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What's Gamification, and How Can It Make You Happier in Life and Work?

Like most desk-bound workers, Steve spent a lot of time in front of a computer and barely made any effort to go to the gym. And, like most other engineers at his online marketing company, he loved to drink Mountain Dew and eat candy bars.

During a company status meeting one day, Steve was conducting a presentation in front of his co-workers when he started to feel sick. Right in the middle of his speech, he fainted and had to be whisked away to the emergency room for treatment.

Oddly enough, of all the places where he could get help, Steve would find it at his job. NextJump happened to be a company with a secret weapon in its arsenal—gamification—that would eventually change his life.

The idea behind gamification is taking any activity you might ordinarily consider boring—such as filling out a survey, running or visiting a website—and turning it into something more enjoyable by adding game-like features (leaderboards, achievements or mini-games, for instance). These game-design techniques and mechanics aim to solve a wide range of problems and engage audiences. And that includes unhealthy employees.

Gamification can spice up nearly any task, with real and tangible benefits. In fact, research firm Gartner claims that by 2015 half of all the innovations in the world’s largest companies will be gamified, and 70 percent of the companies will be using some sort of gamified application.

Points (and Dollars) for Pounds

NextJump’s CEO Charlie Kim had seen numerous studies showing that people who exercised regularly and ate healthy also tended to have more energy and perform better in their jobs. So he decided to build gyms at the company’s office. Initially, though, only about 10 to 15 percent of NextJump employees worked out.

Realizing he’d have to get more creative, Kim devised a system where funds were set aside to serve as a reward for employees who worked out the most. Kim broke the company down into five teams, and the team that collectively worked out the most would win the pot and split it among the group. As a result, workouts increased.

Then Kim took the concept even further. He created a leaderboard with live updates that ranked teams from those who worked out most often to those who worked out the least. Then he had a team of engineers build an app that kept track of the number of times employees checked into the gym each week. When you selected a team on the leaderboard, you could see each individual member of that team and how many times they went to the gym that week.

The app indicated if you had already fulfilled your goal of going to the gym twice a week, displayed a yellow status (of “almost there”) if you’d checked in just once and showed a big red X next to your name if you hadn’t gone at all.

Using these two game mechanics of team play and leaderboards, Kim got much better results. Today, an average 85 percent of NextJump employees work out more than three times a week.

Making Work Fun

So what about Steve? Since he started taking advantage of NextJump’s free gym services, he’s increased his weight from a scrawny 160 pounds to 170, and he’s healthier than he’s been in his entire life. Steve’s parents have sent Kim numerous notes to thank him, telling him how Steve has changed completely as an individual.

“It’s tricky with engineers who are so used to a particular lifestyle,” said Kim. “But when suddenly everyone starts working as a team, everyone’s incentivized—they’re motivated, and you don’t even need to figure out how to get people to go to the gym.”

Gabe Zichermann, chair of the Gamification Summit and author of “Gamification by Design and Game-Based Marketing,” said a key aspect of gamification is to make our interactions with people more fun. “Most of our interactions, especially in the workplace, are pretty boring,” Zichermann said. “We don’t have a lot of fun, and gamified systems can often bring a little bit of fun to things which are fundamentally work.”

Gamification Apps

According to Zichermann, gamification can take two different forms: apps that make use of real-life concepts and integrate them deeply into the way they’re played, and apps that borrow concepts from games to create user engagement without making them into what we normally think of as explicit games. A pair of apps that illustrate this distinction are MyTown and Foursquare, both location-based social networking services.

With MyTown, gameplay is similar to “Monopoly,” but it’s out in the real world: There are buying-and-selling aspects of your favorite real-life places, rent collection and upgrading your property to increase its market value. Foursquare utilizes the same premise—checking into places you like—but instead uses mileposts within the game to signify success. Badges, challenges and leaderboards hook the user and give them a clear goal to aim for next.

Foldit is an intriguing example of how a gamified application can make legitimate strides to advance a field of knowledge—in this case, science. The app managed to help the scientific community by crowdsourcing free labor from tens of thousands of volunteers. It’s an online puzzle game that enables users to compete against each other to fold the structure of certain proteins. Since proteins make up part of the composition of many diseases, figuring out how they fold is valuable information that can also be part of the cure.

Playing the game, 46,000 users were able to predict the structure of a protein called retroviral protease, an enzyme that plays a critical role in the way HIV multiplies. Researchers hadn’t been able to decode the protein in more than a decade.

Through other apps, gamification has also remade the concept of giving feedback to individuals. Two apps in this category stand out in particular: DueProps and Rypple. Both apps were designed with the purpose of improving workplace communication. The apps allow the exchange of real-time feedback between employee and employee, employee and superior or superior and subordinate. You can even use your mobile device to give a person virtual items to thank them for a job well done. Moreover, they’re being widely employed at well-known companies such as Facebook, changing the way people are motivated at work.

Virtual Motivation

We asked NextJump’s Kim how he managed to change his workers’ outlook on healthy exercise.

“Actually, it’s interesting,” Kim answered. “I never used the word ‘gamification.’ I used the word ‘motivation.’ If you stop and think about the best motivators in the world—they’re usually the top leaders in an organization—and if you look at what they do to motivate, there’s most likely a gamification element in there.”