It's not your kid's video game.
That was the message from a panel at the O'Reilly Web 2.0 Expo here, which touted the advantages of companies using game challenges, leader boards, competitions, points and rewards to keep their online users of any age engaged with whatever product or service they are maneuvering to sell.
"Game designing may be the most powerful force on the planet," noted Gabe Zichermann CEO of ChroniQL, maker of the Rmbr online application that merges gaming with photo sharing. "It is the only force that - without the threat of violence - can make people do irrational things on a regular basis."
He went on to note that much of social networking site Facebook's success comes from its functioning as "the ultimate trophy room" where users can one-up other members based on the number of friends they have or how many games they have won.
"We are all engaged in a long-term status battle -- for the biggest house, the prettiest wife [or] the kid on the honor roll," Zichermann added. "In the socially networked world, it is now socially acceptable to show my trophies to everyone. Every time I earn one, my friends get a status notice."
To make any application fun, companies need to consider adding challenges, leader boards and points, he added, because once those fundamental features are added, "people start changing their behavior."
Rajat Paharia, CEO of Bunchball which helps companies drive online user engagement by using game mechanics like giving points or rewards for getting friends to register or for adding content like a forum post, agreed that gaming tactics tap into the fundamental human need for accomplishment.
For example, Bunchball has a demo application on Facebook that provides display icons for people as a reward for playing games. The biggest request from users of that application is for more types of trophy icons, he added.
"You always want to tie whatever people earn - the badges, virtual items or currency - back into the actual site," he noted.
For example, Bunchball helped work with NBC to build a contest associated with its series The Office that allows users to join their own branch office and earn virtual currency by uploading photos or videos. "You're getting incentivized; they are paying people fake money to do real work," he noted. "It gets people really engaged in the site and feeling like they are a part of the Office experience."
Chris Chapman, senior software architect at Areae, which is working on new technology to help design virtual worlds, noted that getting users more engaged with a site increases cognitive recognition of a brand in a way that a viewer passively watching a television commercial can't do.
"This is a very active experience," he said. "You have people engaged. They are dealing with the brand. It reinforces the brand ?that advertisers should just be going crazy about."
Zichermann noted that infusing a site with such features, traditionally relegated to young males playing massively multiplayer online games, eliminates many of the distinctions between gamers and non-gamers. Panel audience members from a K-12 school district and a large health insurance company, each asking for advice on adding game mechanics to their online efforts, confirmed that belief.
"The nature of a game is broader than World of Warcraft," Zichermann added. "The reality is that play is an intrinsic human behavior just like sex, food and sleep."
For companies interested in adding video game mechanics to their sites, a first step can be to provide users the option of building rich user profiles that can be joined together to boost idea sharing, the panel noted. In addition, games must be easy, playable with one hand and allow users to jump in and out of them at any time, panelists said.
"A really well-designed game gives you rewards -- for games that make you feel like you're winning along the way," Zichermann advised. "We try to give you a lot of positive reinforcement."
Other advice for adding games to an online site or application included: