Interview by Daniel Kalder
A native of Toronto, 37 year old New York based Gabe Zichermann is the co-author of Game Based Marketing (Wiley, 2010) and of Gamification by Design (O’Reilly, 2011) which provide in depth looks at “gamification” — how techniques of the game can be applied to books, films and other products, or as Zichermann puts it: “the application of the best lessons of games, outside of games.”
“I started playing video games when I was 13 years old,’ says Zichermann. “And while I was at university, I played 8,000 hours of a game called Civilization. You could say that for one year of university, my main activity was playing Civilization.”
By the late ’90s Zichermann had transformed his passion for games into a successful career. “After working for Gamasutra and Games Developer magazine I left to form Trymedia, the first successful digital distributor for games. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the late 1990s it was not possible to legally download games; we made it possible.”
In 2005 Zichermann sold Trymedia to Macrovision, and it was then that he started thinking seriously about the broader possibilities of “gamification.”
“The question I posed myself was: Can games be more than mindless entertainment? And I immediately knew that the answer was yes, that games can and have been used for serious purposes. The military has used games as a training tool for hundreds if not thousands of years. Hollywood also is infatuated with games.”
Public interest in the possibilities of applying game structures to non-games is growing exponentially, adds Zichermann:
“When I published my first book in April 2010 there were zero citations for gamification on Google. But now, in the space of 18 months, there are over a million. It’s growing every day.”
Why the interest? Zichermann maintains that three generations of kids have now grown up playing video games as their primary source of entertainment — outstripping movies, music and books — and so the experience of playing games has “changed their brains” and style of “interaction with the world.” This being the case, if a publisher wishes to retain or grow market share he must engage with the phenomenon of gamification.
“When people hear the term ‘gamification’ they might think I mean ‘let’s make a space explorer game out of this book. But that’s not it. I mean that we need to take lessons of the game and apply them to other forms, to implement parts of the game framework — such as levels, incentives, and a social network. I’m not asking publishers to become game companies, but to take the finer points and insert them into their models.” Think of a series such as Scholastic’s 39 Clues, and you have one example.
Or, suggests Zichermann, to push it even further, take a hypothetical book on classical German cooking and “gamify” it: “For example, rather than simply print the recipes and expect the buyer to make them we could activate his desire to collect, by putting 20 of the best restaurants in Germany in the book. The reader could have a passport, and earn a stamp as he visited each restaurant; or he could be challenged to recreate a dish at home and then post it on the web. Perhaps after overcoming challenges, they could submit a menu to a national contest.”
Zichermann is adamant that publishers need to rethink at a fundamental level what it is that their customers want. “I think most publishers think that people buy books for the joy of reading. Well, maybe some people do, but most don’t. They’re looking for something else — to be lifted up, or transported to another reality, or for social interaction. Consider the popularity of book clubs. Publishers need to start thinking about what emotions they are trying to drive in the consumer, and how to make that happen with their books. Gamification can be a part of that.”
Gabe Zicherman will be appearing along with Alexander Fernandez, CEO, Streamline Studios, Holland/USA, at the Frankfurt Book Fair’s StoryDrive conference. Together they will be present “All of Life’s a Game: Gamification” on Thursday, October 13 from 3-3:45 p.m.