by Michael C. Lowe | August 01, 2011

The cult-like appeal of games like Angry Birds hasn't been lost on event planners. A fast-growing cadre is creating mobile games for their conferences in an effort to boost engagement, interaction and collaboration -- a strategy known as "gamification."

"Integrating game mechanics into a conference's infrastructure can transform an event into a unique and memorable experience simply by adding narrative, incentives and friendly competition to otherwise routine tasks," says A.J. Ripin, a mobile-learning researcher at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and strategist at Moving Knowledge, a mobile-solution consulting company.  

Though gamification can be applied to almost anything, conferences are especially well suited because they have a natural time limit, a delineated area of play, and a body of "players" with a common interest who are looking for excuses to interact and learn, says Ripin. Game-playing conference-goers are more motivated to engage in educational sessions, participate in corporate social responsibility activities, interact with exhibitors, and explore the trade show floor when those tasks earn them points that can lead to potential prizes or recognition.

A game in playElizabeth HendersonWhile the idea of gamification has existed for years in various forms, today's smartphones, tablets and apps are spurring its adaptation because mobile-based games allow more attendees to engage with technology and equipment they already own and know how to use, says Elizabeth Henderson, chair of the 2011 Green Meetings Industry Council conference who led the conference's design team and chief sustainability strategist for Meeting Change, a business consultancy that integrates social and environmental sustainability with business strategy.

In addition, using an app or mobile platform allows for real-time tracking, giving attendees a sense of instant feedback and a feeling of immediate in-game interaction, especially when points and player rankings are updated as they happen, says Henderson, who employed the technique for her Sustainable Meetings Conference this year in Portland, Ore.

For that event, attendees were grouped into teams at random, and each team received a loaner iPad supplied by GMIC, with a custom app created by QuickMobile. The objective was for attendees to network with peers and develop strategies for how to tackle green meetings by learning new techniques and best practices. Teams earned points for answering questions provided by the app, such as, "What are the pros and cons of holding a green meeting in Portland?" or "Can you create three sustainable event objectives?"

To complete the game, teams had to retrieve answers from exhibitors and attend educational sessions, such as "Setting Sustainability Objectives and Goals." Teams also received points for tweeting (the 267 on-site participants sent a combined 3,830 #gmic-tagged tweets during the three-day event), filling out surveys and participating in the conference's community service activity -- building bicycles for children with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Laptop covers made from recycled materials were given to the winning team, but the main incentive was bragging rights, says Henderson.

Not for everyone Though meeting planners have seen success with the tactic, not all conferences are appropriate for gamification, notes Ripin. One-day conferences, for example, might not be suited for a game because of the time it takes to set up rules, get players invested and distribute prizes.

"Gamification, however trendy or exciting, is still just a tool," stresses Henderson. "The goal should not be to just integrate games into a conference, but rather to produce improved engagement and better learning among your attendees. Whether gamification and apps help accomplish those goals depends on the conference and its attendees."



FOR MORE "Update: Apps for Meetings":

> Update: Apps for Meetings

> Embracing the iPad

> Tomorrow's Apps for Meetings