All The World’s A Game

dungeons-dragonsAs a lifelong gamer, I grew up fascinated with role-playing games, from pen-and-paper fantasy worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, to computer-based RPGs like Ultima and Wizardry. I’ve spent thousands of hours crafting and “leveling up” dozens of alternate personas, tuning their stats and experience point allocations across various character traits, and charting their virtual careers. I’ve always loved exploring all the different possible attributes and powers to minimize or maximize, and then mapping out how to achieve the optimal configuration for my style of play.

Several years ago I started wondering, “What if real life were the ultimate role-playing game? What character class would I be, and what would my current level be? Which skills would I go deep in and master?”

What started out as a fun thought experiment grew into a bit of an obsession — not only in how I approach life personally, but also in my job as a venture capitalist. Having been an early investor in social gaming and backing companies like Playdom, ngmoco, Lumos Labs, and Badgeville, I’ve witnessed the interplay between “real world” social media and “in game” behaviors generate tremendous value (Playdom was acquired by Disney for $763M, and ngmoco was bought by DeNA for $403M; Lumos Labs and Badgeville continue to grow like weeds). Now Gamification (the application of game mechanics to non-game fields) influences much of my ongoing thinking and investment.

I believe we all have a “superpower,” no matter how niche or small it may seem. In the game world, we always know precisely what our superpower is and what level it’s at, how we’re being scored and how each action affects that score. Our superpower is explicitly shown to and valued by other players. In the real world, our talents, tastes, and know-how aren’t always evident, yet we spend our lives, often ineffectively, trying to score, balance and demonstrate them. But now we have the technology to bring the scoring, feedback and interactivity of games into our real-world lives.

Thank the Quantified Self movement, which centers around gathering as much personal numerical data as possible and analyzing it, for making this possible. Together with the Quantified Self, Gamification will have a huge impact on how we play the “Game of Life.”

‘If It Ain’t Fun, It Don’t Count’

These days, there’s a lot of grassroots buzz and increasing hype around Quantified Self. The problem, though, is that early Quantified Self adopters — like me — are tech-savvy people fascinated with data and new devices. Unlike us, however, the mainstream consumer is never going to go out of her way to adopt all these newfangled sensors simply for the sake of raw data.

After all, I could give you a lifetime’s worth of granular information about your lipid levels and heartbeat, but so what? If it’s presented as just data, you’d say, “That’s cool, but what am I supposed to do with it?” As my friend Brett Leve from Summit Series likes to say, “If it ain’t fun, it doesn’t count.”

That’s where gamification comes in. A game at its basic definition is nothing more than an objective for victory, a score, and a clear set of rules for how players can influence that score. A score of 64 is meaningless, but add a rubric, a goal and clear paths to get there, and you’ve got a game going.

The Seven Deadly Sins

But isn’t “fun” subjective? Well, yes — different people play each game differently. But there is a unifying framework to understand the core motivations for most people.

When I first got into the venture capital business more than a decade ago, I thought that I’d spend my time evaluating disruptive technologies coming out of deep IP research labs. But after lots of time with consumer-facing startups, I came to rely on the framework of the Seven Deadly Sins (7DS) to help me decode what makes a social media app or site addictive.

As an example, young males often index highly on Wrath, as they love to compete and rub their wins in each other’s faces. As they rack up points and achievements, they climb the leaderboards, which indulges their Pride.

Older female players typically seek self-discovery and affinity with others instead of head-to-head competition. They respond to Envy, as well as Greed when presented with the opportunity to collect sets of special items.

Now, I’m not suggesting that entrepreneurs go out and build sites that ruthlessly exploit consumers or encourage users to mercilessly prey upon each other. What I’m pointing out is that it’s better to understand root motivations (especially for younger users), and be able to reverse engineer them to design engagement loops in your site, app or service.

In fact, Gamification platform vendors like Badgeville and Gigya now offer plug-and-play systems to instantly tap into the power of game mechanics for your business. As an example, Shoebacca, an up-and-coming online shoe store, leverages social gamification tools from Gigya to shape desired consumer behavior on their site. As soon as users sign in with their preferred social account, they are instantly awarded with points, badges and social standing with the larger site community as they interact with products and content. By tying gamification with users’ social graphs (their social network friends), shoppers are incentive to compete, share, and essentially “play” with their real friends for social rewards when they make purchases, view pages or drive valuable referral traffic to shocebacca.com.

Game on!

As users are presented with unique data and scores about themselves along with interesting insights that tell them “here’s what will happen to you if you do X, Y, or Z next,” life really does start to resemble the immersive and captivating role-playing games that I grew up with.

And if this enables each of us to better identify, improve and share our individual superpowers in the real world, while having fun in the process and becoming closer to our ideal selves, then I say: “Game on!”

The post was originally published on TechCrunch.