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The Tech Industry's Tea Party

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With the midterm elections now over, most of us are relieved to be free of the tea party media frenzy - if not the organization itself. Unfortunately, the technology industry is increasingly the setting for a similar conflict. And although they lack a name and formal organization, these provocateurs are equally unafraid to shout, intimidate and use hyperbole to get their point across.

Perhaps surprisingly, these tea partiers are game designers and their target isn't a black President and changing society, but a growing trend in design and marketing called gamification.

In short, gamification is the use of game thinking and game dynamics to solve problems and engage users. To understand some of the basics, you can watch my Google Tech Talk or read my book. Companies as diverse as Foursquare, Zynga, DevHub, eBay, Linkedin, United Airlines and the US Army have used gamification successfully to shape user behavior and achieve extraordinary engagement and viral growth.

So why do game designers hate gamification so much that they'll resort to Wikipedia bombing to remove the subject, repeatedly scream obscenities on Twitter and plaster Facebook, Tumblr and Wordpress with tirades about how this movement "takes the thing that is least essential to games and represents it as the core of the experience"?

In short, fear.

Game design is a relatively new discipline that has no official body, union or certification process. Its practitioners, like many tech professionals, have developed their skills mostly on the job. The best game designers bring together psychology, sociology and a sense of playfulness with a creative spark to create games. In other words, the process has been shrouded in mystery; the best work made by a privileged few who managed to get into the club while the getting was good.

But in the past 10 years, gaming has undergone massive upheaval. From single-player games on consoles and PCs, the industry has spawned three multi-billion-dollar verticals so far: casual games, mobile games and social games. And each time, the establishment of game design expressed horror, disgust and fear.

I recall a dinner at a major gaming conference in 2009 where, during the VIP event, one famous game designer after another bemoaned that Farmville wasn't really a game, and that social games were BS. Despite nearly 100 million players, and a billion dollars in revenue for its creator (Zynga), many in the old guard continue to agree with that sentiment and hope that social games will simply go away.

But while the industry's elite pat themselves on the back with snarky posts about how crappy social games are, spend their time and money building satirical games, or screaming obscenely that gamification is ruining the world, they miss the point: Gamification is the culmination of 35 years of video games' influence on society. It is only because of the tremendous power of Capital-G-Games that little-g-gamification can even exist. And, that gamification's most noted practitioners, including myself, Amy Jo Kim and the dozens of people on the Gamification List, continually advocate for a world that is thoughtfully made more fun through the development of a player journey - not just the addition of a banal "game layer."

Moreover, gamification promises to be one of the biggest economic trends of all time. From health care to finance, and from marketing to government, the use of game dynamics in non-game contexts will transform how we interact, self-express and consume - for the better. I believe that by 2015 every company will have a Chief Engagement Officer, and gamification/playful experience design will ascend to a trusted and established profession the world over.

In short, we're talking about tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in value created. All from a small idea: that everything can, and should be more fun.

So while Jesse Schell reaps the rewards of his DICE talk on one hand while writing morbidly about the "Gamepocalypse" on the other, Margaret Robertson delivers a patently rationalizing diatribe against the language of gamification, and Chris Hecker tells Sony to "Fuck Gamification" on Twitter, I don't see genuine arguments against the movement or its power to change the world. All I hear are the angry ramblings of some scared old, white people who suddenly woke up and found out they no longer run the country.

Make no mistake; we'd love to have these brilliant minds over on our side of the fence. I speak to dozens of startups and major brands each week through my work on the Gamification Summit and in researching my next two books. Most of them would kill to have these luminaries work on their pressing problems. We're not just talking about making banking and travel more engaging (important in their own right), but serious opportunities exist to help lift poor kids out of poverty, get overweight Americans in shape, and teach people how to interact in constructive, non-bullying ways.

These are all things that Gamification can offer the world. It's a vision of a future in which software allows people to be expressive, emotional and social in all aspects of their lives - not just within the narrow confines of a "game." Why shouldn't people have fun doing their taxes or laundry? Why do these people think we shouldn't, or can't, make everything more engaging?

Just as I am with the tea party, I'm dumbfounded by my peers' intransigence. So to them I can only say, Yes We Will.

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