Monday, June 3, 2013

The Getaway: Let’s Play: Making Travel a Game

For the next three hours the couple would explore the area and learn about its history by tackling trivia questions and accepting benign dares — challenges that came not from a tour guide, but from an app called Stray Boots that Ms. Peters had downloaded to her iPhone.

The first question seemed like a test to ensure that they were in the right spot: “What color is the wall painted?” Ms. Peters typed “blue” on her iPhone. Up popped the verdict: “Correct!” That earned her 10 points from the app, which then provided some history about the 1973 artwork by Forrest Myers. The couple spent the rest of the afternoon racking up points for each riddle and dare they polished off, striving to achieve a perfect score of 240. At the Hollister store they were told to snap a photo of themselves with the shirtless greeters who flank the doors like naughty cousins of the toy soldiers outside F. A. O. Schwarz. Near Greene Street they were asked how many “real” glass windows were above the first floor of the trompe l’oeil public artwork by Richard Haas.

“As we answered questions correctly, we were high-fiving in the middle of the street,” said Ms. Peters, a program coordinator in Brooklyn for a national nonprofit organization called Playworks. “You learn so many cool things.”

Stray Boots, which sells $2-to-$12 tours of more than a dozen cities including New Orleans, Philadelphia and Miami, was introduced last year, though the company began testing the concept in 2009 using only text messages. Since then, it has sold more than 85,000 tours, roughly doubling sales each year, said its chief executive, Avi Millman. (Stray Boots is also available in Britain, where it’s known as UK: The Game.)

I decided to take a tour in Times Square to see if even I, who work there, could learn a thing or two. I rolled my eyes when the app sent me to Toys “R” Us and the M&M’s World store. And I was disappointed that it didn’t explain the evolution of Father Duffy Square. I did, however, pick up a few factoids including how in the 1840s New York Police Department officers wore badges made of copper, which may have inspired the nickname “coppers” and later “cops.”

Yet the app is merely one product in a wave of new travel programs and promotions that are using game theory to win over customers, particularly those under 30 (so-called millennials). Today online tour operators like Expedia are incorporating avatars and trivia contests into the browsing and booking process. Tourism offices in Pennsylvania and Illinois are proffering exclusive Foursquare badges to those who check in at sites in their states. Museums are using portable multimedia players to make walking through their collections feel a bit like being in a multiplayer video game. And the America’s State Parks Foundation is rolling out a new app by ParksbyNature Network called the Pocket Ranger — available in 40 states by the end of the year — that enables users to earn points and win prizes by signing up for GeoChallenges, outdoor quests that require players to use the app’s GPS feature to navigate to sites like dams, trails and reservoirs.

It may sound like play, but it’s part of a broader business trend known as gamification. Gabe Zichermann, author of the new book “The Gamification Revolution” and chair of the annual Gsummit in San Francisco, describes it as the process of using the best ideas from games, loyalty and behavioral economics to engage people and solve problems (or both). It generally involves the use of motivational techniques and psychological triggers, like being alerted to a challenge or offered an opportunity for higher status, often in combination with digital candy like badges, points and leader boards. (Some of the fundamental ideas are derived from research by the social scientist BJ Fogg at Stanford University; you can learn about gaming your own behavior at

Mr. Zichermann, himself an avid traveler, said that things elemental to travel are also elemental to gamification. Hard-core travelers like to keep score: they know how many countries they’ve visited and how many miles they’ve flown. They take pleasure in accumulating badges, like stamps on their passport (and, in bygone days, stickers on their luggage). They check off must-see landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Parthenon as if they are levels in a video game. Even the act of traveling from one place to another becomes a personal challenge: to do so with ever more speed and status.

On a deeper level, though, great gaming experiences speak to our inner desire for mastery, autonomy and purpose, Mr. Zichermann noted. The same can be said of travel. “Why do we travel?” he said. “It’s all about creating memories and discovering ourselves. Gamification is perfectly aligned with that.”

But a common misperception is that it’s strictly about competition, Mr. Zichermann said. Gamification can engage people simply by making travel more playful and social, like Virgin America’s new seat-to-seat delivery feature that encourages fliers to “get lucky” by sending one another cocktails and messages through the entertainment system touchscreens on seatbacks. Or KLM’s Meet & Seat program, which allows passengers to view one another’s Facebook and LinkedIn profiles before the flight and then pick a spot next to an intriguing stranger. Even acquiring travel skills has become a game with language-learning Web sites like Duolingo and MindSnacks. And photo-sharing apps like Instagram and Flickr, while not pure gamification, borrow elements of the practice, making travel feel more communal.

Thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and big data, gamification is now prevalent in practically every industry, though some of its roots are in travel, going back to the early 1980s, when American Airlines introduced its AAdvantage frequent flier program to create brand loyalty. Despite gamification’s popularity, there are many poorly designed experiences. In fact, the technology research company Gartner is predicting that by next year 80 percent of gamification projects will fail to meet business objectives. When done right, however, gamification can garner brand loyalty while also helping travelers interact, learn, share opinions and explore the world.

To achieve the latter, companies that specialize in gamification say they are trying to design experiences that are emotional, that delight or surprise, unlike early loyalty programs, which Mr. Zichermann described as “transactional systems that are trying to get as much out of consumers as possible while giving as little as possible.”

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