EBay gamifies the auction, with a little help from UC Santa Cruz students

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Pretty soon you might be buying that extra doily for your bathroom vanity just to level up your eBay character or jump to the next reputation level. EBay is working to gamify the auction process — and doing so with the help of University of California, Santa Cruz students.

The project is an innovative new model of collaboration between industry and academia: eBay staff are spending a day a week with the class, and the UCSC students are getting to work directly with industry-leading designers and executives.

“Our first goal is impact,” says Jane Pinckard, UCSC professor and associate director of the Center for Games and Playable Media. “We want to build things in an academic setting that can go out there and win in the world and change things.”

For eBay, the goal is actually pretty well aligned: to observe how game design and design in general is colliding and build the next great interfaces for buying and selling. I spoke to Matt MacLaurin, the eBay executive who’s running the program.

“We already have point systems and reputation,” MacLaurin says, “But we’re exploring playful new dimensions in buyer reputation as well as seller reputation. And we’re experimenting around how to put prettier faces on it.”

The company is looking to build micro-communities on eBay around niche products, and it is exploring new large touchscreen interfaces for retail or shopping areas. In both they’re looking for fresh insights into both old and new user experience and user interface problems.

One example was how to enter user credentials in a public space. Big interactive kiosks in cafes or libraries could be great for engaging new eBay users, but how can people privately enter their passwords?

The students’ answer? Face recognition.

From the academic side, the program has been a huge success. After a small pilot program over the summer, a larger class of 30 students will be participating in the fall.

Pinckard said she was surprised at first to get the call from eBay and wondered where games fit into the company’s strategy. But then she realized that “everyone wants more engagement,” and that’s exactly what games, well-conceived and executed, can do.

And for eBay, the benefits are beyond just new insights on today’s business challenges. They include new employees for tomorrow’s needs, because, as MacLaurin says, each class is a bit of of a recruiting pipeline.

“We’re trying to hire our next generation of employees right from university. It’s very personal, and we can see emerging leaders.”

One of the creative ideas that the students thought up?

A new Dungeons & Dragons-style game in which characters fight and search for treasure. The gold and jewels of the game, of course, are objects for sale on eBay, and each character’s power was driven by the value of the goods.

That’s precisely the kind of treasure eBay wants to hire.

photo credit: JD Hancock via photo pin cc