A shared enthusiasm for the online game World of Warcraft, sparked years ago, eventually led Wharton professor Kevin Werbach and New York Law School professor Dan Hunter to launch “For the Win,” a two-day conference on “gamification” taking place at Wharton on August 8-9. Gamification, or the application of game design techniques to non-game settings, is a field of study still in its early days, but it packs big potential for business, education and other realms. Gathering 50 academic and business experts, the conference seeks to chart a research agenda for the new field.

“Video games are a $50 billion a year industry and growing fast,” says Werbach. “If you start to look at why games are so powerful, you quickly find it’s not by accident that game designers have spent 30 years … understanding what motivates people and keeps them interested. At a minimum, it is a valuable new technique for motivating people [to undertake] certain activities, whether [in] marketing, human resources or fostering innovation. Potentially, it’s broader than that — driving people to make better health care, finance or education choices.”

Werbach joined a guild of academic-researcher World of Warcraft players co-founded by Hunter about six years ago. It was not intended as a place to do games research but more a “place to hang out, like bowling night,” says Hunter. But playing the game yielded lessons for both professors. Hunter, for one, marvels at how many hours he devoted to a relatively boring fishing game within World of Warcraft, motivated by small game mechanics, such as an occasional reward of loot. “That was enough to make an educated, self-aware person like me fish for a stupid videogame,” he says. “I wanted to understand the mechanics of why people do this sort of thing.”

Werbach and Hunter will publish an e-book on gamification next year through Wharton Digital Press. “We want to explain to business people how you design a game mechanic to fix a business problem,” says Hunter. “There’s a reason [top] game designers are paid a lot of money. It’s hard making a game that’s fun for everyone.” The trick for businesses, he says, is making profit-generating activities “a fun and interesting challenge.” Adds Werbach: “The generation of people coming into the workforce are not only going to take well to these techniques, but will also expect things will work this way.”

For more about the “For the Win” conference and to read blog updates from the meeting, go to http://gamifyforthewin.com/.