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Ready Reader One: Why Gamification is Key to Publishing’s Future

“Most publishers think that people buy books for the joy of reading,” says Zicherman “Well, maybe some people do, but most don’t. They’re looking for something else . . . Gamification can be a part of that.”

Interview by Daniel Kalder

Gabe Zicherman

Gabe Zicherman

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.

DISCUSS: Does Gamification Turn Readers Into Winners and Losers?

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  1. David
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 4:15 am | Permalink

    This is daunting. I consult video games for one type of pleasure, books for another. A book is like the sea, it forgives all. It’s one of the few spaces where, once immersed, I’m far away from the world of commerce, incentives, and two for the price of one. The idea of being ‘rewarded’ with a badge for finishing a chapter of Ulysses or The Infinite Jest is deeply disturbing. I am neither a child nor a dog, and I don’t care to be distracted from the fact that the intellectual harvest I glean from the pages of the book itself is, of course, the true reward. Beware a culture of growing infantilisation, guys. Soon you’ll get a badge for getting out of bed. Achievement unlocked!

  2. Kathy Sierra
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Zichermann may be well intentioned with this advice, but consider this: he has now published two books, neither of which use gamification. And he has failed to produce any meaningful engagement through gamification either within or around his books. I would be extremely skeptical of taking advice from one who has been unable to take his own advice. If Mr. Zichermann’s suggestion that “gamification is key to publishing’s future” was correct (let alone useful), wouldn’t he be using it *himself*? At the very least, even if IS proven to be useful in some way, publishers would be better served taking advice from someone who was actually able to do it.

    There are many meaningful lessons to be learned from game designers and game scholars, but the lessons from game *marketing* (Mr. Zichermann’s background) have so far NOT produced useful, meaningful ROI or even improved engagement. This is not the future, at least not one based in evidence. However, there IS meaningful scientific evidence to suggest this could be a very bad path to pursue for reading and publishing (see “Self-Determination Theory” or Dan Pink’s Ted Talk for an introductory look at the counter-intuitive science that suggests gamifying reading could, in some cases, lead to LESS rather than more engagement in reading).

  3. Posted September 19, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    THis is not about games per se. Unfortunately the name is misleading and that is not wise. I also believe there is never any one thing that is key to publishing but rather many convergent ideas that create a larger whole.

    HAving said that, there’s a bigger picture here that I can relate to. I am a Jungian Depth-Psychotherapist and work primarily with symbols. A core symbol, like the core concept of a novel, film, game, etc. is universal. It’s how that core symbol is perceived by the individual that is relevant. If we use the word “game” in a broader, more universal sense, finding the path that leads to the True Self through dream symbols can be perceived as a game. A meaningful game. That is a good thing.

  4. Posted September 19, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Keep in mind – People have choice. Some readers read forewords, others skip right to the content. When you add something that classifies as “gamification” you should not force the user to interact in this way – merely give the user the OPTION.

    Sure, some readers may be “offended” by adding additional content/value to their precious texts, but when all is said and done, innovation is a very good thing, and until it is tried (and buyers speak with their wallets) the idea cannot be called a good or a bad one. Children’s books have been implementing “Gamification” for a long time with great success. I haven’t really seen it done well with YA or adult, but I can imagine many ways it could be.

    Note: Pottermore can easily be considered gamification, and I’d call that a success even before seeing numbers.

  5. Posted October 2, 2011 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    While I believe that stating that “gamification is key to publishing’s future” is a bit of a stretch, I can see it definitely giving a boost to the industry. While on the surface it seems that the proper use of gamification will only be quickly adopted by video game obsessed younger generations, the psychological appeal of gaming elements is not a generational phenomenon. People of all age groups spend countless hours playing games on their mobile phones, tablets, and other computer systems. Gamification has greatly influenced activities such as shopping through apps like Foursquare. (One more meal at Msala India and I win the mayorship and get my “Super Mayor” badge!)

    Gamification is more than just changing the aspects of an endeavour to make it into a game, it is really about engaging the participant in a deep psychological way that enhances their experiences. While many of us can find this engagement from a literary work itself, our society has so many other draws on our attention that any advancements publishing can make to compete will serve the industry well.

  6. Posted July 18, 2012 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    I would expect that people buy books for different reasons. Some do so for pure joy of reading and some buy books because they are required reading for school. The people who buy books for book clubs tend to enjoy reading but they also like to display knowledge and have conversations or perhaps they enjoy having a framework for communicating rather than just simply chatting about “whatever”

    So much of reading and why we read depends on our age and reading level.

    I agree with David that getting a trophy for reading a chapter is a strange idea for an adult, but I bet we do things like this already for kids quite successfully.

    Perhaps we can figure out a different gaming framework for different age groups and demographics that in fact do create more reading in our country. If so, perhaps this will enhance our collective intelligence – we could use that!!

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