The Dangerous, Lucrative Game of Curing Boredom

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The secret to business success? Make everything a game—at least until it stops working and consumers end up bored with that, too.

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"Most people are bored," says Aaron Dignan, author of the book Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success and a keynote speaker at the 99 Percent Conference in New York today. "They're bored at work, bored at home, bored at school." But an antidote is on the way, Dignan says, and it could make everyone in the room a lot of money.

Businesspeople are confounded by consumer ennui, perhaps because its historic antidote, fun, is extremely difficult to shoehorn into traditional marketing. Of course, large-scale fun hasn't disappeared from modern life: It's alive and well in the tens of millions of American Idol votes and the meteoric sales of video games like Angry Birds and Call of Duty.

These little cognitive gumdrops are meant to keep us coming back for more: more messages, more friends, more chatting, more posts.

But for businesspeople who are not Simon Cowell, consumer boredom can be a monolithic impediment. So it's no wonder the audience is rapt when Dignan suggests that video games—lamented for atrophying our attention spans and turning us on to Ritalin and Adderall—have actually held the secret all along. "Real life is not always satisfying," Dignan says. "But games are."

Dignan believes that anyone can use "game mechanics," as they're called, to get what they want out of people. As long as there is a skill to learn and a way of measuring success, he says, anything can be game-ified. Small business owners have been pioneers at game-ifying local shops. Nascent marketing programs bundled with "check-in" apps like Foursquare allow your local coffee shop proprietor to turn patronage into a game that earns regulars "badges" and "points," which then accumulate into real-life rewards like free coffee.

For the designers and consultants at this conference, getting people into the "flow" of a game is a way of winning an invaluable prize: peoples' undivided attention. A picture of a brain appears on the auditorium screen, highlighting the lobes responsible for pleasure. "In the brain, there's 'liking' something, and then there's 'wanting' something," says Dignan. "The question is: what kind of experience do you want to create?"

If this duality of "liking" and "wanting" sounds familiar, you may have absorbed it during one of your own boredom sessions, which (like one twelfth of the world's population) you probably spend lurking around Facebook. Last month the social network launched something called the "send" button (to go along with the now-ubiquitous "like" button) that allows you to make your own preferences and desires contagious among your friends. Both of these are part of Facebook's game mechanics, little cognitive gumdrops meant to keep us coming back for more: more messages, more friends, more chatting, more posts. For brands like JCPenney, which has opened an entire duplicate Web store inside Facebook, the amplitude of your desire for something can now ripple outward through these buttons, bringing in dollars as fast as you can click "share."

So what happens when every company at this conference has contrived some kind of "game" around their marketing? What happens when we're bored of being not bored? "Eventually, badges and points aren't going to matter anymore," Dignan warns. We'll be sick of them; we won't play any longer, and the marketing geniuses at this conference and others will be faced with a new monolith. But that's for next year's conference. Till then, we can look forward to lamenting games once again.

Image: matsuyuki/flickr

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Chris Dannen technology and business journalist who writes regularly for FastCompany and CBS Interactive. He has also written for Rolling Stone, the MIT Technology Review, Inc, Discover, and other sites and magazines.

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