SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Gaming as a customer engagement tool has been around since the invention of dice and playing cards. But Oliver Schlake, a clinical professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, says people who put Pong and its modern successors in the same leisure category underestimate the power of digital interaction to motivate behavior and drive business results.
On the surface, video and traditional gaming seem like variations of the same thing. They both promise players the thrill of participating in a story while it unfolds and influencing the plot. They also share the same appeal of solving a puzzle, taking a risk or conquering an opponent.
Primal human instincts drive all of these activities, but Schlake says digital gaming goes even deeper — amplifying the experience with at least five layers of engagement not previously possible.
Automation: Most video games do not require a human counterpart. For the first time in history, participants do not need to find an opponent for interactive play that goes beyond solitaire and other single-player pastimes. “You don’t have to ask for permission,” Schlake says. “You don’t have to ask somebody for their time. You get this immediate feedback, and it is non-tiring. The game never says, ‘I don’t want to play anymore with you.’”
Equity: Machines do not judge their opponents or form bad opinions of them. They do not care how someone performed yesterday. “They treat all comers the same,” Schlake says. “They never say: ‘I do not want to play with you anymore.’”
Standardization: Machines always perform at the same skill level within each phase of a game, which creates consistency that human opponents cannot match. This allows new opportunities for training because players can repeat the same tasks without variation until they achieve mastery. “Standardization also creates universal accomplishment,” Schlake says. “A player’s status is defined by the final score regardless of where or when the contest occurs.”
Integrity: Cheating often taints traditional gaming experiences. When all that matters is the final score, some players cut corners to rig the results. Legitimate video games never cheat their opponents, and the best applications include safeguards that constrain human players within the rules. “This infuses the virtual arena with integrity and removes suspicion from top performers,” Schlake says.
Anonymity: Every day is Halloween in a virtual world. At least initially, players can invent alternate identities and engage in communities that normally would shun them due to age, gender or other social norms. “One effect is a feeling of safety when exploring new brands or experiences outside one’s comfort zone,” Schlake says.
Companies that understand these principles and incorporate them early in strategic planning can achieve deep connections with internal and external customers in ways not previously possible. “As gaming goes mainstream, companies are moving away from early gimmicks such as collecting tokens and achievement badges toward more serious business strategies,” Schlake says. “They are revamping the way they interact with the target audience.”
Business solutions can start with real-world gameplay that later expands online, such as McDonald’s Monopoly. Solutions can start digitally and move the other direction, such as the Angry Birds franchise. Or solutions can provide a hybrid experience that allows players to interact online and in person.
One example of hybrid innovation is Airbnb, the vacation rental brokerage that connects residential property owners with travelers who want something different than a typical hotel experience. Although not technically a game, Airbnb applies gaming principles to engage participants in a storyline that starts online and culminates in real-world adventure.
“They came into an industry that was so stuffy,” Schlake says. “They completely identified a group of people willing to live in somebody’s house and get a better travel experience at a lower price.”
Possibilities for other business applications remain infinite. Schlake says the key is to motivate people from the inside out — tapping into their psychological needs in ways aligned with company goals. “There is nothing more powerful than to have people intrinsically motivated to do something without asking for rewards,” he says. “They are just happy doing whatever they are doing.”