August 20, 2013

Easter Eggs and Hidden Features: The Use of Subtle Gamification

Outside of the Easter holiday, the term easter egg is usually a reference used in video games. An easter egg is a hidden feature, level, or bonus that players wouldn’t normally encounter while playing. They can only be found by searching levels, and exploring the game’s world. Because of this, they encourage players to spend extra time interacting with the game. Increasingly, such easter eggs are appearing in cloud-based software such as Google Maps. Just this week, someone found that when using Street View, on an otherwise normal street in London, there is an extra direction arrow next to a blue police box. Clicking it takes the user inside the police box, which turns out to be the TARDIS spacecraft from the popular British show Doctor Who.1

This isn’t the first time a hidden feature or area  has been found in Google Maps. In fact, the team at Mountain View is actually somewhat known for embedding such easter eggs in their products. Wikipedia maintains an entire entry solely on “Google hoaxes and easter eggs.”2 Because its up to the users to find them though, it turns a mapping software into a type of treasure hunt, or game. It keeps users engaged past using the software to find a nearby coffee shop. It also generates publicity. When a user finds one of these hidden areas, the news quickly makes its way across the internet. This morning TIME Magazine posted about the TARDIS find online.3

Besides Google, Apple has been known to embed hidden features in their products as well. Siri, the iPhone’s personified personal assistant, has a variety of witty responses – provided you know the questions to ask. For instance, if you tell Siri to “Open the pod bay doors,” she will quote you back the dialogue of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey – “I’m sorry Joshua, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”4 A quick google search turns up numerous Tumblrs dedicated to cataloging such responses.

Although subtle, this is a form of gamification. It’s taking an addictive component of video games and replicating the feature in software that is not, in general, considered “fun.” When people think of gamification, they often only think of turning a service into a literal game – adding levels, achievements, or points. And while that approach can work in some instances, gamification at its core is about trying to add extra value to a service. It is about trying to make your product more than simply a utility. Google Maps is not a game. It doesn’t feature points, or trophies for repeated use. Yet it has found a relatively simply and easy way to make itself more than just a mapping program.

You don’t have to be a tech giant to apply these lessons to your own products or services. The important thing is to approach the process not with the goal of making your website into a game, but rather with the goal of adding value and fun to your product or experience. Sometimes that means points or badges (such as FourSquare), but other times it just means rewarding users with an unexpected surprise.

References:

1. Google Maps Doctor Who Tardis Easter Egg – Tech Crunch

2. List of Google hoaxes and easter eggs – Wikipedia

3. Doctor Who’s TARDIS Exists in Google Maps – Time TechLand

4. Siri Is Stuffed with Hilarious Easter Eggs – Wired Gadget Lab

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