BSR Conference 2013

The Power of Networks

November 5-8 / San Francisco

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Games for Good: Transforming Business through Gamification

One-Hour Conversation Session / November 7, 2013


  • Gabe Zichermann, CEO, Gamification.Co and Dopamine, Inc.
  • Adam Werbach, Co-Founder, yerdle
  • Asi Burak, President, Games for Change (G4C)
  • Peter Nestor, Manager, Advisory Services, BSR (Moderator)


  • Gamification uses concepts from games and behavioral economics to solve problems and has been used to address various social issues, such as violence against women, hand-washing in hospitals, and breakthroughs for HIV/AIDS treatment.

  • Gamification applies a methodology that involves defining the objectives and target audience, deciding on the context of delivering the game, developing key performance indicators, and describing the user experience.

  • Games do not require technology, though technology can enable it; principles such as progression toward mastery, engagement or fun, community, and feedback, also make the approach successful in changing behavior.

Memorable Quotes

“[Gamification] is the use of concepts from games and economics to change behavior. It’s not just about making games; it’s about taking ideas from games and applying them in ways that help drive change.” —Gabe Zichermann, Gamification.Co and Dopamine, Inc.

“In my mind, calling people who play games ‘gamers’ is a limitation when you speak about fun. I think games are about engagement; they’re not necessarily about fun.” —Asi Burak, Games for Change (G4C)

“Your problem with your users [in sustainability] is similar to a healthcare problem. We want to get people to make a more difficult choice now, avoidance of hedonism, in exchange for an amorphous and not entirely clear future benefit.” —Gabe Zichermann, Gamification.Co and Dopamine, Inc.


Nestor opened the session by introducing the panelists, and then asked the audience about their experiences with gamification. While most of the audience had heard of gamification, few people had tried to design a game, and even fewer had tried to design one with a social or environmental purpose. He invited the panelists to define gamification and their work.

Zichermann explained that gamification uses concepts from games and behavioral economics to change behavior. “Many of the things we do don’t end up looking like games at all. Part of the complexity is knowing which approach to choose for the problem,” he said. Burak agreed, and added that the core of gamification is a program that drives behavior change. Both of the panelists clarified further by differentiating between games, with a purpose of entertainment, and gamification, with its goal of solving problems through behavior change.

Nestor then asked the panelists what caused them to see the potential to solve sustainability challenges. Zichermann said that he learned more about the complexities of decisions about nuclear weapons from a popular video game that required him to think through technology options, relationships with other countries, and environmental fallout than by seeing pictures of the aftermath of Hiroshima in school. Burak saw the benefit in games such as Nine Minutes, which promotes behaviors to reduce maternal mortality in the developing world by helping mothers and fathers think through options and trade-offs related to the pregnancy cycle while they play the game.

Nestor invited them to describe further how they gamify a problem. Burak explained that his team provides games, a platform, and tools to complement the subject expertise of groups they work with. “We sit with them, we define audience with them … ‘what’s the setting,’ then, ‘what are the objectives you’re trying to reach,’” he said. Zichermann agreed and added that gamification’s methodology includes business objectives, key performance indicators, and the “journey of the user.”

Nestor challenged them to explain how they make something fun that may not intrinsically be fun. Zichermann explained that progression, especially toward mastery, can be a motivator. “The progression toward mastery is fun to most people in most situations. We try to imbue these processes with a sense of progression,” he said. He suggested that a water cooler that showed progress toward eight cups of water in a day could help people drink more water.

An audience member asked about examples of games that use children to educate adults who would not use technology to play the game themselves. Zichermann answered that there are cases where children that play games can either learn skills or behaviors that they can share with their parents, or can encourage their parents to adopt different behaviors. He then went on to explain that technology is not a necessary element of games. He gave the example of Tim Vandenberg, a teacher in a rural California school, who elevated many underserved students to the honor roll by teaching them math skills using the board game Monopoly. “The best modality is the combination of a great teacher with an excellent gamified experience,” he said.

Another participant stated that she has an aversion to games and asked if they have seen negative consequences of gamification. Burak stated that the people they reach are not those most would think of as the pizza-eating, Xbox-playing audience. One project he helped create uses Facebook as a platform to raise money for women’s empowerment. The majority of players are women over 35 in cities such as Cairo, Istanbul, and Rio de Janeiro.

Zichermann added that it is important to frame the project appropriately to the audience by suggesting that Fortune 500 CEOs are more likely to support a program of “non-cash incentives and behavioral economics to engage employees” rather than a program that “gamifies employee engagement.” Burak concluded by pointing out that Visa credit card points and frequent flyer miles are examples of games that most people readily adopt.

A third participant asked how gamification could be used to solve problems that people find uncomfortable, such as violence against women. Both Nicholas Kristof’s best-selling book Half the Sky and a separate PBS documentary on the oppression of women were powerful but depressing, according to Burak, so his team focused on the positive side of women’s empowerment in the game they developed. “We want to take a step back to understand the player and what makes them tick,” said Zichermann. He explained that a game targeted to a man could change his behavior by emphasizing the economic benefits that his wife’s education could have on several generations of his family.

For the final question, an audience member asked the panelists how long it takes to develop a game. Zichermann answered that concepts could be developed in three months followed by a three- to six-month development period to bring the game to market. Burak added that nearly half the development time and budget is dedicated to developing the marketing and distribution strategy.

Thank You Sponsors

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Participating Sponsors
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