Everything in life is a game

Tim Chang

Sep 21, 2014
Gamification in cars: On the dashboard of an electric-powered car, personal statistic pages could be shown to drivers. Photo © Audi Urban Future Initiative

Gamification or gameful design – this is more than merely satisfying the human urge to play. It is an effective way for companies to gain customer loyalty or familiarize customers with a product. People use gamified apps to train their memory, to lose weight or to improve their level of fitness. Socially desirable behavior such as a driving in a way that saves fuel and reducing electricity consumption can also be encouraged by means of gamification.

Tim Chang, managing director of the Mayfield Fund and one of the top 100 tech investors according to Forbes, talks about the opportunities and risks of gameful design and how he became a gamification expert.

Charlotte Malz: What is the core asset of gamification or gameful design?

Tim Chang: A game consists of three things: First there is an objective or a victory condition which is usually set by the system, the players, or some mix of the two. Second, there is a score that shows you if you are moving further from or closer to this objective, and that score is directly given to a player, usually in real time. Third – there is a set of rules on how to advance the score based on the decisions and actions the player makes, and those rules are also usually very clear.

Note that I did not say anything about “having fun,” or “play” and things like that... So within the scope of these three aspects, if you think about it, everything in life is a “game” by this definition, whether it´s how you negotiate the price on a new Audi or how you get into a college or get a date. Everything in life is a game in its own way. There are rules (not always clear), there are scores (not always explicit), and there are always goals and objectives. And so that to me is “gamification” at its heart, and it actually can be applied to anything in life where there´s an objective that people want.

And where are the limits? What are dangers of gamification?

Chang: The danger of gamification is oversimplifying or reducing everything to one or two simple scores. We human beings tend to optimize that which we are measured on. So if you only measure one simple score people will only optimize their behaviors around that one dimension.

Here’s a simple example: When the Toyota Prius first came out, there was an inadvertent mini-game that emerged, based around the “score” of “how many little green leaves can I get based on how I’m driving?” – many drivers started gamifying this, trying to max out their scores, taking pictures of their dashboards while driving, and then competing on social media with others.

Next thing you know, you had all these Prius drivers causing traffic jams in the HOV lane because they were focused on optimizing their green score, and driving extra slow in the fast lane as a result!Another way to say it is: A basic tenet of control systems engineering is that “you can only control that which you observe.” So choosing what you measure and score is a key part of gamification or gameful design.

How could the automotive industry benefit from gamification?

Chang: There are several potential applications. One could be to make drivers more green, by changing their driving habits. Toyota was the first to do it by showing with a score how green they were driving and how much energy they were saving in the process, which encouraged drivers to care more about the environment by showing them the feedback.

A second benefit could be driving customer loyalty through gamification. An example is an Audi loyalty points program, or Audi “customer level,” based on driver statistics like number of years driving an Audi, number of different Audis driven, number of Audi cars owned, number of friends referred that bought an Audi, number of social media posts and stories about Audi-related experiences, how much money was spent on Audi products and services in total, etc. Loyalty is one of the very first areas that were gamified, and all loyalty programs are a basic gamification system in essence.

Yet another aspect could revolve around recognizing that every customer wants to feel special, and that their car is unique in some aspect. No one wants to be “yet another Audi owner – they want to be an elite owner, the owner of a limited edition model, or the owner of a highly personalized vehicle that’s a reflection of their personality, status, tastes, etc.

Can you increase the emotional stake for customers by making items scarce, rare, collectable, limited edition, or highly configurable and personalizable? And the corresponding key to this is that these attributes have to be made public. If you own a rare model, everyone has to know that it is rare, otherwise it defeats the purpose.

Those are just three quick examples of different ways you could gamify the automotive experience.

And can it also be useful in the fields of electro-mobility?

Chang: When I myself started driving an electric car I noticed that I tend to keep track of things and observe all the different scores a lot more: typical range I’m getting, variance of range based on how I drive, maximum and minimum power efficiencies (instantaneous and averaged), etc. This is because the car provides a great amount of real-time data back to me on multiple dimensions – far more data than I’d get from my previous gasoline-powered vehicles.Like I said before, it’s all about providing real-time feedback to the users and then even allowing users to share, compare and discuss those scores with others.

There is a startup company in the energytech market called Opower which recently went public – they did an amazing job of driving a social, competitive home-energy-saving game, because they provided energy usage and habits to not only users, but also between the community of users, and that led to a very interesting kind of social game mechanism.

People comparing their scores with others led to greater awareness around new ways to save energy and gain more efficiency. One big aspect of their success is the social and competitive sharing part of the system. For cars, if you can see how many miles someone was able to squeeze out of their electrical vehicle versus yours, then you wonder ‘Ah wait, how did they do that? I bet I can do better than that!’ and you start to look for little ways to beat your score or improve. Classic gamification dynamics at work.

Has gamification a future? And if yes, what will it look like?

Chang: I think the best applications of gamification allow each player to choose which game they want to play. What I mean by that is instead of one master score, for example, very good MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) games online have a lot of different scores across many different dimensions so that you can engage in various mini-games or choose to excel in an area you happen to find most interesting, even if it’s not the “main mission” in the game.

So if gamification applications in the automotive experience provide feedback, stats and scores for a lot of different aspects, whether it’s energy usage, customer loyalty, social sharing, degree of personalization, etc., then this allows each player to opt into the “game” they want to play, based on their own personality type and preference.

So instead of one size fits all, it´s like many, many different mini-games that are all part of the experience and users can choose what is most interesting to them. Because after all, not every person is highly competitive or will engage in head-to-head battles; some users may be more social, collaborative and affinity-driven. And others may be all about exploration, self-expression, creative personalization.

In the dashboard of the car: If you have a page and under the profile, under each user, you have a stats page showing all the different things they have done, every human being will pick two to or three of those stats that they really want to maximize because that interest them the most, it is the most fun to them and in some way it´s an expression of their personality. And that is exactly how online games do it.

Please tell me a bit about your work... How did you became an expert in this field?

Chang: I grew up programming and playing games from the Apple II days of the early 1980s. And as I played hundreds of games and spent thousands of hours in these games, I started to see a lot of gameplay and game design patterns and thought to myself : “Wow, we each spend an incredible amount of time optimizing, maximizing and minimizing the most minute aspects of our character in a game – what if we applied the same approach to aspects of our real lives?”

In the past several years, I invested in several startup game companies. For example when social gaming first emerged, I invested in two of the early leaders in that market: Playdom (acquired by Disney) and ngmoco (acquired by mobile gaming giant DeNA in Japan).After these initial successes, I started to care more and more about how we use the same gameful design techniques to improve life outside of games, and how we can use game mechanics to make life better – not just have fun or get users to spend money on collectable virtual items.

And so I invested in startups like Badgeville, which brought gamification to the enterprise as a software-as-a-Service offering, and have also been investing in companies like Lumosity, HealthTap, Basis, and Fitmob that leverage gamification for healthcare, nutrition, wellness, fitness, financial services, human resources management, and other fields. The applications are endless. I really believe that gamification will soon become a standard toolkit that every product designer, or marketing, HR, sales, or customer service executive will have as part of his or her business thinking.

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