBC reality show, an activity that's normally thought of as embarrassing and private is made public. The contestants are given nominal rewards, and after being put through the ringer, Zichermann says, they lose weight.

"What's interesting about Biggest Loser and other gamified examples of weight loss is they hew to a model for user rewards that I call SAPS," he says.

SAPS stands for status, access, power and stuff. Zichermann says those are things people want in their lives as rewards — in that order. "It turns out," he says, "that cash isn't that good of a reward. Status is a fantastic motivator for getting people to do stuff."

The theory of gamification is actually based on trends in technology and society over the past 25 to 30 years, he says. It's coming into fashion now "because we're looking for new answers to some very, very serious and intractable problems, both in business and society."

Problems that Zichermann says gamification may be best suited to solve.

"Games are not about punishment," he says. "Games are about reward and pleasure."

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

Gabe Zichermann is here to explain it all. He's the chair of the Gamification Summit and workshops. He's co-author of the book "Game-Based Marketing." And he's at the NPR studio in New York. Welcome to the program.

GABE ZICHERMANN: Hi, thank you very much.

HANSEN: What's your definition of gamification?

ZICHERMANN: Well, gamification really is the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems. It's an interesting idea that's based on really the last sort of 25 or 30 years of trends in technology and society that's coming to a head now, because were looking for new answers to some very, very serious and intractable problems, both in business and society that possibly gamification is best suited to solve.

HANSEN: Okay, let's take that speed camera example from Sweden. How does gamification apply there?

ZICHERMANN: So instead of being structured around, you know, all this punishment and negativity, speed camera lottery is all about positive reinforcement. If you go under the speed limit or at it, you might win some money. And that positive incentive to create better behavior is a core tenet of gains. Games are not about punishment. Games are about reward and pleasure.

HANSEN: There's also - I think you write on your gamification blog about positive incentives helping people lose weight and get in shape. What's an example of how it works?

ZICHERMANN: Well, one of the best examples I think in society is the "Biggest Loser." We take an activity which is normally thought of as private and very, very embarrassing - which is I am overweight and I want to lose some weight - and we make that public. We put a lot of pressure on the user. We give them a nominal reward. But the big one that works really well is the fame. And we put them through this ringer and they tend to lose a bunch of weight.

SAPS: status, access, power and stuff. And that's the order things that people want in their lives as rewards. It turns out the cash isn't that good of a reward. Status is a fantastic motivator for getting people to do stuff.

HANSEN: You know, I imagine that this makes a lot of sense to younger generations. How do you gamification appealing to the older generation?

ZICHERMANN: Well, broadly speaking, you know, games are actually very appealing to older people today. I'll tell you a funny story. We were called in to a company that works with investors. They were giving investors badges for various levels of achievement, things like bull, bear, pig, whale, shark. These are all terms that the finance industry uses to describe a particular kind of investor or market situation, right? You've probably heard these terms before.

HANSEN: These people do want to be known as whales. They just don't want to be cheapened by looking at a whale. So the example that I gave them for how to fix that was instead of actually using, you know, literally those images of whales, bulls, bears and so on, they should have just change the color of people's profiles to gold, platinum and black, which everybody immediately recognizes as the American Express card levels, which are considered more universal for a 50- something, white, male, rich audience.

HANSEN: Gabe Zichermann is co-author of the book "Game-Based Marketing." Thanks so much for your time.

ZICHERMANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.