Over the coming months, you’re likely to read about a new business phenomenon awkwardly labeled as “gamification.” If you’re in certain online demographics, you’re already tired of hearing about it.

Gamification was the talk of digerati gatherings like South By Southwest Interactive and TED the past two years. Some proponents claim it can literally save the world; others promise that it will merely save the corporate bottom line. In the fall I’ll be teaching a Wharton gamification course to MBA students. So, just what is gamification, and how significant is it?

If you dismissed social media tools like LinkedIn and Twitter as trivial chitchat, you’re not likely to take gamification seriously, either. You should. Gamification may be overhyped and some of its applications may be useless or even dangerous, but it’s a significant business practice built on solid foundations. Before long, you’re going to experience a gamified experience at work or in other parts of your life. You may well have already.

Gamification is the application of mechanisms from digital games to serious business problems. Ever wonder why 30 million people check in daily to Farmville on Facebook, why Angry Birds is on over 100 million smartphones, or why the latest Call of Duty game generated $650 million in sales the week it was released?  Those astronomical numbers reflect the power of videogames.  Well-designed games don’t just entertain, they satisfy deep human needs for feedback, exploration, achievement, and social interaction.  What if the same techniques that motivate hundreds of millions of game players could be used for marketing, productivity enhancement, or innovation within firms?  That’s the promise of gamification.

You may have heard of what are called serious games.  Those are games designed explicitly for non-entertainment goals, such as training soldiers in 3D virtual simulations or teaching kids about climate change.  Gamification is different because it takes elements from games, such as points, leaderboards, badges, and competitions, and embeds them into actual business processes.  Cashiers at the retailer Target, for example, score points based on how efficiently they finish the check-out process.  They aren’t playing a simulation about being a cashier; their work is the game.

Gamification at Wharton and elsewhere is catching on rapidly.  There are already numerous vendors and consultancies offering gamification tools and services. Pioneering companies are applying the technique in a wide range of settings.  For example, Google challenges users to match each other’s labels for image files, a task that computer algorithms struggle with.  The Department of Work and Pensions in the UK created a game-like market for innovative ideas from its staff, encouraging participation and information sharing.  USA Network uses points and leaderboards to increase engagement among fans of its TV shows.  Non-profits and the federal government are looking at how to use the same techniques for public policy objectives.

Though it has barely reached the mainstream, gamification has already produced a backlash.  To some management thinkers, gamification isn’t serious enough.  There are certainly shallow examples, but gamification as a practice rests on rigorous academic and practical foundations.  Video game design has a 30-year history, many thousands of accomplished practitioners, an interdisciplinary community of scholars, and degree programs at major universities.  Gamification also applies the substantial experimental psychology literature on intrinsic motivation, showing that people respond better to tasks they perceive as fun and engaging than those offering explicit rewards.  And researchers are beginning to gather field data to measure and refine the practice of gamification in real firms.

The opposite concern is that gamification will be too effective.  Firms may try to use game-like experiences as a substitute for meaningful work or appropriate compensation.  The legal and ethical questions deserve thoughtful consideration, and perhaps public policy responses.  And there will be some tasks better suited to gamification than others.

As any game designer knows, making a game fun is a serious challenge. There’s no simple formula, and the games that seem the simplest on the outside are often the product of rigorous testing and iterative development. All we know is that when they are effective, videogames are among the most powerful motivational tools in the world.

Gamification will become, at a minimum, a recognized tool in the management arsenal.  Have fun with it.