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'Gamifying' The System To Create Better Behavior

A car passes a warning sign for speed cameras.
A car passes a warning sign for speed cameras.

Say you're zooming down the highway, when you spot one of those speed-limit enforcement cameras from the corner of your eye. You hit the brakes, but not before the camera's flash catches you breaking the law. A speeding ticket is surely on its way to your mailbox.

Now, imagine that same camera also snaps a photo of your car when you are driving at or under the speed limit. For your safe driving, you are entered into a lottery to win a portion of the money from fines paid by speeders.

That idea was tested in Sweden with great success. It's an example of "gamification," considered the next wave of social engagement and Internet technology.


Gamification "is the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems," says Gabe Zichermann, co-author of the book Game-Based Marketing and chairman of the Gamification Summit.

He tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen that the speed-camera lottery in Sweden turns the whole idea of fines and penalties on its head, in a way that only "game people" think of.

Instead of being structured around punishment and negativity, he says, the speed-camera lottery is "all about positive reinforcement." If you drive the speed limit, or under it, you may win some money.

"And that positive incentive to create better behavior," he says, "is a core tenet of games."

The SAPS Model


Positive incentives also help in other ways — weight loss, for example.

Take The Biggest Loser. In the popular NBC reality show, an activity that's normally thought of as embarrassing and private is made public. The contestants are given nominal rewards, and after being put through the ringer, Zichermann says, they lose weight.

"What's interesting about Biggest Loser and other gamified examples of weight loss is they hew to a model for user rewards that I call SAPS," he says.

SAPS stands for status, access, power and stuff. Zichermann says those are things people want in their lives as rewards — in that order. "It turns out," he says, "that cash isn't that good of a reward. Status is a fantastic motivator for getting people to do stuff."

The theory of gamification is actually based on trends in technology and society over the past 25 to 30 years, he says. It's coming into fashion now "because we're looking for new answers to some very, very serious and intractable problems, both in business and society."

Problems that Zichermann says gamification may be best suited to solve.

"Games are not about punishment," he says. "Games are about reward and pleasure."

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