FOR the last few weeks, Kenneth Brown has reigned over Samsung Nation, an online loyalty program that offers virtual rewards to consumers who talk up Samsung, the electronics giant.
In the three months since the program was introduced, Mr. Brown, owner ofAtlantic Detail Service, a steel detailing business in Athol, Mass., has racked up more than 4.5 million points, often placing him atop the site’s leader board.
Along the way, he has earned a virtual “Twitterati” badge — a turquoise circle — for posting dozens of links to
Samsung.com on his Twitter account. He’s nabbed a virtual “Connoisseur” award for his frequent comments on the Samsung site. And, while newcomers who register for the program might attain mere “Novice” status, Mr. Brown has joined the ranks of the elite “Cognoscenti” by answering many questions from site users.
If Samsung Nation sounds a little like the social network game FarmVille, minus the farm, it’s no accident.
Samsung is embracing a business trend called gamification, which takes elements from games and applies them to other settings. Companies like Recyclebank, for example, use game incentives, like points and rewards, to prompt consumers to perform eco-friendly activities. Other businesses offer awards like virtual badges to induce their employees to embrace corporate goals and increase productivity. Meanwhile, a number of well-known retailers and brands, including Samsung and Warner Brothers, are employing point reward systems as a way to engage customers more deeply.
“Visitors who sign in and become active on Samsung Nation tend to explore our Web site much more, learning about our company, our products, and our content,” says Esteban Contreras, the social media marketing manager for Samsung Electronics America.
Of course, such systems may not always cause their intended ripple effect across social media. Mr. Brown, for example, says he joined Samsung Nation and started accumulating badges just to enter a contest on the site to win a television. He set up a Twitter account, Ken62465, dedicated to posting his Samsung links, to obtain more points.
“It’s a game,” Mr. Brown says. “You have to tweet so many times to earn the Twitter badges.”
Earlier this week, his Twitter account had just five followers.
For companies, the premise of gamification is that it engages people in the kind of reward-seeking behaviors that lead to increased brand loyalty, not to mention increased profits. By tracking the online activities of people who sign up for such programs, companies can also amass more detailed metrics about each user — the better to identify the most active customers.
“People use gamification to measure and influence user behavior to meet their business goals,” says Kris Duggan, the chief executive of Badgeville, which designs game-based programs for companies, including Samsung.
Game techniques, Mr. Duggan says, prompt consumers to spend more time on company Web sites, contribute more content and share more product information with Facebook and Twitter adherents. One of his clients, he says, uses a gamification program to collect information about 300 actions — like posting comments or sharing with a social network — performed by several million people.
But critics say the risk of gamification is that it omits the deepest elements of games — like skill, mastery and risk-taking — even as it promotes the most superficial trappings, like points, in an effort to manipulate people.
Ian Bogost, a professor of digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, refers to the programs as “exploitationware.” Consumers might be less eager to sign up, he argues, if they understood that some programs have less in common with real games than with, say, spyware.
“Why not call it a new kind of analytics?” says Professor Bogost, a founding partner at Persuasive Games, a firm that designs video games for education and activism. “Companies could say, ‘Well, we are offering you a new program in which we watch your every move and make decisions about our advertising based on the things we see you do.’ ”
Gamification may not sound novel to members of frequent-flier or hotel loyalty programs who have strategized for years about ways to game extra points. But those kinds of membership programs offer concrete rewards like upgrades, free flights or free hotel stays. What’s new about gamification is its goal of motivating people with virtual awards, like a mayoralty on FourSquare, that have little or no monetary value.
“It’s deepening the engagement and exposure to the brand through something that has intangible value,” says Emily Murphy, a researcher at Forrester Research where she was a co-author of a recent report on gamification.
Businesses are using similar techniques to motivate their own employees, says David Stein, a co-chief executive of Rypple, which designs software to manage employee performance. Companies that use its products first devise virtual awards for their employees — like peer badges for the best team player or a special badge given out monthly by the C.E.O. Then they institute a companywide social network where employees create profiles showing their goals and achievements. An accompanying digital newsfeed posts a notice whenever someone earns a merit.
The system is transparent, Mr. Stein says, so anyone within a company can easily see which employee garnered the most kudos, regardless of seniority or job title. Moreover, he says, gamification creates a positive feedback loop in which employees feel recognized for their work, leading to increased productivity.
“At many companies, you already have gamification, or corporate politics, where people who have the loudest voice are able to project the best view of themselves and get promoted quickly — not based on their skills, but on their political savvy,” he says. By introducing actual game elements, “you are equalizing achievement regardless of station.”
But Professor Bogost cautions that virtual brownie points have the potential to exploit people without offering them much in return.
“We used to provide incentives to employees by means of compensation and benefits,” like raises and pensions, he says. “This seems to be a move to use these no-cost incentives.”
AS a variety of companies and professions rush to promote points and badges, there is also a risk of oversaturation, says Margaret Robertson, the development director at Hide & Seek, a game design studio.
“There is probably a backlash coming,” Ms. Robertson says. Pretty soon, she predicts, companies may differentiate themselves with anti-gamification promotions like “No points. No annoying missions. Just clean services.”