One of the hottest trends online these days is gamification. But, what exactly, does that mean? We asked the G-Man himself, Gabe Zichermann, founder of the upcoming and first ever Gamification Summit, to give us the run-down.

What is gamification?

Gamification is all about making an activity more fun and engaging. By adding game mechanics to a website or marketing campaign consumers become more invested in a service or product and keep them coming back again and again. Examples of common game mechanics include points, badges, levels, challenges and rewards.

Can you give us some examples of web sites and apps that offer a good gamification experience that we may be familiar with?

One of the most accessible examples would be Foursquare. It’s pretty straight forward: you check-in, you get badges. You check-in the most, you become the “mayor” of that location. Before Foursquare’s system, there were many location-based networks, but they largely failed due to the “empty bar problem” (no one wants to be the first person in a bar). Foursquare overcame this issue using gamification.

Companies like Zynga and Playfish have been wildly successful at incorporating games into social media interaction. In Farmville or Pet Society, you can better advance in the game if you get your friends to play too. You can get points & coins when your friends sign up, complete tasks with their help and post your accomplishments on your Facebook wall which in turn gets more participation creating an endless loop of cooperative play.

Apps like EpicWin create a solo play scenario where the player creates a personalized RPG based on his or her real life to-do list. You unlock achievements by accomplishing tasks that would otherwise be boring chores.

What are real world (non-web) examples of gamification?

Frequent flier programs are great examples of real world gamification. The more you use their service, the more you gain points and higher ranking levels of status that give you access to better service, more options and special deals. We all know air travel has become a huge hassle, but for the most valuable players (the very frequent flier), it is nothing but fun.

Another classic case is McDonald’s annual Monopoly game, where you collect game cards to get a chance to win prizes and free food. The more you eat at McDonald’s the more you’re able to play and increase your odds of winning. There’s very little to celebrate about McDonald’s these days, but Monopoly makes interacting with the chain more fun than it otherwise would be.

You have said we can use elements of gamification to solve real world problems. Can you share with us how gamification can be used to improve such problems as health care, education, or paying off our huge national deficit?

Gamification has been used to improve education for sometime now. Schools are integrating more gamified learning structures while some specialty schools have an entire curriculum centered around it. Designers as well as psychologists are finally looking into what makes a successful educational video game and are finally getting the desired results. And isn’t the school system of grades and honor rolls already kind of a game?

In the healthcare field, it seems obvious that only games wil be able to cure us of what ails (obesity, chronic illnesses). Companies like Fitbit and HealthMonth are making a concerted effort to help us do more and live better through games. Of course, Wii Fit and Brain Age are two other examples of this concept brought to life.

With so much industry buzz around gamification and companies such as Badgeville, Bunchball, and Big Door offering gamification as a service so that anyone can gamify their web site, is there danger of a gamification backlash?

There has been quite a lot of backlash about gamification already. Many game designers feel it’s not “real” gaming and many people outside of the industry don’t understand what it’s about and see it merely as a distraction from real life. In truth, it’s a way to make real life even more engaging and pull you back into it. The way we interact with the world is changing. Kids today are born into games in a way unlike any generation before. If they’re not being engaged, they’re bored. We’re dealing with a group of highly intelligent young people with high expectations, and increased need for stimulation and short attention spans. If businesses want to be able to tap into the new youth market, the way they do business has to change. What worked on consumers 20, 10, even 5 years ago doesn’t work anymore.

Just because you can turn anything into a game, doesn’t mean it will be fun. What insights can you give us on what to do and what not to do when you gamify an experience?

The most important thing is making a distinction from shallow gamification to a deeper one that appreciates and respects its audience and plays to them, not down to them. You can’t just slap badges on a system and call it a game. You have to take your player on a journey and it needs to be a journey that they’ll want to be a part of in the first place.

The biggest mistake people make is assuming the game is all about rewards and prizes. Really this is a lesser form of behavioral encouragement. It works much better to use the SAPS system:

  • Status
  • Access
  • Power
  • Stuff

The heart of your game should be reach a higher-class tier and as a result getting more exclusivity in options, services and places available to your top players. Of course, people do like to get stuff, but status is a much better motivator over the long term.

What’s the word on the Gamification Summit? Who are the key speakers and who should attend?

The Gamification Summit (Jan 20-21 in San Francisco) is blowing up- it’s going to be amazing. I will be giving a keynote presentation as will the amazing Jane McGonigal, designer extraordinaire and author of the new book, Reality Is Broken (she’ll be reading from it for the first time). We also have exciting speakers from Google, Microsoft, Playboy, NBC/Universal, Zynga and ng:moco, just to name a few. I can’t list them all here, but the full speaker list is available here.

When you are not talking about gamification, you are cooking fanciful feasts. What is the last great dish you cooked? Care to share a picture on Gamezebo?

Here is a picture of the herb-encrusted rack of pork I cooked just last week. Bon appetit!