How gaming can teach you decision-making skills

By Chloe Della Costa

Games and gaming elements are becoming useful for a variety of industries. Rather than solely providing amusement, “serious” games from WILL Interactive are meant to help players make better life choices. The company creates Virtual Experience Immersive Learning Simulations (VEILS), which are interactive movies in which users make serious decisions for the learning experience.

With these games you can take on the role of soldier, making tough calls with very little time, or learn how to avoid foreclosure in a down economy. And making mistakes is the point of the game. This is what teaches you a lesson, so when you start the game again, you can apply that knowledge and try again.

The company has released 70 games on topics ranging from military, engineering, financial decision-making, and youth education. The website states that WILL is the only entity that “holds the patent for the interactive behavior modification process that has been shown in independent studies to improve individual’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviors.” This could be the first step to a new form of educational media.

By “serious games” the company means “games that are designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment. Higher end serious games are designed to inherently engage their target audience through the use of interactive gaming attributes, which, in turn, ultimately educates them on how to solve a specific problem, task or objective.”

WILL Interactive patented VEILS in 1998. And since then, this idea has evolved into what could possibly change the face of educational and training programs across many industries. With VEILS, players get to become characters in a movie, and each character action yields different results. Thus, with VEILS, the more you play, and the more paths you attempt to take, the more you learn.

The game “Ways Home,” developed in cooperation with Fannie Mae, helps players navigate different avenues to avoid foreclosure, and in “Leading the Way,” developed with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, returning soldiers can prepare to deal with the possible hardships they might face upon re-entering society. No matter what role the user takes on, these games are distinct in that they help to prepare people for overwhelming and complicated obstacles. These are issues that don’t come with an easy guidebook.

The company just launched the WILL Interactive Challenge (, which calls on players to solve a real-world problem using the game’s interactive technology. The competition began on December 14, 2011 and ended April 20, 2012. Contestants created proposals detailing a virtual experience that could impact the world in a positive way. The winner will be announced on June 6 and will be awarded $500,000 to develop the idea using WILL’s technology.

The company has made a progressive move here, turning to crowdsourcing to move its mission forward. When it comes to a concept like “serious games,” the possibilities appear endless. What is the best use of this technology? What kind of social good could be done with the help of virtual simulations? The company asked for proposals that addresses a specific “pressing social issue.” What might that be? Health care? Corporate greed? Soon we’ll learn what winning idea will be in the works.



The motivations behind gamification: Tapping into psychology

By Chloe Della Costa

According to gamification guru Gabe Zichermann, it’s all about understanding that “if you can make something more fun, and include notions of play, you can get people to do things they otherwise might not want to do.” Of course this shows an inherent dark side of gamification — when the purpose is to manipulate users and foster addiction, there are serious dangers of misuse. But when used for good, people’s psychological desires for pride, competition, and community will drive them to engage and participate in ways that are beneficial to them, not only to brands. Gamification done right taps into people’s most basic desires. Zichermann says it’s “75% to 25%, psychology to technology.”

Michael Wu, Ph.D. discusses the relevance of the Fogg Behavioral Model in thinking about gamification. The model outlines three required factors that underlie any human behavior:
1. Motivation
2. Ability
3. Trigger

What you have to remember is that all three must converge at the exact same time. The trigger for users to act must come at a time when they feel motivated and able. Triggers are all about timing, and ability is about making difficult tasks seem simpler and more manageable. Motivation is perhaps the toughest link, and providing positive feedback is helpful. But what truly motivates people in a game situation? A vague idea of points, badges, and rankings might not cut it.

The basic Feedback Loop gives a good idea of what’s needed to keep people continuously motivated. It consists of four basic stages:
1. Evidence (data)
2. Relevance (data processing)
3. Consequence (data defining)
4. Action (data usage)

When you see yourself rack up steps on your fitness app, for example, that’s the evidence. It’s important that users are given information in real-time. Relevance enters in when the data is understood as meaningful to the user. If you were told your score was 3,500, but you didn’t know out of how many, or what it was based on, it would be meaningless. The consequence stage is about the stakes. For instance, if Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t kill the boss, it’s game over. This is how we know it’s time to act!

Michael Wu shows how countless psychological and behavioral models can inform gamification. Abraham H. Maslow published the now famous “Hierarchy of Needs” back in 1943. The human needs are:
1. Physiological (basic needs)
2. Safety (health, security)
3. Belonging (love, friendship, family, social cohesion)
4. Esteem (self esteem, confidence, achievement, respect)
5. Self actualization

You can see how three, four, and five can all be touched on in a digital gaming context. Wu also explains how the motivators that author Daniel Pink focuses on (autonomy, mastery, purpose) inform gaming motivations, and B. F. Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism sheds light on the importance of rewards.

Perhaps one of the most interesting examples is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow, developed in 1975. According to Wu, “Flow is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where people become totally immersed in what they are doing. People experiencing flow often forget about physical feelings, passage of time, and their ego fades away.”

In order to achieve Flow, the right level of challenge must be maintained. If a game, at any point, becomes either far too easy (boring) or too hard (frustrating), users will snap out of it. It’s the line between certainty and uncertainty that keeps us engaged and in the moment.

Zichermann reminds us that because young people entering the workforce were raised on gaming, they expect sophisticated challenges and continuous reinforcement. And if you want to keep them motivated, either as consumers or employees, your games have to keep them going with the flow.

Chloe Della Costa is an editor at iMedia Connection. (


7 Potential Pitfalls of Gamification

Although gamification can be an excellent tool for engaging consumers, there are a few caveats to be wary of. A common criticism of gamification is its manipulative nature. It is true that developers are taking advantage of elements of human psychology, and this can be somewhat exploitative. But this is part of what makes games games, and what we enjoy most about them. If not for the addictive quality of gaming and the way games allow us to be unabashedly competitive, we would not enjoy them so much. Still, it is an issue to keep in mind, but it’s not exactly wise to avoid the very tactics that make engagement so appealing and hard to resist.

The following are seven important downsides of gamification that you should consider.

The motivations may be superficial
Motivations involved in gamification may not be enough to truly draw in users. Points that lead to real-world rewards are great, but often a sort of virtual “badge” is not enough. If the only driving force behind putting in the time is a chance at digital bragging rights, users aren’t going to buy it. On top of that, if the incentives aren’t worth the effort, not only will you reach fewer users, but the ones that do participate will likely be missing what the brand truly has to offer — in lieu of simply wanting to be first at something.

You’re rewarding them too soon
The achievements you award should build over time to reward a long term commitment. If rewards are given too early and often, they will seem too easy. These will be perceived as hollow, and therefore not worth the effort. But if achievements mark true progress toward a defined goal, users will feel a sense of accomplishment.

You aren’t providing a true game
Another criticism of gamification is that it lacks the essence of a game. When the concept becomes a cut and paste add-on to try to force engagement, no one will want to play. The challenge is to try to incorporate the originality and difficulty of much-loved video games — without getting in over your head. To put it frankly, if it’s a boring game, people won’t play it.

It feels like bribery
If participating is clearly just a means to serve a brand, people are going to feel used. Rather than providing an organic experience for one’s personal entertainment, gamification always has an agenda, which makes it difficult for users to want in. This is one reason why social programs and services (e.g., health care, online dating, fitness, education, job search, environmental causes, etc.) are having the most success with gamification. If users already feel they are doing good just by getting involved — good for others, and for themselves — rather than helping a company profit, they won’t feel as dirty.

They are finding ways to cheat
First of all, you need to do your homework. Make sure your gaming elements are sophisticated enough to make cheating difficult. There is no perfect solution, especially since gamification is never as sophisticated as actual video games. If you have a cheating problem, either the rewards must be perceived as less desirable or you must make it harder to cheat the system. (I’d say go with the latter.) But again, if you are truly offering a social good, people are likely to actually want to do the work.

Social elements are forced
The social aspect often associated with gamification can easily fail if it feels disingenuous. Only when there is a strong common goal and a sense of community (alongside friendly competition) will strangers truly want to connect online. If there is nothing to gain from interacting, the opportunity to connect could just foster bad sportsmanship — in a public way.

It’s treated like an easy fix
Gamification companies like Bunchball, Badgeville, and Big Door make it seem easy to attach gamification to your website, but this isn’t such a good thing. To reach their full potential, the gaming elements need to be well-designed and thought out. This should take a significant amount of time.

With proper design and planning, introducing gaming elements can prove enormously beneficial to companies. But it’s all about your level of investment. (And being in the right industries.) Francesco D’Orazio, research director for Face Group, said “Game mechanics have massive potential in the research industry, but low-grade gamification is only going to distort social interaction and skew research outputs.”

As with anything, when done cheaply or without proper research and preparation, it will not provide value, and can even make your brand lose credibility. If you treat gamification like a passing fad, that is exactly what it will be. Make the decision to gamify only if you plan to go full force and embrace it. You’ll have to commit — hire an expert, do the research, and weigh your options. Success will only come if you make it an intrinsic part of your company’s mission.

Jesse Schell said “In ways it is a fad — adding points and badges in tacky ways, looking at ‘gamification’ as an easy way to make boring things seem interesting — that is a fad. However, the idea of designing business processes so that those who engage in them find them more intrinsically rewarding — that is a long term trend.”


How to play a game and get a job

The San Francisco-based company is now gamifying the job search for its 4 million users. Identified has incorporated game-like features to encourage users to continually bulk up their profiles and add just the right elements. Co-founder and co-chief executive Brendan Wallace said “Generation Y is nearly invisible to employers, so this technique is key.”

Recruiters have started to practice “social recruiting,” perusing Facebook profiles for young potential applicants. But generally there is not enough relevant information gleaned from reading someone’s “About me.” Identified provides a Facebook app where seekers and recruiters can meet and have a more meaningful interaction. 90 percent of Identified users are under 35, so this is great for recent college grads looking for that first “real job” or the next step forward, but it’s also a gold mine for recruiters looking to hire young talent.

To use Identified, you connect through Facebook to start building up your short form resume, and game-like rewards provide an incentive to outline more detailed information and build up your profile. Then you get an Identified “score” that measures how desirable you are to employers. was founded by Wallace and Adeyemi Ajao just two years ago, but the company has grown considerably in the last 6 months and so far has raised $5.5 million from venture capitalists. (

>On the Identified blog, an infographic entitled “Play A Game, Get A Job” outlines the evolution of gamification and its practical, real-world applications such as online dating, fitness programs, energy consumption, and the hiring process. (

Identified isn’t the only one gamifying the job search. Guy Krief of Upstream designed a competitive test that could identify people with a special blend of skills that would be difficult to discern from a normal resume. The “Upstream Challenge” is open to anyone who would like to try it and includes seven timed exercises featuring mathematical problems, matching emotions to hypothetical work scenarios, and other challenges to measure a candidate’s qualifications. Facebook itself has posted complex programming puzzles to test large numbers of applicants, and the practice has indeed led to hires.

According to Gabe Zichermann, gamification is just getting started. “It is not about making a literal game. More often it’s about taking elements of games and repurposing them.” A December 2011 study by Gartner, Inc. predicts “70 percent of the world’s top 2,000 companies will use game techniques as a behavioral motivator to recruit, train, and enhance employee performance, as well as to encourage new ideas, improve employee health, or build customer loyalty, among other goals.” (

At this point, the possibilities for gamification are beyond what we can even imagine. Creative uses of gaming like this one will start to pick up, and we’ll begin to see even more intriguing applications. What the job search model has going for it is it takes something boring, something most people pretty much dread and would rather put off until later, and makes it more fun — as well as more lucrative.

Tony Wagner’s new book “Creating Innovators” out April 17

How games make kids smarter

How games make kids smarter – Gabe Zichermann TEDxTalks – check out the video.

A Great Read for Start-ups

Mastering the VC Game by Jeff Bussgang

The White House on Women and the Economy

Starting shortly, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, (my alma mater) will be at the White House to moderate a panel on Education. April 6, 2012 at 10:45 a.m. President Obama to address the Forum at 10:15 a.m. Watch live on White House

Recyclebank gamifies for a better world

By Chloe Della Costa

Recyclebank has been running on gamification since the company was founded six years ago — before anyone even knew the term. The company uses a system of points and incentives, rewarding people for good recycling habits. Now Recyclebank has expanded across 300 communities in the U.S. and incorporates even more gamification techniques.

Recyclebank calls its strategy “gaming for good.” How it works is people earn rewards for recycling and other energy-saving behaviors. The company keeps track for you, and then you can go online to check and see in which areas you have been recycling a great deal, where you could stand to put in more effort, and how many points you have earned. You can compare your points and your recycling behaviors with those of others on the leaderboards in the “Recyclebank Ecosystem.” Then your points can be turned into discounts or redeemed through retailers that partner with Recyclebank.

The company developed a technology on its recycling trucks that records how much each home recycles. It began by focusing on curbside recycling, but now you can earn points in countless other ways such as unplugging appliances, buying green products, pledging to take shorter showers, carpooling, and taking public transportation. You can even earn points for purchasing Barnes & Noble Nook books.

Last winter, the Recyclebank team rolled out its “Green Your Seasons” challenge, which incorporated more interactive sharing and earning than ever. It’s an online scrapbook of sorts, where you keep a log of your household activities. Each season is full of quizzes, downloads, and opportunities for members to submit recipes and other content. And the more you engage, the more points you earn.

(Image sourced from

In a recent interview (, Recyclebank co-founder Ron Gonen comments that recycling rates in the U.S. are exceptionally low, and he believes that his company’s success comes in part from people having to constantly think about how their actions are affecting the environment. Gonen’s vision was to use motivation to encourage recycling and energy conservation. Today the company has a network of over 3 million members.

Recyclebank’s latest partnership is with Preserve, sustainable consumer goods company. The iPhone app, Gimme 5, places Preserve’s Gimme 5 program into the Recyclebank Ecosystem, rewarding users for checking in at locations that recycle No. 5 plastics (the types often found in yogurt containers).

The website ( is now chock full of articles, opportunities, promotions, and more. It has grown into a great hub of activity where people go to help the planet, and have fun doing it.

Gonen says many “social entrepreneurship” companies like his are “doing well by doing good.”

Chloe Della Costa is an editor at iMedia Connection. (

Gamification Resources


Bunchball @
Gigya @
Gamification Org @
BazaarVoice @

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