In this exciting episode, our intrepid reporter learns how to keep George Clooney’s attention for only £35, finds out why Charlie Sheen is winning the game of life, and gets free beer into the bargain…

Mashup* events are a prestigious event series which bring together some of the greatest brands on the web for a series of mini-conferences. This consists of an attention-deficit-disorder friendly format, with a couple of short talks and then a panel discussion. It’s all (nearly) over by the time your Ritalin has worn off….

Host Stewart Townsend introduced the evening, then Nicholas Lovell from Gamesbrief kicked off the talks, by trying to answer the question: What’s gamification? Answer: It’s a piece of jargon that makes you look like you know what you are talking about. And in this case, what you’re talking about is the clever art of making boring stuff fun. Gamification brings the ‘game mechanics’ of levels, points, etc. to non-game applications and experiences. So if you want to make people engage with your brand, make it fun by gamifying it. If you’re trying to make a user pass their driving test, reduce their accident risk at work, join the army, etc., you can create a game to introduce the topic. Want to increase conversions? Simply turn the process of learning, spending, or applying into a game-like process. He and I agree: Bartle did it best, by splitting the audience into 4 streams – killers, socialisers, explorers and achievers. Your application, sale process, or whatever can be broken down into different ways to ‘play the game’. George Clooney’s character in a recent movie wanted to get the most arimiles – a ‘killer’ profile, beating everyone else, but also a bit of achiever thrown in. Airmiles is ‘gamified’, making the process retain George Clooney’s attention and custom in a way which would probably otherwise just bore him. Gamification is a way of making some serious money. The game-like elements of major brands are apparent: twitter (compete for followers), facebook (friends), and 4square (mayor) become a major part of their appeal. If you couldn’t ‘play’ these sites in a game-like way, would they be appealing?

Matt Maxwell from Blue Barracuda took this further, when he spoke about the psychological basis for games. We need to play them, we need to win. It’s part of our psyche. We buy Nike trainers because their brand is all about ‘Just Do It’, the grasping of opportunities and playing of the game against ourselves, against our competition, against the world, with or with other people. Airy-fairy, perhaps – but you get his point…. And when it comes to female psychology, we only have to look at washing powder adverts to see how that ‘whiter-than-white’ glow allows one mum to beat another in the female equivalent of brutal cage-fighting. It’s not how I would have explained gamification, but you can see how the mechanics of the game penetrate the mass market of brands, even offline. Can you take your own brand further with this approach? Returning later to the Bartle test in the panel discussion, we see how the best games have more than one way to play. Games like Grand Theft Auto appeal to achievers, killers, explorers and (through the console experience) socialisers alike.

With that, the ever-so-brief talks ended, and the panel discussion started. Speaking were Brittney bean, a game producer from iwi (whom I’ve worked with before, and greatly admire), Sam Sethi from Sakdoo, Odera from Groupon and Katie bell from Stardoll, a head-on competitor for a former consultancy client of mine. Tracking who was saying what was virtually impossible, as I couldn’t see a thing- so I’m sorry if the following snippets seem a little disjointed…

One handy way of thinking about the way people work online and in games, is to look at how they seek four things: Status, Access, Power and Stuff. These are the things that money often can’t buy. If you get a backstage pass to a gig from a radio station’s competition, you’ve got something you can’t otherwise obtain – regardless of money. You’re playing the game. When you become ‘mayor’ on 4square, you’re gaining a status which can’t be bought directly. Can your brand offer this experience to make consumers willing to crawl through sewers for your product? What can you give or offer which gives consumers status, access, power or stuff?

Brittney Bean pointed out that Charlie Sheen’s recent success in the media is largely based on the fact that many people regard his lifestyle of enormous earnings, getting ‘mashup’ on a regular basis and living with two beautiful girls young enough to be his daughters constitutes (in the mind of many young men) a clear and unambiguous victory in the ‘game of life’. The game mechanic pervades life and isn’t constrained into applications or websites. If your brand helps people play the game of life, you’re likely to end up the winner.

The lack of regulation of the sector was highlighted. Is it ethical for brands to advertise and use product placements in games? Should real world purchases be linked to games? My observation is that if you had to buy 20 Marlboro lights to level-up in Angry Birds, there would be an outcry. The panel used a more subtle example: being incentivised to use a particular brand (in this case Simple) to gain points in Stardoll, a game aimed at young teens and older children? The regulators may well be asking some questions about this in due course. Virtual goods are likely to be regulated in the UK, after comparable moves over the pond. Apple have also looked to tighten the rules on in-app purchase, after some children rinsed out their parents with marginally-consented in-app spending. This theme came up again later in the discussion. What should the ethical rules be around targeting young people with game-mechanics which are specifically designed to attract and hook them like some kind of brand-crack. I don’t see a difference between this and advertising, quite frankly, and both need to be properly regulated, or we could end up seeing the Joe Camel app for the under 5’s (shudder).

What are the limits of gamification? Debate raged over whether rich people game, or whether they just buy what they want. I think it depends on the type of game. Rich people still want what money can’t buy, and they still have a game to play. My personal comments is that the rich can spend huge amounts to achieve what money can barely buy – think of the spoiled brat in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, who played ‘the game’ by brute financial force, buying up vast numbers of chocolate bars to get the winning ticket. If you’re aiming at the rich, the comment was made that the freeloaders and gawkers matter. What would Ferrari be without the head-turning of those who can’t afford one?

Tempting consumers with a choice between waiting, spamming and spending is the basis of many games, such as Farmville, and this modus operandi was discussed by the panel. People started to leave at this point, and my attention started to waver…. a short event doesn’t make a long session any easier to bear. A slightly shorter format, or a topic change, wouldn’t have hurt.

To finish off, the organisers helpfully chucked in a couple of start-up pitches. Lasting just a minute each, these gave a handy opportunity to seek out new investment opportunities.

This event was hosted at Olswang, a prestigious law firm based in High Holborn in central London, with a particularly unhelpful website (no phone number and a link for directions that doesn’t work on mobile). They generously subbed the bar tab, as the paltry entry fee surely wouldn’t have bought much beer. As sponsors, they also took the floor for a short while, but don’t panic – it wasn’t too boring. In case you care, they were promoting their start-up-focussed legal brand, Orbit. The conference room itself was multi-purpose, in that it was largely unsuitable for any particular purpose. Seated at the back, I could often hear, but almost never see. Nevertheless, for £35, who’s complaining? If you’re in the games field, or wondering how game mechanics can enhance non-game applications to increase user engagement, it was worth the price of a meal for two to learn how to better attract and retain customers. You can use gamification for good, evil or just profit – but watch out for the regulators!

The next event is Energy 2.0. For more details, check out www.mashupevent.com, read the blog.mashupevent.com & follow @tonyfish @stewarttownsend @simongrice @emmajell and @mashupevent