What's in a game? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
You might have encountered it already in certain Facebook apps, when using Foursquare or on any number of progressive websites.
Foursquare is a great example. Whoever has checked in the most times at a given location becomes the "Mayor" of that location.
While the idea on Foursquare's part is to drive more use of the platform, businesses have latched on to the idea, offering deals and promotions to frequent visitors. That's a very basic example, and the tip of a far larger and more interesting iceberg.
It's called "Gamification," a concept in which aspects of games – scores, rewards, etc. are applied to something other than a game – actions you take on a website, for example. It's starting to gain serious traction – so much so that educational institutions like the University of Pennsylvania are offering courses on Gamification and its applications.
Companies like Nike have taken the concept to the next level with Nike+, an app that uses the GPS and accelerometer capabilities of modern phones to track the user's running progress and that of friends, allowing them to compete for rewards.
Nike+ also offers its users milestones – earn NikeFuel by running or walking, for example, and its system will award badges and trophies that can be shared and seen by other users.
For Nike, as a business, this means that their customers are being actively incentivized to continue to purchase Nike products, which brings in direct revenue, and to utilize Nike apps and websites, constantly exposing them to Nike's marketing messages.
But the process can be even simpler.
Users can be directed to different areas of a website on "Easter egg hunts" to make them more aware of products, features or marketing messages.
They can be rewarded for frequent visits, or for taking actions that generate value or content.
Achieving goals is one of the reasons people enjoy playing games. By applying those concepts to everyday tasks, it's possible to simultaneously improve a user's experience and to subtly "push" them towards desired actions or tasks.
People also enjoy competition. An otherwise mundane action like posting a message is subtly changed when people are ranked or rated for the number of comments posted, or the highest rated post, and there are rewards or status messages involved.
Nick DeLorenzo is director of interactive and new media for The Times Leader. Email him at email@example.com.