A couple of years ago, when my kids first got old enough to handle chores, but were young enough to hate every moment of it (that much has not changed, by the way), my wife discovered a cool website called Chore Wars. The concept of it is pretty simple: you create a fantasy swords & sorcery character for yourself, and you gain experience points for that character by doing certain chores around the house. We set the chores and the XP. Picking up your laundry might be worth 10 XP. Cleaning the litter box might be worth 50 XP. And so on. When you got enough XP, you leveled up, and unlocked all kinds of rewards, such as a few bucks or a trip to the movies. The system worked really well, and my wife and I played along. It was effective because it was fun. We had turned our household drudge work into a game.
Gamification is one of the hottest trends in designing any kind of user experience these days because when you get right down to it, we all like playing games. There is a part of our monkey brains that just likes the sense of challenge, victory and reward built into a good game, and if we can impart those qualities to things we see as work, then our work becomes play and we work harder. Or at least, a little less resentfully. Or, we work on things we might not ordinarily work on.
One great example of this is from the French nautical outfitters, Guy Cotton, whose ad agency, CLM BBDO took on the task of getting people to be more responsible about wearing their life jackets when they went out boating. But how? You can wag your finger at people forever, but that isn’t really going to get the results you want. So CLM BBDO wrote what might be the most disturbing video game ever produced: Sortie en Mer. You can click the link and play it for yourself, but if you’d rather not (and I can understand why) the game is a video of you on a yacht, in which your knucklehead friend accidentally knocks you overboard and then can’t figure out how to double back and retrieve you. You must scroll your mouse upwards in real time, over and over, to keep your head above water. There is no winning here. Eventually, you will tire and you will drown, which is, of course, why it’s so important to wear a life jacket. Playing the game is an exercise in horror mixed with the certainty that maybe everybody else will drown in a few minutes but surely you will do better. You won’t. And that’s the point.
Another example of what you can accomplish with gamification is MMOWGLI, or Massive Multiplayer Online WarGame Leveraging the Internet. The U.S. Navy developed this as a kind of online wargame civilians could play, in which you take a side in the maritime battle against Somali pirates. The game is all about the logistics of shipping around the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, and the inevitable pirate attacks that will occur. Players can either take the side of the pirates or that of the Navy, and in so doing, embark on a highly detailed, highly advanced journey that really forces you to bring your A game. The point of it wasn’t to raise awareness; it was to give the Navy good ideas on how to fight the pirates, and how to think like a pirate. The Pentagon used similar methods to predict terrorist attacks after 9/11, and it proved highly effective, but the public wasn’t ready to gamify terror and so they had to shut it down.
Of course, none of this even touches the runaway success of America’s Army, a first-person shooter game not that different from many other realistic war games on the market these days, except that America’s Army was produced by the Army itself, and has been hailed as its most effective recruiting tool in recent years. They developed it for $6 million (a pittance in modern game development standards) and the website costs all of $4,000 to maintain yearly.
These kinds of games might seem strange, but the truth is, you can approach anything this way and get people to engage more fruitfully. This is true of life insurance, as well. Northwestern Mutual, for example, has a cool little game called the Longevity Game. It is essentially a dressed-up longevity calculator, but NWM manages to package it all in an attractive set of graphics so that, as you determine your longevity, you also build yourself as a fictional character. Where this works to Northwestern Mutual’s advantage is in the game’s result screen, which segues easily into a discussion about financial longevity without beating your over the head with it. Plenty of insurers are trying to get folks to realize that they need to plan better for long retirements. This one looks like it works pretty well. It got me to hit the link, at any rate. According to Northwestern Mutual, I’m going to live to 92. Beat that!
Another life insurer that has turned to gamification is Axa, which, in 2011, launched Pass It On!, a kind of 3D version of the board game LIFE, in which you move through all kinds of life decisions and are given the opportunity to do the right thing when it comes to buying protection for your family and saving for retirement. Axa sweetened the pot by making the game a kind of sweepstakes where the more you played, the more chances you had to win a hefty cash prize, as well as funnel votes to one of three charitable causes. The whole thing was a pretty substantial effort to get consumers excited about buying life insurance. It does not appear to be running any longer, but here’s a video of what it was all about.