How do you waste your time? Text Twist? Angry Birds? Cut the Rope? Some other game you find online or download to your phone?

Odds are that digital distraction is a bigger part of your day than you think. It’s the reason the video game industry is a $20 billion annual business in the United States (the movies, by the way, are a $10 billion annual business). And it’s the reason companies are investing tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to motivate their employees to work and to keep customers loyal.

The effort goes by the name “gamification,” which is the technique of using the rewards-based, competitive video game model to engage employees, customers, and clients. Fear not, though. Rich Napoli, COO of ObjectFrontier, a software development firm with an office in Newtown, PA, says companies like his are not developing business games from the shoot-’em-up, zombie-slaughtering kids’ games. Strategies for business are rather coming from role-playing games that reward players with new levels, new magic powers, and new in-game currency. Reward, after all, is an excellent motivator for business.

Napoli will moderate a panel of software and gaming experts at the New Jersey Technology Council’s “Gamification and the Enterprise — Perfect Together” event on Thursday, March 14, at 4 p.m. at Robert Half Technology in Woodbridge. Cost: $50. Visit www.njtc.org.

Speakers include Allan Grafman, chairman of Majesco Entertainment; Gabe Zichermann, one of the gaming industry’s foremost names; and Napoli’s son, Drew, who is ObjectFrontier’s gamification specialist, part time, while he finishes his graduate studies in video gaming at the University of Central Florida.

The idea for ObjectFrontier to enter the gamification realm came from a conversation Napoli and his son had last summer. The younger Napoli figured that his expertise in game building married well with his father’s expertise in building software that helps companies make more money through increased productivity.

The avenue, in its short life cycle, has proven a valuable asset for ObjectFrontier, Napoli says. The subject has become a calling card for Napoli, who speaks regularly on it. On a February day in Nashville, where Napoli is addressing a large customer service company on the subject, he explains what gamifying business is.

Compete. The first thing to know about gamification is that it’s been around since the first companies hung bulletin boards to chart which of their salesmen were the best, worst, and most improved. It just wasn’t called gamification until about 10 years ago, but the idea of “setting a marker and measuring it in a public way” is nothing new, Napoli says. You know those big painted thermometers charities display to show how much money a donation drive has raised? That’s basically the board game version of gamification for business reasons.

Gamification proper is based on competitive video games like World of Warcraft — games that feature avatars, increased rank, increased power and status, and other tangible (if virtual) rewards for playing well. Gamification’s thrust is that, like in the video games, people are competitive. They like to see where they stand compared to other players.

And here’s the thing that makes it work — people don’t have to be playing for anything other than to see their rank increase over people they otherwise might not even know. All the glory is in the game, and it works whether it’s an action game like Halo or a word game like SpellTower, a Boggle-like game of making words from connected letter tiles for which Napoli’s wife, Diana, is the number four player in the world. “She’s working to get to number three,” Napoli says. “But she’d never call herself a gamer.”

His wife’s quest is not an all-day obsession, Napoli says, but rather an evening and downtime pursuit for the pure entertainment of playing a game. But her urge to keep playing simply to become the third-best player in the world, despite that there will be no sneaker endorsements or press junkets, is the urge companies have realized they need to tap into.

Back in 1972, when Napoli was in high school in Queens, he wrote his first computer program on a computer processor donated to his school by Hewlett Packard. He fell in love with computer programming and went on to get a bachelor’s degree in the subject in 1978 from SUNY-Stony Brook, which at the time was one of the only places you could get such a degree.

“There were no computer programming careers,” Napoli says of the 1970s. So there was no foreshadowing about how video game playing by bored employees and wives looking to unwind with an hour or two of mindless entertainment would start rewriting how companies would engage those employees and lure those wives to be loyal customers.

And few people are immune. Napoli himself is a fan of Temple Run, an Indiana Jones-like adventure that he plays to unwind. Study after study, he says, shows that middle-aged adults, teenagers, and young adults all spend several hours a day (most days) playing some kind of reward-based game, for no other reason than fun. That factoid, he says, makes gaming too juicy a prospect for businesses to ignore.

Engage. Gamification has two arms for companies. One is internal, the other external. Internally, companies in many industries (like the customer service firm Napoli went to Nashville to visit) have major trouble recruiting, engaging, and retaining employees.

When employees feel like machine parts, they do not work well, Napoli says. So ObjectFrontier looks to build software that will engage employees by offering a more gamified work environment. In-game currency for workers, for example, could be accrued and applied to real-world benefits. Maybe enough points could be traded in for a paid day off, Napoli suggests. Maybe they can be cashed in for real money to a charitable organization.

The strategy is to construct a game-like environment that does not cost the company anything to operate, but increases employees’ desire to work and be engaged, and to cash in on rewards. Competition is not only about us versus them, after all. It’s also about doing better that you did the last time.

The danger here is making the rewards seem like kibble. There has been some criticism about gamification in the workplace, averring that reward-based games for employees are little more than a glorified treat for a dog that learns to roll over on cue. Napoli agrees that if done wrong, game environments will fail when people realize they’re not getting anything more than points that mean nothing.

Another criticism is that gamification software programs are simply higher-tech versions of analog customer loyalty programs, like the punch card for a free sandwich with every 10 hoagies you buy. Napoli agrees with this too, but doesn’t see it as a problem. Companies and game/software developers are simply using technology to speak the language of customers who use technology.

“We’re now dealing with millennials, who grew up on technology and instant gratification,” Napoli says. “They always want to know, ‘How am I doing? How am I doing?’” Metrics like scores, ranks, and points help them keep track of that.

The second arm of gamification is how to engage customers. Traditional versions of this are things like frequent flier miles and cash-back credit cards. Gamified versions of this concept are campaigns like the one Starbucks ran through FourSquare, in which customers could become the mayors of their local cafes. Whatever it is, Napoli says, customers must be rewarded for the work they do to help promote a company on social media sites and for their loyalty (i.e., for the money they give to a business).

Recalibrate. Like all aspects of business, games and game-like environments can’t stay static. “Winners and losers sort themselves out pretty quickly,” Napoli says. Some people take to the games naturally, others struggle, and the strugglers, he says, give up early because they see no reason to post their terrible performance results for everyone to see. “You have to keep modifying, you always have to keep recalculating the game.”

But who does the recalculating? The answer is the reason Napoli says small businesses like the one-man doughnut shop don’t engage in gamification software systems. “We’re not cheap,” Napoli says. Depending on what you want the software to be able to do, a program that must be designed, written, and implemented could cost you $50,000, or it could cost you $250,000.

At the higher end of that range is the kind of software that can be modified by the company that buys it, to recalibrate the game to keep it competitive and win back the people who were doing poorly. Think of it like a car engineering. If you want to build one car for a professional stock car driver, you’d get a team of specialists to build it to suit the driver’s body specifically. If you’re Ford Motor Company, Napoli says, you’d need more advanced teams to design cars that have movable seats, digital amenities, and so forth.

For small companies, Napoli recommends a more old-school version of gamification. If you’re a mom-and-pop cafe, the paper punch card is a good start. Or maybe a cross promotion with a supplier.

The point is, analog or digital, game theories are the new rules of engagement, Napoli says. Rewards, after all, pay big rewards.

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