By Alistair Gray, Senior User Experience Consultancy, Webcredible

A new buzzword has crept its way into business boardrooms, which encourages the use of gaming mechanics such as badges, levels, achievements and leaderboards for non-gaming applications.

‘Gamification’ is a concept which aims to tap directly into the natural human behaviour of playing games. By creating an experience that people engage with physically, mentally and emotionally you are fostering a new way to connect with customers that will help stimulate further innovation. In fact, Gartner analysts have predicted that by 2015, more than 70 per cent of global organisations will have at least one gamified application and go as far as to say that a gamified service for consumer goods marketing and customer retention will become as important as Facebook, eBay or Amazon.

Indeed, playing games is a natural human behaviour and creates a common ground for businesses to engage with customers and each other. Any gamification strategy however should take into account several key mechanics to maintain brand engagement.

Businesses must ensure that the game is well targeted with a clear objective; and that they answer some key questions before proceeding with this strategy. What do businesses want people to achieve by taking part in the in the game? The end objective will be to effectively engage customers in a way that this subsequently creates a community of customers or brand advocates. But what’s in it for the customer?

Gamification should be implemented in a way to support users’ natural gaming behaviour and capture their imagination. Gamification needs to empower users through tough yet achievable challenges to successfully maintain engagement and stimulate a sense of brand loyalty and perhaps advocacy. The aim of the gamification should be for the customer to evolve from a state of initial curiosity in a brand to a state of willing engagement.

Perhaps most importantly in this age of social media, the application should encourage collaboration between its players. No one player should have all the skills it takes to achieve a given task. This mechanic appeals to the natural human desire to work together and solve a problem. In contrast, it can also instil a healthy dose of competitive spirit so that one player does all they can to rise above fellow players. Competition followed by a satisfactory reward, if done well, can raise a brand to new heights.

Foursquare is a great example of good use of gamification and businesses are continuing to incorporate it into social media propositions. The use of badges and other game like rewards to increase the number of times users enter their location data has allowed businesses to continually engage customers and guarantee repeat business. For example, Debenhams on Oxford Street offered its customers who ‘checked in’ at the store, free coffee every Friday, while promising free coffee to the ‘Mayor’ whenever they chose to visit the London store.

Stack Overflow , a Q&A website for enthusiast programmers, is another good example of how a company can encourage collaboration and maintain engagement. The site administrators want users to find the right answers to their programming questions. While some programmers may approach the site first time with the sole purpose of having one query answered, the rating system and badge rewards incentivise them to return and collaborate more with their peers.

While gamification is certainly not a passing fad, the technique is still very much in its infancy and must grow and develop to push businesses in new directions. There is one core aspect that companies experimenting with gamification have yet to capture — storytelling. Taking the player through a transformational journey and gaining new skills at each new level is the crux of what most games are about. Creating a compelling story with the potential of acquiring new skills will engage players to participate and compete to the next level.

This is certainly the logical next step for gamification to ensure it can rise above its current perceived status as a mere buzzword. The mechanics of collaboration, progression and reward, while not yet a definitive model, are nonetheless showing their worth as a compelling method of inspiring brand devotion. However, the reward aspect is brimming with untapped potential.

Rewarding players, not with badges but with skills that they can actually use outside of the game will surely inspire a far more devoted audience. It’s perhaps why games such as Scrabble or the more recent Words with Friends is still played so passionately by millions of people worldwide over 60 years after its release.

Gamification is a technique that can and will be adopted across industries. The biggest successes and perhaps the easiest introduction currently will be sites where people are already interacting with each other in an easily measureable manner. Sites that encourage fundraising, comments and purchases for example will be areas where gamification can really take off. One thing that is for sure is gamification is here to stay, and it will be interesting to see how it develops.