Gamification is ready for its close-up

Extensive screen time, accelerated by behavior changes due to COVID-19, will bring awards, badges, unlockable content and other hallmarks of gamification to the fore.

Gamification is having its moment. 

All of our lives, and society as a whole, are changing dramatically in response to COVID-19. It’s directly impacting our individual and collective behavior in ways that will transcend this crisis and become permanent. Life 2.0 (post-COVID-19) when we get to the other side of this will be noticeably different than Life 1.0 was before it. This wide-scale behavioral change includes how consumers prefer to be marketed to and how brands are adjusting (or not) to our current and future realities. One of the areas that is taking off, as a result, is gamification.

What exactly is gamification?

Not to be confused with its content cousin "gaming" – best known via an ecosystem of Twitch, Steam, Fortnite and other secret society-ish nomenclature – gamification is familiar to most of us through its mechanics such as badges, leaderboards, unlockable content, and educational tools. According to a dictionary definition, gamification is "the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service."

As someone who follows consumer and brand behavior for a living (with a focus on Gen Z and Millennials), I’ve developed my own definition of gamification. At its core, gamification is about the ability to allow the consumer to lean in and take action

I keep the definition broad because you can gamify just about anything at this point. It really comes down to the consumer's desire to lean in and take action – i.e., to do something. 

Given the current collective mindset, it’s not surprising that gamification is booming. Let’s dig a little deeper into what that means for brands moving forward.

Screen time and gamification are the present and future of "game" activity for Millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha

A trend that was already years in the making with Gen Z and Millennials (and is inescapable for Gen Alpha, those born since 2010) that is fueling gamification’s current boom is extensive daily screen time. While these two generational cohorts have been living behind a screen – or multiple screens, in many cases – as a way of life, self-isolated older and younger generations are now joining them. 

In the case of the older generations like Gen X and Baby Boomers, that is not how they grew up and lived their adult lives, so the "stickiness" of extended screen time will likely not match that of their younger counterparts when things return to some semblance of normalcy. 

With real-life "games" like professional sports being placed on hold and even personal recreational activities being mostly curtailed, screen time and gamification are trending sharply upward. This extreme and sudden shift is a great example of Gen Z and Millennials being trendsetters in the move away from an in-real-life (IRL) games and participation experience to a gamified, on-screen and virtual experience.

A relevant example of this trend (though it veers into more traditional gaming) is the rising popularity of esports. With all traditional sports on hold, esports is currently the most relevant, profitable and monetizable "sport" going. Just look at ESPN, for example. Esports content is just about their only option for live programming. Another example is the Drone Racing League. A niche game in any other time is now getting a lot more attention because of the limited options.

Projecting this trend out a bit, I think the crisis-driven movement away from IRL games to screen-focused gamification has made all generations, but Gen Z and Millennials in particular, more advanced in their skills and hungrier for creative, positive and engaging gamification content. That, in turn, is changing societal structure and norms away from real life and toward, yes, even more screen time. 

What gamification success looks like

One of the positive takeaways I’ve been seeing from gamification’s rise is how creativity is leading the way, even in industries with a poor reputation for consumer engagement.

Take, for example, Delta Airlines. I know, I know – an airline! Heading into the recent travel slowdown, they were doing a phenomenal job of gamifying the traveler experience and creating a high level of interest and engagement – across the globe and across generations. At times it was something as simple, low-cost and limited-effort as a competition for the "best sunset seen from your window," with the winner receiving free miles and/or the temporary fame of having their photo posted to a multimillion-follower Instagram account.  

That type of gamification approach demonstrates the two most powerful elements of gamification (beyond the technology piece): fully embracing the power of Instagram and its photo- and video-first community and leaning into the fact that people are sharing moments and experiences on social. 

From my standpoint as someone who lives and breathes social content, they have pulled together the perfect gamification recipe with all the right ingredients. And the outcome is organic and smooth. Quite frankly, it just works.

Gamification is just another word for community in 2020

Gamification is more powerful today than it has ever been. And I expect that trend to continue unabated for the foreseeable future. The main reason for its power is because it’s tailor-made for creating (mostly) positive and engaged communities. 

From a brand standpoint, these communities are then doing a lot of the heavy promotional lifting that was once the function of pricey and one-way ad campaigns and other resource- and expense-heavy marketing. 

One piece of advice I find myself using more frequently with brand clients is "make sure the juice is worth the squeeze" with gamification efforts. It certainly is with Delta, and there are plenty of other examples of brands leaning in strategically and looking to build a community over all else.

Step back. Humanize. Repeat. 

The last piece of gamification-related – and, frankly, marketing in general – advice I’ll leave you with is to take a step back and humanize everything. There needs to be a greatly expanded human element to everything we are all doing today as businesses. Consumers are craving connection and humanity, whether with their families, friends, co-workers, and even the brands they engage with. In fact, Fullscreen just polled its TBH (To Be Honest) panel of Gen Z and Millennial participants and 82% of them agreed that businesses need to change how they're advertising during this crisis.

The reality is that if you strip away technology, you strip away whatever the reward is, and you strip away whatever you're asking people to do or not the end of the day, we're all human beings with behaviors, emotions and actions that are fairly similar to each other. So, even in a time of crisis and uncertainty, the time-tested marketing basics often still work. With a growing and constantly morphing tactic like gamification, put yourself in your customers’ shoes and act accordingly.

John Holdridge serves as General Manager of Fullscreen Brand Services. 

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