The Multi-Generational Appeal of Gamification in Online Communities

Gamification is employed by multiple websites across a variety of industries – LinkedIn, Merriam-Webster, FundingWorks, and Marketo marketing automation software – to name a few. Many industries are adopting gamification as a way to keep people involved and drive participation. Deloitte named gamification as one of its top tech trends for 2012. While gamification has a lot of practical applications for nonprofits, it also has many stereotypes to overcome.

  1. It’s not about video games. Gamifying your supporters’ experiences has nothing to do with handing them a joystick or asking them to fling overly-emotional birds at green pigs. Gamification is about employing game theory and game mechanics in non-game environments to spur them on a course of desired actions.
  2. Gamification is not expensive. You don’t have to create a whole gamified website. You just need to change the way you view the visitor’s experience. If you want to learn more about implementing gamification with your nonprofit read this.
  3. Gamification appeals to all age groups. Seriously.

We’ll start here as many people don’t see a natural fit between gamification and the older generation. Baby boomers are very familiar with game theory, even if they don’t know it.

Airline, and many other, loyalty programs use game mechanics and theory – such as collecting points and progressing toward a higher status. (American Airlines uses a progress bar to track one’s advancement toward elite status). The American education system is based on completing a set of activities and leveling up – in this system the badge awarded is in the form of a diploma. Even the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts award badges for mastering activities and level up according to accomplishments. Baby Boomers have been conditioned to progress and respond to the challenges at hand. They believe in mastering concepts and putting in your time. Game theory builds on these basic premises.

This group is comprised of a high number of achievers (see definitions and explanations for Bartles’ types of players). Despite their altruistic intentions, Baby Boomers want a challenge; they want to be compared publicly to their peers and they want to progress to a higher status and level of achievement. Gamification allows them to satisfy these motivations while creating an addictive environment that fosters engagement among these constituents.

Gamification and Gen X – the Gamer Generation.

Earlier I mentioned gamification is not about gaming. True, but the game theory used in creating addictive games is also evident in gamification. The average gamer is 37 years old, making her (according to the Entertainment Software Association 47 percent of all gamers are female, 30 percent are adult women) a Gen Xer. Gen Xers are part of the in-between generation, sandwiched between two very large groups (approximately 80 million Baby Boomers and 78 million Millennials, depending on the birth years included) that both get a lot of media attention. Gen Xers are looking for a way to get the recognition they deserve on their own time. Gamification allows you to reach out and engage these constituents while by-passing the time and geographic constraints of attending meetings and events.

Gen Xers are independent (and sometimes unfairly characterized as loners). They were the latchkey generation and spent a good part of their youth figuring things out for themselves. Self-reliance has been a key part of their development. From Bartles’ standpoint many of the typical Gen Xers would be considered Explorers. They want to investigate, discover and create. They can do this independently or in groups. Gamification appeals to them because their natural curiosity propels them to continued action. If you want to appeal to this group, make sure your gamified features involve discovery and changing content.

Gamification and the Millennial – Digital Natives.

This group needs the least amount of persuasion to get involved in a gamified experience. Millennials long for instant feedback and have been conditioned to receive it since childhood. Think back to how the tone of cartoons changed in the 90s. The plot lines went from passive viewing of characters on screen to an active “what do you think?” and “what’s your name?” conversation between characters and viewers. Their educational programs have been focused around interaction and sharing.

Although Millennials have been lauded for their contributions to technology and their start-up mentality, they are largely a social generation. They are natural collaborators and sharers. They believe their opinions should be heard and valued, regardless of length of employment or years of experience.

In order to maximize their engagement, make sure there are ways for them to share expertise, comments and help others. They embrace a platform that would allow them to showcase their skills and talents before the greater community. Incorporating boards and social commentary abilities is a great way to involve them.

Gamification indulges and appeals to the most basic human motivators. It provides a platform for healthy, professional competition and encourages/rewards desired actions. Gamification has multi-generational appeal when you take into account generational differences and drivers.

Gaining support from your constituents for gamification is not (solely) about the technology used. Employing content and mechanics to inspire and challenge each generation in a way that is unique to its motivational needs, will ensure that your gamified community has the broadest appeal and success in adoption.

This article is published as part of NTEN’s Member Appreciation Month.

Christina Smith
Director, Inbound Marketing
Christina G. Smith is the Director of Inbound Marketing for where she oversees the areas of social and content marketing. She's a blogger and speaker on the topics of gamification and personal branding and is currently working on a book about embracing change. Follow Christina on Twitter (@christinagsmith) or connect with her on LinkedIn.