Looking to boost engagement at meetings, appeal to younger attendees and provide better metrics to sponsors and other key participants? Gamification may be the way to meet all of these goals — and more.
For those who are unfamiliar with this buzzy term, “Event gamification is the idea of adding game-like elements to your event in order to increase engagement of attendees,” says Scott Winstead, founder of MyElearningWorld, a web portal that provides gamification services to companies. “Essentially, you’re adding game-like elements to a non-game scenario to achieve a targeted outcome.”
When using gamification, companies provide attendees with games, polls, quizzes and other tools — often ones they can play on their electronic devices — before, during and after an event. When a person completes a task, they receive some kind of reward. “The mechanics that make up a great game are points, badges, leaderboards and trophies,” says Sam Caucci, founder & CEO of 1Huddle, a gamification platform for workforce training. With platforms that use points, the person or people with the most points at the end of an event will win some kind of prize — often something substantial, like an iPad, Peloton bike or Airbnb stay. People may also be able to redeem points for goods and services.
Leaderboards, which show the names of the people who have scored the most points, similar to the display on arcade games or pinball machines, allow participants to compete against one another over the course of the event, which appeals to their competitive spirit and can even make them feel like an event VIP, says Vaibhav Jain, founder & CEO of Hubilo, a virtual and hybrid event gamification platform. Badges and trophies provide a similar feel-good award.
Gamification can be done at in-person events almost as easily, and doesn’t have to involve technology. Many planners have already done simple in-person gamification through team-building exercises. “We do a lot of escape rooms, trivia games, painting contests, flash mobs [and] photo booths,” says Valerie Bihet, director/founder of the Miami-based corporate event planning firm VIBE Agency. Teams win points or other rewards for answering the most questions in a trivia game or coming up with the most creative photos. “These are all types of gamification,” she says.
While people of any age can get into gamification, it may be particularly important for companies looking to boost participation among younger event attendees. According to Caucci, “It’s believed the average millennial will have spent over 10,000 hours on game platforms before they’re 21 years old. Gen Z is not going backward. Building upon the behaviors and preferences these consumers already have provides tremendous opportunities.”
If older attendees push back, “People will say, ‘I’m not a gamer, that’s a young person thing,’” Caucci says. “Remind them that if they do crossword puzzles, play or follow sports closely, or engage in other competitive activities, they are gamers.” He also compares event gamification to frequent-flyer miles or credit card reward points. “You’re sprinkling gamification on top of a business process or a consumer process,” he points out. “You’re using points and levels to make the pursuit of a business outcome more fun and more sticky.”
Gamification’s most important role is increasing engagement. “We have little kids inside us,” Bihet says. “The best way to learn something is to have fun.” Providing engaging speakers, interactive activities and information people can use to do their jobs better is critical to making any event successful. “But in the delivery, you need to find some tricks to engage your audience. Gamification is one of them.”
Gamification was already taking off in corporate, education and other settings before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it became more of a necessity as planners watched engagement dip during Zoom trainings, and virtual conferences and trade shows. “At first, [virtual meetings were] a welcomed change for many, as working from home and not being forced to attend such events was a breath of fresh air,” Winstead says. “However, as these virtual events increased, online fatigue set in. Turns out, it’s a lot easier to go through the paces and stop paying attention when you’re sitting on the other end of a screen at home.”
Event organizers began turning to gamification to make it easier for event attendees to engage with the content at virtual events. “By design, in-person events garner more involvement and participation just by attendees being physically present,” Winstead says. “Virtual events, on the other hand, lend themselves to disengagement, as it’s just viewers watching on a screen. And as we, as a society, get more used to viewing content in small tidbits on apps like YouTube, expecting a viewer to tune in to an event where they’re just watching speakers for long periods of time with no engagement is just setting your event or meeting up for failure.”
Gamification can help with many other kinds of outcomes as well. During a large five-day event, Hubilo’s gamification platform helped attendees exchange greetings and ideas on message boards, set up meetings, network and share what they’d learned on social media — on top of the leaderboard and other fun elements to make the event more enjoyable and memorable.
Melissa Park, global event producer with Melissa Park Events, notes that gamification can also be used to measure knowledge and understand user behavior. This means it has important implications for employee training meetings or events where brands are trying to learn more about their target consumers. Because gamification is typically deployed using digital tools, it can be a powerful way to quantitatively measure engagement.
Park is one of the many events planners who has seen gamification deliver powerful results. “For a tech client’s virtual conference in 2020, we used gamification to encourage participation across all elements of the virtual event,” she says. “Attendees received points for participating in each event element, such as three points for session attendance, two points for completing a survey or leaving a comment/question in a session’s chat roll, five points per sponsor booth visit and one point per photo booth visit.” Those points could be redeemed for event-branded swag in the platform’s online store. She saw a massive spike in the length of time attendees stayed logged into the event and the number of elements they actively participated in previous virtual events.
Pre-COVID, 1Huddle worked with the International Franchise Association to gamify an annual convention with more than 5,000 attendees. The group’s goal was to turn the whole convention into one giant game to increase engagement with the educational sessions, and create more of a sense of community among attendees. “They used 1Huddle to create a daily competition around the content for the day,” Caucci says. “The game opened every day to educate people about what was happening that day and provide a recap of the day before.” A leaderboard showed the names of the people who participated the most, and the winners got prizes from sponsors — giving those companies extra exposure. Not only was there more attention paid to educational content at the event, attendees could use the app to interact with exhibitors, so they saw a boost in engagement as well.
The gamification effort was a huge success. “We saw close to 70% of attendees download, log in and play,” Caucci says. It seemed to meet the goal of increasing socializing among attendees as well. At the happy hour, people recognized the names of people who had appeared on the leaderboard and felt more comfortable approaching them.
When the company switched to a digital convention in 2020, it worked with 1Huddle again and got similarly positive results. “We even left the game on [after the event ended] so people could continue to engage with the content,” Caucci says.
Gamification can also provide an opportunity for attendees to participate in a pre-check-in process, watch videos and access documents before the event ever starts, Bihet says. All of these activities can go toward earning points that can be redeemed for prizes or recognition throughout the event.
Games can provide attendees with the opportunity to do something totally new and different, or it can be very familiar. One of Winstead’s recommendations is to customize a bingo game for a meeting. “This will require you to tap into company culture a bit,” he says. “Create a bingo card with common terminology your company uses. This could range from corporate jargon to silly things such as ‘Sorry, I was on mute’ or other phrases we use in Zoom meetings. Distribute bingo cards to attendees before the meeting digitally. Set a prize for whoever can get bingo first by marking off the card as they hear the words and phrases from their card. Attendees will work hard to fill their cards, meaning they will be tuned in to every word the speaker utters. And someone eventually shouting “bingo!” will add a layer of fun to the event.
Gamification can be a boon to event managers, but it can also be a distraction or lead to real problems. “It’s like a recipe in the kitchen,” Bihet says. “If you put too much oil in your mayonnaise, it will not work. You need the right proportion of everything to make it work right. Too much gamification can kill the gamification.”
When looking into creating a game, one of the top things leaders need to reflect on is their goals. “Like all elements of your event, gamification needs to serve a purpose,” Park says. “If you throw it in for the sake of having it or as an afterthought, attendees will be able to tell, and you will receive a very low participation rate. To guarantee success, you need to ensure that the way the game is set up and delivered is simple, easy to follow and fun.”
In other words, you need to have a goal in mind. “You want to make sure that the gamification is focused on your targeted outcome,” Winstead says. “Don’t let the rewards, badges, etc., overshadow what you’re trying to achieve. The gamification elements need to have an obvious connection to the information you are trying to convey. Otherwise, it’s just a game.”
So, the challenge should be thoughtfully calibrated to the target audience. “If a game is too hard, people quit,” Caucci says. “If it’s too easy, attendees will quickly get bored with it.”
Once the game is set, it’s vital to establish rules and make sure they are clearly explained to event attendees from the beginning, Bihet says. A feeling that the game is rigged or unfair will also quickly turn people off from the experience.
“A lot of people know how to hack the system to get on top of the leaderboard,” Jain says. “You have to make action items in such a way that people can’t do that.” There also needs to be some type of penalty for people who break the rules. To ferret out potential problems or pitfalls with a game before they become overwhelming, Jain recommends planners try it out at a small event first. Learn what the issues are, or where the gaps lie, and come up with solutions to fix them before taking the games to a major gathering.
One of the mistakes Caucci sees people make is focusing the game too much on the company’s needs rather than the players’ needs. 1Huddle works with call centers, and Caucci has observed that gamification designed to motivate people to make a certain number of calls a day quickly falls flat because they don’t help the player achieve their personal objectives. Instead, planners should think about the needs of the attendees and how they can dovetail with the desires of sponsors, senior executives and others. “Look at your reward program. Are they rewards that people crave?” Caucci asks.
Does the game engage people’s minds and provide them some level of autonomy? “The best games allow the players freedom to choose,” Caucci says, pointing to the popular online game The Sims as an example. “There has to be a certain level of strategy so the player feels like they control the outcome.” In an event app, attendees might be given multiple ways to earn points based on the activities that help them learn, network or achieve their own goals at the gathering.
On a more practical note, Bihet advises planners to do a thorough search for the right platform before implementing an online game at an event. Get recommendations from colleagues, and ask about things such as engagement levels, feedback from attendees, how easy it is to use and the level of customer service if something goes wrong.
“If your tool relies on Wi-Fi, make sure you have ample allocation of high-speed internet within your space,” Park says. “I’ve seen way too many failed attempts due to the Wi-Fi signal not being strong enough for the number of attendees using it, which is not only embarrassing for the host, but can also negatively impact a speaker’s entire session if they were reliant on a poll’s results for their presentation.”
One of Bihet’s tips for making gamification more engaging is to tie it into popular culture. A game based on a popular television show such as “The Masked Singer” may do more to pique people’s interest than a run-of-the-mill activity. “Be alert for these trends,” she advises. “Everything is about experience.” That’s especially true right now, when people feel like they’ve been missing out on experiences for the last few years.
Gamification is definitely something that takes careful planning. “This isn’t something you can do to spice things up last minute,” Winstead says. “Ensure that you have a well-thought-out plan for how you will include gamification elements so that they make sense and add to the event, rather than detract from it. Poorly planned gamification can lead to chaos and result in meeting failure.”
From there, have fun. Games should be entertaining as well as educational. There are no reasons planners can’t have just as much fun dreaming them up as attendees have playing them. C&IT