The word “gamification” has gotten a lot of buzz lately, which hopefully means it will be in the running for Oxford Dictionary’s 2011 Word of the Year (hey in 2005 it was “podcast” so you never know). Word Spy defines gamification as “the use of game-related concepts in non-game websites and applications to encourage users to perform actions desired by the business.” While academics, experts and consultants around the world are showing businesses how to gamify their websites and introduce them to game mechanics, one of the unsung heroes of gamification is Google. For years, Google has been employing games concepts into some of its most public elements, such as logos, and its most hyped services, as is the case with Google+. Recently, Google introduced over 500 badges that can be earned for frequent readers of Google News, expanding the psychology of games into a service that seemed hard to gamify. Google’s services have had a profound influence on the Internet culture and odds are good that future applications will employ even more gaming elements.
Almost everyone at some point in their lives have played games, whether they are physical, board or computer games, but designing them to have broad appeal is not as easy as it sounds. Designers spend countless hours developing a game idea, working out rules and play testing it to death. The best games are built on tried and true mechanics, which are the very principles that are now seeping into a variety of nongaming activities in hopes to capitalize on the engaging experience, addictive quality, and/or repeatability that make games great entertainment. Gartner, the tech consulting firm that predicted that over half of organizations will be employing gamification as some level by 2015, succinctly identified the following four gamification goals as important to enterprises: rapid feedback, clear objectives/rules, compelling narratives, and challenging yet achievable tasks. And capturing these goals in a minimalistic fashion is one of the things that Google is increasingly folding into their services successfully.
Google’s logo on its search page has been used to celebrate holidays, honor the birthdays of cultural icons, and display the winner of their annual Doodle4Google competition, but recently, a number of interactive and playable logos have appeared. Artistic interpretations of the logo mixed with some gaming elements have been used to commemorate Jules Verne and the 160th anniversary of the World’s Fair. Probably the most famous Google logos were the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man when the logo was turned into a playable version of the game and the innovative strummable guitar logo honoring Les Paul. One blog estimated that users spent 4.8 million hours playing the Pac-Man logo and 5.4 million hours toying with Google’ virtual guitar. The transformation of the Google logo generates a lot of traffic to its search page and successfully gamifies its logo by subtlety retaining its most prized possession: its brand.
Another of Google’s gamifying efforts can be found within its Image Search tool. In use since 2006, the feature is called Google Image Labeler and the rules are simple. You are paired with another online user and get two minutes to assign labels to images. When one of your terms matches your partner, you receive points based on how descriptive the label is and move on to the next image. There is even a daily and all-time leaderboard, which are classic ways to gamify. Not only can it be fun to come up with as many terms as possible to describe the image, all of your work helps Google assign the most relevant labels to the image, which only improves its search routines. In this way, Google uses gamification to improve its service as users are just having fun.
In a sea of media blitz, Google+ was opened on June 30, 2011 for limited release primarily among those in the tech industry and has been met with much greater success than its previous effort to create a social network with Buzz. One of the most prominent of Google+ features is the interactive social circles that can be easily named and allow the user to drag-and-drop friends into them. As simple as circles are, the interface is amazingly effective at making it engaging to create social groups quickly. Just as some Facebook users view their friends list as a leaderboard, Google+ circles work both ways, in that users can “collect” friends as well as keep track of how many times they’ve been added to others’ circles. Another feature that makes Google+ powerful is its “+1” tool that shows up next to links in searches and allows users to like a story. Not only does this build buzz around a particular page, story, or post on the web, it also helps Google ensure that its search functions are producing relevant links. Google+ has reportedly attracted 25 million users in its first month, but it’s clear that gamifying its social network application has only helped to encourage its use and make it the new virtual place to be.
Finally, Google has recently unveiled its newest gamified service: badges in Google News. Over 500 badges have been introduced covering the whole spectrum of news topics. By reading a few articles every day within a certain category, users can level up their badges in five tiers: bronze, silver, gold, platinum, and ultimate. Users can also show off their badges to friends as well. Overall, badges seem like they will appeal to users who are news lovers and have friends who are too.
But the badges have also received criticism as an example of the wrong way to gamify for being meaningless and encouraging game play over the purpose of Google News, which is presumably to learn something. Another issue is that badges require enabled web history and there’s no way to select which badges are publically displayed if you chose to share. Both of these have privacy issues associated with them, as it might be embarrassing for some not only to receive gossip badges but also for others to know exactly how many gossip news articles you read in a day.
Google is notorious for trying out new things and dropping them when they don’t pan out (although the phasing out of their Labs is discouraging). At the same time, this kind of experimentation with game elements makes Google who they are. Even something as minor as an Easter Egg in YouTube videos that allows you to play the classic game of Snake speaks volumes about how they are looking at ways to keep users’ web experience fresh. But most importantly, gamification isn’t a science regardless of all the hype. We only need to look at a game like Monopoly to see that it is far from the perfect game, and yet 275 million copies have been sold worldwide, so something about its combination of mechanics and aesthetics is difficult to replicate but continues to bring players back for more.
As Google continues to gamify its services, there will be hits and misses, but innovation is in its DNA. In fact, they are participating in gamification research, so who knows? Maybe they’ll gamify Google Maps into something like Shadow Cities.