Eyes on the Prize

Life can at times seem little more than a pastiche of mundane moments, stitched together and mostly forgotten. Many people spice things up by making a game of their daily tasks, whether it’s eating out at a restaurant, taking a shower or walking to the corner store. The combination of digital tracking technology that collects huge amounts of data with social media platforms for broadcasting minutiae has spawned a cottage industry of applications that promise a dizzying array of options for tracking and comparing daily activities. These applications, if widely adopted, could hold the key for marketers looking for new ways to  influence consumer behavior.

This new wave of game-like services is driven by what Harvard University social networking expert Nicholas Christakis calls the defining paradigm of the digital age: “massive, passive data collection.” Simply put, with technology invading all parts of our lives, we’re leaving digital footprints of our activities. Combine that data trail with an increasingly robust social graph and what results is the ability to visualize behavior patterns — eating, sleeping, walking and driving — and make a competitive game out of them.

“They let you stand out in a community where everyone looks the same,” says BBDO director of digital strategy Chad Stoller.

The use of game mechanics to influence customer behavior is not entirely new online or offline. Airline and hotel reward programs have an element of competition about them, for instance. The Web has long leaned on gaming precepts, too. EBay auctions feed competitive instincts. Facebook and social media have made a game of accumulating friends and followers, with social status attached to those with large numbers of connections.

New applications are melding this into real life. James Park and Eric Friedman saw how Nintendo Wii used digital gaming to make people more active and wanted to parlay that in the real world. Thus, Fitbit was born, a sensor they created that attaches to the waistband and tracks everyday tasks like walking and sleeping. Users get self-competitive just by seeing their activity levels, Park says, and the most popular part of the service is competitions. Overall, the company has found that users who stick with Fitbit for 12 weeks see their activity levels increase 50 percent.

“People have a desire to be more healthy and more active,” says Park. “The irony is that in pursuit of that people are very lazy. The passive data collection is the critical aspect to helping people meet their goals.”

The competitiveness of such services taps into one of the most basic forms of human motivation, says Razorfish strategist Robert McCutcheon. It’s also one with deep appeal to brands since it can lead to behavior that defies rational decision making, like the choice of buying a higher priced item based on mysterious brand attributes. Take the experiment run by Harvard Business School professor Max Bazerman. Over the past decade, Bazerman has auctioned off a $20 bill to students as part of a class he teaches. Using strict logic, nobody would bid over $20, but the auctions have reached over $400 as participants get caught in the game of trying to come out on top. Bazerman has made $17,000 via the auctions. “There are so many ways to use this to drive behavior,” McCutcheon says. “We’re hard wired to do that.”

Some Web services are testing the limits of this. Foursquare has quickly built a user base of 1.8 million through its effort to make our daily routines a game, awarding points for going new places and badges for achievements. Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley has said these gaming features can help program behavior.

For instance, Foursquare boasts that users have gone to the gym more since it introduced a gym rat badge. A similar dynamic took place when it began rewarding commuters using the BART system in San Francisco.

Brands, like Nike+, are already tapping into the life-as-a-game trend. The site began as a way for people to track their running behavior. Nike soon found the most popular feature of the site was challenges, where people could use the data collected to make their training a game. Nike subsequently introduced more game-like features, like having users compete to achieve accomplishment levels.

Volkswagen used game mechanics in its lauded “Fun Theory” campaign in Sweden, which encouraged people to take stairs by turning them into a keyboard and transformed a recycling bin into an arcade game with points awarded for tossing bottles in the right slot.

Bunchball, a California startup, has worked with brands like HP, Right Guard and Warner Bros. to apply game mechanics to marketing campaigns with the goal of driving engagement with ad messages through reward systems.

“Engagement and participation online are the key things everyone wants to drive,” says Rajat Paharia, Bunchball’s CEO. “Getting people to participate is the hard part. These game mechanics can do that.”

The danger of the moves to “life as a video game” is “game mechanics for game mechanics’ sake,” says Paharia. There has to be more to a service than just points and badges. Ford and other marketers know that. The automaker is building digital tracking into its cars to monitor and reward safe driving. Virgin HealthMiles tracks activity in a pay-for-prevention approach to holding down healthcare costs. Design company Priestmangoode wants to encourage water conservation with the Water Pebble, a gadget that monitors shower length and makes a game of trying to shorten them.  And Hope Lab has an application called gDitty that rewards adolescents for physical activity with points redeemable for virtual goods.

“You get feedback loops you couldn’t before,” says Paharia. “You can now change things and get results.”