Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

The next big thing in higher education marketing is gaming, or location-based games, or mobile platforms that augment reality and add value through role-playing game dynamics.

Whatever, you get the picture.

The point is that colleges and universities want to find ways to engage their communities, and location-based services like Foursquare andSCVNR are quick to meet this demand by reaching out to the higher ed community.

The basic idea is simple: Go somewhere.  Check in. Earn virtual points or badges (and potentially those points translate into real-life rewards…like free stuff from the local coffee shop or perhaps the campus bookstore, etc.).

As participants accumulate this virtual currency they’re theoretically becoming more engrossed with your campus.  As discussed recently on HigherEdLive by Tim Nekritz of SUNY Oswego and host Seth Odell, the long-term implications/potential for location-based services is huge, but the current use cases are underwhelming. People check in. Share their location.  Earn virtual points. That’s it…there’s little you can do beyond that.

The potential of these services to provide an engaging experience for students is there, but out of the box, the game elements of the services lose their luster pretty quickly.  Outside of the narcissism behind being able to claim that you’re “Mayor” of a certain location the “game” starts to get a little repetitive and once the novelty wears off so does the fun.

And that’s the point of games, isn’t it?  To be fun.  And most people consider games to be fun because they provide challenges that can be mastered, not simply because they provide points or rewards.  The problem with most location-based game services is that they’re no real challenge or skill involved in playing.

The fault is not with the location-based services themselves: Foursquare, SCVNGR and Facebook Places provide fine platforms that do what they’re intended to do.  There could be appeal to using these services for short-term engagements like campus tours or freshman orientations, but I suspect they will do little for long-term engagement.

User Experience Designer & Researcher at Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research, Sebastian Deterding, summarizes some of the reasons for this in a great presenation titled “Pawned: Gamification and its discontents.

According to Deterding, Gamification can be defined as, “integrating game dynamics into your site, service, community, content or campaign in order to drive participation.”  This is the basic idea behind the location-based services that are all the rage today in higher ed. Deterding’s central thesis is that just adding game elements does not make something a game, as such proponents of gamification often confuse the game elements themselves with actual games.  Games are games not because they have game elements, but because they’re well designed and fun to play.

A second point that Deterding makes is the basic fact that games are not for everyone, and that just because a consumer wants to learn more about your brand that does not necessarily mean they want to play games.  In some cases, the competitive nature of games may actually turn consumers off to your brand.  Additionally gamification could also result in unintended consequences if you’re not careful.

The point here is not to say that location-based gaming does not have a role or a potential role in higher ed, but to just to caution that it’s simply a tool and like all tools it can be a dangerous weapon when used the wrong way.  That being said, there are some interesting examples of game-based services being used at schools today.  Harvard has now been using Foursquare for quite some time and has seen some relatively positive results. And, as Patrick Powers noted on his blog last week, the potential for services like Facebook Deals could be big for higher education.

Time will tell if these services will have an impact on long-term relationship building on campus, but make sure you have a plan before you jump in (or check in? haha) to location-based gaming on your campus.


Update on Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 12:27PM by Registered CommenterDan Obregon

According to this Techcrunch article, I may not be alone in thinking that location-based services need to step up the “fun” factor.  In fact, they cite a recent Pew Research report which finds that “despite all the hype, the use of location-based services is actually declining in America, from 5% of the online population in May to 4% last month.” The key findings of that report note:

  • 7% of adults who go online with their mobile phone use a location-based service.
  • 8% of online adults ages 18-29 use location-based services, significantly more than online adults in any other age group.
  • 10% of online Hispanics use these services – significantly more than online whites (3%) or online blacks (5%).
  • 6% of online men use a location-based service such as Foursquare or Gowalla, compared with 3%  of online women.