Points, Points Everywhere...

Last month was the annual DICE (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) Summit, and there was one talk in particular that captured a lot of imaginations -- Carnegie Mellon University Professor Jesse Schell's "Design Outside the Box" talk, which covered Facebook, convergence, and the future of reality-based gaming.

I knew this talk was generating tons of buzz when, at a recent conference I attended, it was heavily copied by not one but two separate presenters. The biggest takeaway from Schell's presentation -- and you should definitely watch the whole thing if you have the time -- is that games that connect to reality, either by letting you compete with your friends, or by awarding you points for real-world activities, exert a special kind of psychological hold on gamers, especially casual gamers.

Social apps like Foursquare are currently taking advantage of this concept, and they're also getting partners like Bravo into the act, awarding users badges for checking into locations that appear on the "Real Housewives" TV shows and eating at "Top Chef" restaurants. The TV network is essentially giving Foursquare users points and recognition for living the Bravo lifestyle.

Brands have been awarding points for their users for ages. They're called loyalty programs, and some are remarkably effective, while others sort of fall flat. The key difference is social currency. People want to be associated with loyalty programs that say something about them as people other than "I buy a ton of this specific product."

The example Schell gives in his talk is tooth-brushing. In his vision of the future, toothpaste companies will award you points for brushing your teeth, and badges or bonuses for doing it every day in a week, or twice in a single day, and they'll do it in the name of getting you to buy more toothpaste. But consumers will take part in that not because they want to be known as Crest aficionados or Colgate partisans, but because they want to be known as people with extremely clean teeth.

Schell's talking about the nebulous future, but there's plenty of time in the present for brands to get involved in game concepts like awarding points and Xbox Live-style "achievements" to real-life, branded activities. Consumers are hungry for ways to measure their lifestyles against their social nets, and brands can win by offering them a way to do that.

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