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Innovation

How long till life is one big video game? Add to ...

"Had he been alive today," says Gabe Zichermann, "Shakespeare would have written 'All the world is a game.' It's so much richer of a metaphor then the previous example."

Mr. Zichermann is in the business of seeing games where others just see plays. He sees them not just when he looks at FarmVille or Foursquare or Facebook, but in Aeroplan and Weight Watchers. He sees potential in everything from gym memberships to recycling programs.

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The author and consultant is at the forefront of a new strain of marketing thinking, one that finds ways to make a product fun to use, especially for a generation weaned on video games. It's called "gamification." And if recent interest is any indication, you'll be hearing the term a lot more in the months to come.

Gamification, according to its practitioners, is the art of taking a business proposition - be it a gym membership, an airline, a web startup or a social network - and adding a gaming element to spur customers on. It could be points or scores, or holding out the badges or rewards. Whatever the mechanic, it aims to get users hooked not on free gifts or discounts, but with the promise of savouring small victories.

A dash of fun, a boost in status, a taste of prestige can go a long way.

"The art of gamification is taking something that's real, then putting a game layer on top of it," says Duleepa Wijayawardhana, CEO of EmpireAvenue, a Canadian Web startup that's using the techniques on its social networking site.

If this concept of gamification has a poster child in the online world, it's Foursquare, the location-aware mobile app. Foursquare encourages users to check in with their GPS-enabled smartphone as they visit different locations. In theory, Foursquare's utility is that it lets friends know where you are.

But in practice, a lot of Foursquare's popularity can be attributed to a kind of gameplay: Check in to a given location more than anybody else, and you'll be publicly named the "mayor" of that establishment. It might be a donut shop, or a shopping mall, or even a transit route (in 2010, there was a pitched competition to see who could be the Foursquare mayor of Toronto's city hall) - everything is up for grabs.

Some businesses offered deals and discounts for users who became mayor, but this seemed to have little impact on the status-hungry users who checked in insistently, for the virtual rewards of racking up points and achieving the status of imaginary mayor.

Or, look no further than FarmVille, the phenomenally popular Facebook past time in which participants create a virtual farm. The game play itself is mechanical and repetitive, yet its creator, Zynga, is now valued at near $10-billion. Their secret: strong incentives for players to "level up," and gain prestige by making nicer farms than their friends.

Indeed, Mr. Zichermann now tells his corporate clients that material rewards aren't the most compelling incentives for customers. Instead, he says, customers respond to offers of status, access, power, and only then, "stuff" - a hierarchy he condenses to the acronym SAPS (which perhaps shouldn't be read too far into).

"It turns out that giving away free stuff is not what drives the program to be successful."

One example, which gamification's proponents often cite, has little to do with the online world at all: Frequent flier programs like Aeroplan took on gaming attributes long before gamification became a trend.

Aeroplan uses a point system to reward users with free flights. But since free flights are relatively hard to earn, newer members are instead being rewarded by the frequent flier experience - upgrades, privileges, the ability to stand in the special line for priority passengers.

The ability to rack up points and achieve goals that increase status gives Aeroplan the qualities of a game. And, as Mr. Wijayawardhana points out, the fact that points eventually expire adds another critical element to the game: the potential for loss.

Canadian startups are starting to use of these tools. EmpireAvenue, Mr. Wijayawardhana's Edmonton-based firm, is working to put gaming principles to work in another context: Social networking. Sites like Facebook and Twitter already have some gaming elements to them. For instance, the number of friends or followers a user has serves as a scoring system, which people pay very close attention to in relation to their peers, and are constantly incentivized to boost.

EmpireAvenue takes a different approach: It turns social networking itself into a game. The startup is a virtual stock market, in which players use virtual currency to buy and sell imaginary "shares" in an unusual commodity: Each other. The game's algorithm determines a share value for each person based on how influential their online activity makes them; users then connect with each other on the basis of their influence.

Health care promotion - typically not the most fun of fields - is another area where gamification's proponents see a bright future. WeightWatchers has already turned weight loss into a kind of game, using a points system and implicitly competitive meetings to spur on weight loss.

But gyms might benefit even more. If it takes six weeks for an exercise routine to yield any physical signs of improvement, the combination of hard work plus no reward will lead people to walk away.

"The solution is to break that down into smaller components," says Mr. Zichermann. Adding elements of game to going to the gym - which might reward gym-goers for regular attendance, and put them in a competitive setting - would provide positive feedback earlier in the process.

Gamification's boosters are at pains to explain what the term does not refer to: Among other things, it's not simply slapping badges onto a website or app, and it's not adding an arbitrary points system. (They derisively call these "badgification" and "pointsification," respectively.) Instead, they're plotting a world where the most banal of tasks are a bit more fun. "Everything's going to have a game mechainic," says Lenny Rachitsky, the founder of LocalMind, a Montreal startup that's readying a question-and-answer service in which users "level up" depending on how many useful answers they provide to others.

All things being equal, says Mr. Rachitsky, services that use game mechanics to get their users addicted, have a distinct competitive advantage.

"When you're trying to compete," he says, "the thing that's more fun is going to win."

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