Here’s another one of our occasional in-depth articles by Zakia Uddin, looking at various elements of the music industry. This time around, Zakia analyses the phenomenon of ‘gamification’ – the use of elements traditionally involved in video games with other digital formats. What does this mean for the world of digital music, among others?
“Gamification means engaging our audience on an exciting new platform. It’s the perfect way to keep our iconic brand front and center without the use of nudity”, said Playboy’s digital director Steve Gilberg. The buzz word ‘gamification’ has captured the imaginations of industries and organisations everywhere, who are looking for a solution to increased competition on the internet. How does a brand differentiate itself to an audience which is jaded, has a short attention span, and demands that content gratification is instant?
For Gilberg, gamification is a way of providing additional content and keeping users from engaging with alternatives to Playboy. That’s what’s so striking about his comment. Contemporary Playboy can survive without having nudity as its main selling point simply because viewers might be so distracted elsewhere on the site . The music industry has been one of the early adopters of gamification, but they also face the same dilemma as online publishing. How do music services online make sure their product passes the stickiness test when music can be found freely online everywhere?
Gamification is a term which was said to be invented by Californian company Bunchball, which has since worked with gamifying creative industries, businesses and organisations across the world. The term has taken on the power of a talisman with every second business blog and company crowing about its potential. Analysts Gartner estimated in November last year that 70 per cent of organisations will have one gamified application by 2014.
Gamification involves the use (or misuse, if you are a hardcore gamer) of gaming mechanics to engage new users and keep the loyalty of older ones. Airline companies and supermarkets have been doing this for decades by creating loyalty programmes and giving ‘points’ – a crucial piece of the “feedback loop” in gaming. But the recent debate about the term has been fuelled by a major change in what “engagement” with customers means. Fans of Mad Men love a cheeky nod to the future of advertising, but this change was unimaginable even by the time Don Draper would have claimed his pension. Social networks have made the experiences of brands irrelevant unless they can tap into people’s lives in a personally meaningful yet barely visible way. Gamification is one way to create a relationship which keeps customers and individuals coming back, without making them realise they are putting all the work in. At a time when music, film, services and television hustle for attention, inadvertently reinforcing short attention spans through accommodating them, gaming gives insights into how to achieve that all-sustaining ‘stickiness’.
GETTING BACK IN THE GAME
What’s in this miracle formula? The official line is that gamifiying a site allows labels, marketers and ideally artists to recognise the “engaged” music fan (for example) and reward them accordingly. The individual checks into the site more regularly to claim rewards and recognition for being a conscientious user. Often these rewards come in the form of badges which act as “currency” on the site, and indicate the user’s status and level of knowledge. The strategy of gamification is to make regular use fun, and less like commitment. No wonder its been applied in the fields of education, health and employment. So how does it work for the music industry and its less captive audiences? Secondly, is the gamification of music as an art by singers such as Bjork indicative like to grow?
The music industry was one of the first creative industries to latch onto gamification, in a bid to stem the disappearance of revenue. Music sites have led the way in using gaming mechanisms such as discovery, rewards, status and community creation. Gamification is a good way of making the process of buying almost invisible to fans – especially younger fans, who may have been downloading since they first discovered a love of music. In addition, music subscription ervices have had to find innovative ways to rent out music which can be had for ‘free’ elsewhere. Music has benefited from strong communities, not unlike that of gaming, where “product” is recommended (and exchanged despite the best will of the industry). The fan club model could be seen as the prototype of an online community where fans network and show their engagement with a product (artist), according to gamification expert Amy Jo Kim.
One early player is the metrics site Last FM which is based on mainly user-generated content. Users of the site must listen more (and then pay) for the benefit of their personal radio, curated from the data they have produced by listening and having their music recorded on the site. Pages can also be created by fans, with the heaviest listener of a particular artist gaining the status of “top listener”. MOG, which is close on the heel s of Spotify, has now given its users the equivalent of tokens which are ‘re-stocked’ every time they share music, or find something new on the site.
But how important are social features if all the music is free to listen to on a site? Spotify’s integration with Facebook brought it to prominence, and now means that new users cannot use the site without logging into the social network. Despite its visibility, the streaming site lacks social features beyond the shared playlist, and the recommendation button. Having moved to a subscription model relatively successfully (partly due to using jarring adverts which blasted out at high volume), it is uncertain how far the streaming site will push its social aspects, other than promoting its service through external networks like Facebook, where it has no control over visibility. But for many users, its lack of social features is also where the site falls short.
The most exciting music sites are using gamification by showing what advantages there are to sharing your music in a way that would be impossible without a physical record collection. BAMM offers its unique playmixes which straddle genres, while Turntable FM gives users instant validation (or not) from their peers for showcasing their music. The use of ratings for comments and the addition of peer approval also acts as an advanced form of gamification, which spurs users to stay engaged and return.
BREAKING THROUGH THE FOURTH WALL
Gamification has shown how the fan club model might be extended, now that the fourth wall between artist and fans has been broken down. Most artists regardless of stature are in charge of their own official Twitter account and post personal content on their Facebook page. Gamification allows labels to commodify the relationship between fan and artist, to incentivise something that previously came about ‘naturally’. It’s easy to see why gamification has become a hot topic when albums by big name stars such Lady Gaga who have huge devoted fan-bases are practically given away as ‘loss leaders’ by her label.
Irving Fain, the CEO of “consumer loyalty platform” Crowdtwist, believes “loyalty platforms” need to evolve. By this he means, the rewards and recognition fans get for their commitment to an artist, especially for their “transactions” – their interaction and support for the artists. Here the fan club model is evoked as a failing, out-of-date model of relations between fans and singers. Fain told Socialistic: “One example that they’d given us – there was an artist that had a fan club that had something like 40,000 people who were members, and the idea was to get their best members, the best fans, early access to tickets. But what was happening was half the program was actually scalpers. And were taking the tickets and actually selling them. The problem was, these guys had no way of differentiating who were the real fans and who were the actual scalpers.” Here, gamification has an altruistic sideline – it rewards those fans which are genuine and in the process, excludes the pretend ones who yank up the price for everyone else. However, he adds that fans should be rewarded “however they try to engage” – but with revenues at an all-time low, buying in is more likely to be rewarded than other forms of interaction which are less easy to commodify.
One of the most remarkable apps produced last year was Erykah Badu’s ‘Lovemeter’, where fans get points in direct proportion to how much they spend on Badu’s merchandise and tickets. These points translate into possible personal phone messages from the soul singer, with the messages becoming more personalised as fans rack up ‘love’ (or points). Badu’s very active Twitter account suggests this isn’t an entirely cynical exercise, as she commands loyalty among her fans. Other artists- or their marketers- are using gamification in a more aggressive way.
In 2010, DJ and chart-hogger David Guetta allowed his music to be used for an interactive game called PUMP IT on Facebook. The app offered fans the chance to display their scores from remixing Rihanna’s ‘Sexy Chick’ with the international star himself being notified about the most popular pieces of work. Also, users were also streamed David Guetta’s real-time information, including a “live feed” of his tweets and touring dates. Putting aside the credibility of the music, PUMP IT is intended to give fans access to Guetta in ways which were not deemed possible before. Though it’s impossible not to question to what extent he is involved, other than ceding a live feed, the app successfully brings together fans of the artist in ways which renew their engagement with him. Albin Serviant, the social gaming expert behind the app, believes that apps have to channel both the social and competitive instincts of gamification, with the creation of “status” being the most attractive element.
Gamification also informs how artists interact with fans “in the real world”. Artists are more likely to be attracted to publicity which has an interactive element. Speaking at Internet Week Europe 2011, the Rizzle Kicks’ manager Joey Swarbric suggested that this was crucial to developing a loyal fan-base. In particular, he highlighted the Blackberry-sponsored ‘Live and Lost’ where the teenage duo were abandoned at sea and forced to make it to a gig with only their fans navigating them by smartphone, with the most successful fans getting to meet their heroes in person.
However, to what extent is this gamification another set of hoops which musicians will have to jump through in order to get revenue? Music critic Robert Barry invests gamification with a sense of post-apocalyptic doom by envisioning a man sitting at his desk pressing a phone repeatedly to hear the tracks of a song (like an inversion of being put on hold when ringing a utility company). He wrote in his Wreath Lecture for The Quietus: “We will indeed see a deal more “gamified” music over the next few years, of albums packaged and played as if games, offering varying degrees of interactivity. No doubt, each time we will be told that the app in question was organically conceived as a natural extension of the music by the artists themselves and had absolutely nothing to do with the record company marketing department.”
But gamification of music itself promises much more than this for music fans, even if many of the examples so far are a case of giving consumers ‘more for less’.
IS GAMIFICATION A GAME CHANGER FOR MUSIC?
Robert Barry also points out that gamification has had a long extensive history in music. Mozart used to compose ‘live’ by throwing dice, while later pioneers such as John Zorn wrote music structured by cue cards, he writes in his long debunking piece. Musicians have always used the strategy to explore their own music, and break down boundaries between audience and stage – but only to reinstate them.
More recent experiments have given even more control to the fan, through creating genuinely interactive applications. Bjork’s Biophilia album was created on an iPad, with each song accompanied by a series of apps encased within one ‘mother’ app. The track ‘Virus’ featured a game in which listeners/players could speed up or slow down the track by zapping at cells. Most recently artist Elvis Costello took to stage and decided what his set list would be according to a game played by fans. The singer invited audience members onto stage at his concert in Sacramento to spin a giant wheel with song titles on it. While this isn’t gamifying in any strict sense of the term, it definitely incorporates the changed attention spans of fans. The element of randomness is a covert nod to i-Pod’s “shuffle mode” cruelly deployed by fans.
Sony Music Entertainment recently employed Crowdtwist to gamify the websites of two of its singers. Kelly Clarkson and Chris Daughtry recently saw massive increases in “engagement” on their gamified sites, according to the company. Purchase rates in the case of Daughtry increased by 74 per cent, based on a 1,500 per cent boost in engagement. Fans were able to win “points” by spending more money and clicking on official videos and photographs of the artist. Suggesting this might be the way forward, Crowdtwist CEO Irving Fain told Digiday: “In the world we live in, with so many customer touch points, that one-to-one relationship becomes so important: The problem with loyalty has been its singular view of customers. In the world we live in today, why shouldn’t a customer or a fan be able to get rewarded for engaging with a brand, regardless of how they choose to do it?”
The soundtrack to game Portal 2 has been one of the most fun and credible attempts at gamification so far -but the album is foremost a soundtrack. Rock band The National had a surprise song which could only be heard in a secret room. Michael Morasky, who was also behind the original Portal soundtrack, told Games Radar: “There are several cases where the music adds channels and complexity as you successfully solve portions of the puzzle, with each additional piece of music actually coming from the device that is participating in the activated game play mechanic. Obviously, this can heighten the sense of achievement as one completes the puzzle but also turns the mechanics of the puzzle into a sort of interactive music instrument that you can explore by selectively triggering the different channels of music with differing timings and configurations. Most of the interactive music is also positional so that as you move through the space you also change the mix and volume of the music you are hearing, which invites explorations of the space as well.” Here, listeners experience the ultimate of hearing a track in multiple forms, personalised and unrepeatable. However, Portal 2’s success in doing this might not surprise critics who believe that marketers are doing things the wrong way around – and should instead add their projects to games, rather than adding game “elements” to their projects.
SHALLOW BE THY GAME
Hardcore games players have attacked marketeers for diluting gaming’s counter-cultural appeal.. Ian Borgost has been one of the most vocal critics In a blog post succinctly called: “Gamification is Bullshit”. He names it “exploitationware”, citing how some companies have used it to turn their workers into happy little Stakhavonites. He says: “The rhetorical power of the word “gamification” is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want: it takes games – a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people – and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.” Companies have long found ways to intensify competition between workers, to incentivise them by making them feel they are being left behind by their colleagues. Gamification is easily co-opted in this way, with the sales leaderboard of yore replaced with “personal praise” and incentives that are often substitutes for better working conditions. Playcall, a company which specialises in gamifying call centres, says on its website: “We believe in making every company we work with a more meritocratic place to work. We are inspired by technologies like Facebook who have revolutionized the way we communicate. Through this and our nifty application of Social Psychology and Gamification techniques, we enhance communication, promote recognition and create a sense of community within the Contact Center.” But in this context, touch words like community and recognition take on a distinct air of Orwellian double-speak.
Other critics have said that taking on gaming ideas wholesale ignores the fact that not all games are “fun”. Somethin’ Else blogger Mark Sorrell writes that adding game elements to a non-game makes no sense if the main activity is incredibly dull, like typing. However, music might escape this, given that unlike cold-calling at a call centre, it is already a “fun” activity. But adding levels and badges isn’t a fail-safe alternative to offering something with hard value. Secondly, playing games is about mastering new skills. Arguably, only a few websites for tech-head musicians, can really offer that- and are consumers who take part in games more likely to buy the records? This taps into the third aspect of gamification which is that it many of the organisations seeing it as a godsend can lose sight of the goal in the process. Not all users want to have to sign up and play a game, and the increasing gamification of a site might actually put off the casual lurker who would prefer to explore a site at their own speed. Websites do not have to establish the cliques which form organically through the use of any forum, in order to attract more users.
One aspect of using engagement as a metric is that the term can include so many degrees of interaction, ranging from a curiousity click to an active use of every monetised feature on the site. Writing in The Guardian, gamification enthusiast and tech figure Zaid al-Zaidy enthusiastically said: “Companies will begin to paint a finely nuanced portrait of who you are. Welcome to the next level of bleeding edge insight. Behavioural insights gleaned from this new wealth of gaming interactions will be perversely rich and granular, giving us an unparalleled window into the darkest secrets of the consumer psyche.” Gamification also requires specifying that a set of actions must be followed before getting a reward. But what about all the memes and the blogs and tumblrs which generate buzz about stars and their music in ways which record companies simply cannot foresee? If the consumer psyche is to be found anywhere, it’s probably there.
SAYING GAME OVER IS JUST TOO OBVIOUS
It’s only the earliest stages of gamification according to many of its proponents. The future promises much more to fans. Seb Priebatsch, head of the location-based gaming site SCVNGR, has criticised the use of the term to describe his company’s activities and has said that game mechanics must be fully integrated into any application they make for them to consider it gamified. So the marketing buzz might have already given way to the real work quietly done by those who are really invested in games and the societally beneficial use of gaming mechanics. What this means for music is hard to predict. It’s unlikely that most mainstream artists will go beyond adding a few basic game apps to please labels and fans demand for entertaining content. But the possibilities are there, and they can only become more exciting with the development of other technologies, including virtual kinds. Gamification – as long as its used as a force for good – could eventually allow record labels to claw back profit, reward fans for their investment in an artist, and make companies much harder to keep those devotees engaged between expensively-ticketed tours and big releases.