Games and business software have always had an interesting relationship. While business tends to frown upon playing games, the serious games movement, which really started to take off in 2004, has convinced many businesses like Alcoa that games can be used to further business goals. But serious games were just the beginning.

According to Gartner, by 2015, more than 50% of all businesses that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes. Leave it to Gartner to make fun sound dull. But that’s what gamification is all about: fun. Though it is difficult to quantify, many game development firms have long understood how to codify fun into software.

To that end, the ubiquitous achievement badges have begun to trickle out of Xbox Live and into enterprise applications. As a quick and easy way to gamify almost anything, achievements have become the flagship gamification project of choice for many enterprises, so much so that startup Badgeville has emerged to address the need.

So, what exactly are achievements? If you’ve never used a modern game console, you may have missed out entirely on this new trend in gaming. Goals are set within the game, or now, within the software, and when users reach those goals, they are rewarded with an achievement badge or through a point system. Achievements can be anything from registering for a new application to completing 100 form submissions or expense reports.

Tony Ventrice, senior designer at Badgeville, said, “We have both an API as well as a suite of turnkey widgets along with the frameworks that people can take and embed with a couple lines of JavaScript code.”

Having embedded said code in an application, users can then be tracked according to how many goals they’ve accomplished. Users can also show off their badges to exemplify just how expert they are at certain tasks and systems. These badges are all about establishing a social reputation system, said Ventrice.

“Gamification systems are important, and they work much better in a social context. It’s about bringing social features to your experiences. We’re seeing that a lot from our customers: People want to be social but they don’t know how to be. It’s not about sending employees to that outside site. You’re earning points in a community.”

Learning to code
Gamification isn’t just about badges and achievements, however. It’s also about education. For developers, education tends to mean learning new languages and frameworks, and naturally, such games already exist. Take, for example, The Schemaverse, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game in which all actions, combat and movement are accomplished by writing SQL queries.

Schemaverse is all about spaceship fleet combat. The thing is, to create and maneuver those ships, you’ll write code in the form of INSERT INTO my_ships(name,attack,defense,engineering,prospecting) VALUES(‘My First Attacker’,15,5,0,0). As things get more hectic in the game, players are encouraged to write simple artificial intelligence routines so that their ships can just fly themselves.

Or consider Vim Adventures, a game designed to teach players how to use the text editor Vim. The game plays out like a standard overhead adventure game, like The Legend of Zelda. The big twist is that you’ll have to use Vim’s navigation keys to move around.

Of course, because Vi was designed on an ADM-3A terminal, it uses HJKL as the arrow keys, and other letters on the keyboard to cut to the ends of lines or move to the next word. Vim Adventures uses these forms of navigation as gameplay elements, and runs players through some tough puzzles that teach them how to better move around.

Teaching through software
But if we’re talking about education, the top of the startup heap is undoubtedly occupied by Edmodo. As an education-based SaaS startup, Edmodo offers free online social and collaboration interfaces for schoolchildren. Teachers can set up an in-class social network for themselves and their students, and then issue quizzes and assignments through the free service. Students who get good marks on the automatically graded online quizzes can earn badges and achievements, as well.

CEO and cofounder of Edmodo Nick Borg said he had been struggling to help local school systems better utilize technology in the classroom when he and a co-worker decided to create the company.

“I had been working in several school districts in Chicago suburbs building applications,” he said. “We wanted to find a way to enable teachers to share Web content with their students because they were discovering these great interactive applications, but they didn’t have a way to share it in a way that was built for the classroom and conformed to district policies.

“Teachers began connecting with one another on Edmodo. By solving basic pain points like having assignments turned in online and making grading really simple, through our grassroots campaign with teachers, we’ve reached 7.2 million registered users now. We want to enable the same capacity for information and scale in folks that have the same passion in developing educational software but don’t have a method of distribution.”

The next step for Edmodo is taking its existing free platform and adding application distribution and sales channels into it. Teachers will be able to purchase software for their classes in bulk packs, and both school districts and parents can contribute funds to classrooms to enable those purchases.

That next step is accompanied by a new push by Edmodo to bring developers and teachers together. The goal is to foster cross-pollination between two areas that typically don’t have much interaction. The company is encouraging developers to sign up to create software that is educational as well as fun.