At the Incentive Research Foundation meeting in May in San Antonio, the star of the show was Michael Wu, Ph.D, principal scientist of analytics at Lithium Technologies, a guru in the gamification world. He was the first person I’d ever heard speak on gamification who connected the topic with applications in the incentive industry.

By 2015, according to the Gartner Group, gamification—“the use of game attributes to drive game-like behavior in an ungame context,” as Wu defined it—will grow to $1.6 billion, from $100 million in 2011. More than 50 percent of corporations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes. The IRF is planning research on the topic later this year.

But many people don’t fully understand what it is. Most still think that gamification is building a game on top of an existing process, like an incentive contest for employees or customers. That’s not it at all.

Actually, many of us are already using gamification in our jobs, just not in the Farmville sense. During Wu’s presentation, I was sitting with Mark Hubrich of SignUp4, who had started a discussion group where customers could ask questions and answer each other’s questions. Those who are consistently involved in the community and provide accurate replies to support questions are designated “Champions” and get a special badge icon (and other surprises, he says).
Hubrich says perks and surprises help encourage and grow the community. Creating an “achievement” system is a part of that. “Customer satisfaction nowadays almost requires this; clients want to see the value of spending time in a community or using a product.” He’s amazed at how engaged his customers are, and that they would spend their own time over a weekend to help out others in the community.

That’s the heart of gamification—the proactive engagement it creates. Every day, people are presented with tasks that they don’t want to do. By making them more fun, they will not only jump in, but they will be more engaged and will continue. For example, for a 100-day wellness incentive at New Jersey’s Chilton Hospital, 366 participants used an online game platform to track a total weight loss of 1,230 pounds, an additional 8,918 servings of fruit and vegetables eaten, and 1,274 extra days of exercise. They also used the platform to share results and cheer each other on—it became a social experience.

The implications are huge for wellness programs like this, but also for sales incentives, customer incentives, and more. And companies such as Badgeville and Bunchball have created turnkey technologies so companies don’t have to start from scratch.

People spend 200 million minutes a day playing Angry Birds. Sure, many of those are still in their single digit years (like my 9-year-old son), but it’s time for the incentive world to put some skin in the game!